Outside the window of my father’s ‘65 Thunderbird, the sky was cobalt blue. There were stars but they didn’t interest me. Trees flew by, and houses and buildings, and foothills in the distance; but the moon skated right along beside us. Every Sunday night on our way home from our grandmother’s house, that moon stayed with us, never peeling off in a different direction to guide some other family home.
Mama wasn’t in the front seat where she belonged. Cindy sat in her seat instead. She didn’t have to call shot-gun, she just got the front seat because at eight, she was the oldest and most wily. I didn’t want to sit up front anyway because if you reached for the radio or a piece of gum, my father slapped your hand away. The rest of us—my twin sister, little brother and I—wedged into the back seat and shoved each other when one encroached on the other’s territory.
No one told us our parents were getting a divorce, but we knew. First my father moved out with no explanation. After that, we only saw him for compulsory Sunday night dinner at my grandmother’s house.
I came out of my trance to hear my father talking trash about my mother; “If your mother thinks she and her snake-in-the-grass lawyer can steamroll me to get my money, she’s got another think coming.”
My twin sister Bonnie pushed me, “Move, you’re on my side.”
My father didn’t miss a beat, “I hid my money so your mother can’t get it, and the judge will never find it.” I wondered where he hid the money. In the glove compartment where he kept his pistol? In the safe where he stored his hunting rifles? In one of his cluttered red metal toolboxes? If I knew, I would tell my mother. She often stayed up late, shuffling bills across her kidney-shaped desk. I knew she worried. I did too.
My father went on, “I made it look like I’m so broke, I could get food stamps, just like those free-loaders who never work a day in their lives and just want to live off people like me.”
I knew who he was talking about. I had heard it all, too many times.
Daddy pulled up with a glamorous redhead in sunglasses sitting in the passenger seat of his red Ford convertible. He had long teased that he would replace my mother with a newer model, and he did. After a couple of years of living the wild life as a bachelor, he was ready to settle back down. Trish was the woman he planned to marry.
Because Trish was a divorcee, my grandmother said it would be in poor taste, socially unacceptable, for Trish to wear white in the church sanctuary. So she and my father married in a small parlor in our grandmother’s huge Southern Baptist church. Trish wore a smart fitted silk suit, kelly green with wide white horizontal stripes, white high heels, and a veiled Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat. Daddy seemed uncomfortable in his suit. The three of us girls dressed like we were going to Sunday School, which we never did.
I didn’t know how to feel about my father getting remarried, so I focused on decorating the car with shaving cream, empty cans and balloons supplied by my grandmother who loved a good prank. I worried about how my mother felt that day. I worried about my five-year-old brother, Jimmy, who had a stomach ache and stayed home with Mama that day, a slight Trish would not let go unpunished.
As a little girl, I loved to watch my grandmother put on her face, as she called it. Sitting in her slip at her dressing table, she put on Jergen’s lotion, then foundation, powder, and a touch of rouge. She topped it off with cherry red lipstick.
With the same curiosity, I watched my mother efficiently apply her makeup every morning, blotting her lipstick on a tissue and dropping it in a wastebasket, an orchard of kisses.
The rituals of womanhood fascinated me. They were an obsession for Trish. Her beauty was her power. She never met a mirror she didn’t consult with. She wore iridescent blue or green eyeshadow, lined her eyes with a swath of black, and painted her lips with glossy pinks and oranges. She dyed her long hair red. After a day on the beach, instead of plopping down on the couch in shorts and a T-shirt like the other wives, she emerged from the condo bedroom wearing a silky caftan with heels, her hair fixed and face put on to please her man. These things were my father’s measure of a woman. They had nothing to do with me.
Years later, on my wedding day, Trish pushed in front of me to admire her own reflection in the bathroom mirror. “This dress looks gorgeous on me,” she said, pushing out her large breasts and sucking in her stomach. She walked out of the bathroom, leaving me alone in my simple white wedding dress, wearing the slightest touch of makeup, if any at all.
One day I watched my half-brother and sister, Kathy and Joe, six and two years old, run across the tennis court wearing little Nikes with flashing lights in the heels. A few days later, my father bought my thirteen-year-old brother a $6 pair of squash-colored deck shoes from the Sears Liquidation Center. No teenage boy could wear those shoes to high school and survive.
Even in our own house, there were rich kids and poor kids.
When my father was sixty-seven, he sent Bonnie and me a scathing six-page hand-written letter. In Trumpian hyperbole he wrote: “You’re raising your children like migrant farm workers,” though our kids never lacked for anything but luxury. He said, “The people in the Democratic party take away from people who have worked and saved and give it to people such as you,” even though we both worked all our lives.
“You’ll never get a dime from me.”
My father was the kind of Republican who wanted to tie the government’s hands but didn’t want the government to tie his. We were liberal Democrats who did anti-poverty work which, for our father, translated into “welfare for blacks.”
He was right to take me out of his will. I would spend any money he left me in ways that would outrage him. But even if he had to disown me, did he have to hate me?
I never saw him in the eleven years before he died, so I still imagined him playing two sets of tennis before breakfast, sport fishing and hunting wild game, drinking his buddies under the table, mowing his own lawn and fixing his own cars.
In reality, heart trouble, prostate cancer and leukemia wore him down so completely, he could barely make it to the mailbox. One drink would knock him out. He spent his last years in a lazy boy watching Bill O’Reilly vilify anyone who disagreed with him.
In the end, he was an old snake, defanged but still lashing out. Even when he knew death was around the corner, he rejected any attempt at reconciliation. While he was dying, I sat at home in my grandmother’s blue velvet rocking chair. She rocked my father and his brother, my siblings and me, and our children in that rocker.
An image flashed across my mind–My father as a four-year-old boy, laughing and running to my grandmother. She scooped him up into her arms, the way she always did with children.
Three hours later, my father died.
That vision helped me believe that some kind of redemption happened in death—if not for my father, then at least for me. I could almost see him, free from the sound and fury, as the sweet boy he was created to be.
By the time Bonnie and I pulled into the parking lot for the funeral, it was packed. We made our way slowly through French doors into a funeral parlor furnished in faux-Victorian décor, avoiding eye contact as people told outlandish stories about my larger-than-life father.
The mood was more like cocktail party than funeral. I wanted a drink.
As one person after another said to me, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I clenched the muscles of my face so they couldn’t see my reaction. I scanned the room for possible allies who could deflect hostilities from my father’s friends. They might already be drunk enough to take up his cause right there in the funeral home. Uneasy under their gaze, I wondered what they knew that I never would.
Those friends gave what passed for eulogies at his funeral. They praised him for the money he made and the hell he raised. Not one mentioned a single act of kindness, generosity or loyalty, and no one mentioned his family.
After the funeral, my five siblings and I sat in my father’s living room, surrounded by knock-off Chinese art and Italian statues, each of us reading a copy of his will. There it was in black and white—there would be no inheritance for Bonnie and me. As I took in the finality of that line, one of the siblings gasped. My sisters froze, staring at the page. One brother shifted awkwardly. The other stared out the window. Tears slipped down my sister-in-law’s face. No one said a word or turned the page. No one met my eyes.
Then I saw it: “For all purposes herein, my daughters Angela Hope Wright and Barbara Marie Wright and their issue, shall be treated as having predeceased me.” It took a minute to comprehend.
These were my father’s last words to me: “You’re dead to me—and so are your children.”
I got up without a word and walked slowly out the front door. I was shaken by the house’s utter disrepair. Rotten eaves, holes in the roof, an awning coming loose. Kudzu vines, that southern sign of decay, climbed the walls, spiraled around the gutters, and sprawled over the eaves, on their way to creating a ruin. It was as if despair grew from the inside out.
In the garage, a maroon antique Bentley lay disemboweled and propped up on concrete blocks, covered with dust an inch thick, piled high with crumpled boxes, broken crates, torn dog beds, decades-old baby seats, and moldy life jackets. There was so much stuff piled around the car, I couldn’t get close enough to peer in the filthy windows.
Back inside, I wandered into what my father called his trophy room, a graveyard of stuffed wild game he killed on hunting trips around the world. On a paneled wall hung the head of a hippo, its mouth frozen in a roar. There was a warthog, a ram and two big horned sheep. An antelope, a kudu, an impala, a gazelle. A wildebeest. A wild turkey. A boar and a bobcat. Deer, elk, and caribou. Two white foxes. Two black bear rugs. A ten-foot-long alligator and a polar bear.
The animals tumbled all over each other as if they had suddenly collapsed, unable to go on. Their horns were cracked, limbs broken, eyes weeping. A green-gray mold grew on their balding hides. Clumps of hair piled up like abandoned bird nests beneath them on threadbare rugs that rotted on the floor.
That’s what I see now, when I think about how things ended for my father and me.
My father and I both made a choice. We both paid a price. It’s hard to know who lost the most. Most days, I want to forgive him and on my better days, I think I have. But then the next day, I have to start the work of forgiveness all over again, not for his sake but for mine.
Angie Wright has always liked starting trouble—good trouble. She works against hate while trying not to hate the haters—no small order for a pastor and activist from a racist Georgia family. Angie lives with her grand old dog, Banjo, along the Eno River in North Carolina.