Pop Out (Dad, Part One: A Fatherless Childhood)

Throughout my childhood there was a recurring theme of unbalance, of the idea that I needed a father figure. Ma tried to keep men in her life for my sake on many occasions, often actively seeking ways for me to have a male influence for me. In my teen years I suppose I had a little angst about not knowing my actual Pop, but I blurred it over. With the advent of the Internet I put in some time trying to actively seek him out, but with no real luck. I was well into my adult years, and had stopped looking and questioning, when Pop actually came to me.

Pop and me sometime in 1971.
Pop and me, sometime in 1971.

My parents divorced when I was very young, about two years old. Ma pretty much raised me on her own – a single hippie woman and her only child, left to fend for themselves. That’s the story of my childhood, at least as I grew up with it. I was born in the city of Flint, Michigan, in glorious Genesee County, but Ma and I moved to Denver when they separated. In 1970, Flint was apparently much better off than it is these days, but still no vacation destination. Ma always described it as “the ugliest place in the country,” but my childhood literary hero, Tennessee Williams, claimed St. Louis owns that distinction. You’d have to judge that for yourself, as I have no distinct visual recollection of one, and have never been to the other.

I don’t have many memories of those earliest years in Michigan, naturally, but the ones I do have are still clear and vivid. Perhaps it’s in part because Ma always repeated stories of neglectfulness as a means to exemplify to me what a bad person Pop was, and why he wasn’t there. Whatever the motive behind the stories, the memories stuck. I remember, from my booster seat, grabbing a couple of “uppers” (cross-tops, they were called – speed, basically) from the kitchen table top where Pop had left them sitting. I remember it because Ma had to make me throw them up. I remember once grabbing a can of motor oil on the front porch where Pop had left it sitting. I remember it because Ma had to make me throw it up. (She didn’t know I hadn’t actually drunk the oil, a fact which I do remember clearly, but I did have it up to my lips.) She had the Poison Control Center number memorized in those days. I remember wandering out the front gate that Pop had left open on his way to work, and waddling away down the street on my own. I remember it because our dog actually came and picked me up by the arm and dragged me home.

I also remember my first birthday. I was in my high chair and had been served my cake, and I distinctly remember being pissed that whoever that bitch was in the other high chair was eating some of my cake, too. I remember that, my first clear recollection of jealousy. And my second birthday. I got a pair of cookies. They were like those Mother’s® Circus Animals cookies, but giant-sized. Probably from a local bakery, or something. I remember them because, when they were given to me, it was too close to bed time to eat them. We covered the plate in plastic wrap and put it on top of the fridge (we were living in an old industrial chicken coop with a serious mouse problem). I slept fitfully in anticipation of a cookie breakfast, but in the morning I found they had already been eaten. Not by mice, but by my parents. Stoner bitches.

A family portrait from around 1972.
A family portrait from around 1972.

The impression I was given of Pop by Ma was not painted as a pretty picture. He was a hot-tempered womanizing misogynistic racist gun-toting Southern redneck asshole. The fight that was to be the final straw had ended with him saying, “I get the dog, you get the kid.” She always pointed out that you could see just how angry Pop looked in our family portrait. I don’t have memories of anything particularly angry or violent, though. No memories specifically of him in those days at all, for that matter. Given that he had long hair and a beard, I think any early reminiscences of him may have blended in with those of Ma’s subsequent boyfriend in Denver, Farley, who looked much the same and whom she dated for seven years. Come to think of it, all the men we knew back then had the same hair/beard combo.

Farley was a carpenter, and I remember him fondly. He treated me like his own, taking me out on jobs and being my father figure until we left Denver. I was aware of not having a father, but it wasn’t really until I started grade school that I realized I was experiencing childhood differently than most other kids. (In a group setting, kids are quick to point out each others’ differences.) Other kids had two parents, so why didn’t I? I don’t think the lack of a father really affected me all that much in and of itself, because I had a home and was loved. I wouldn’t have even known that was atypical had it not been for the kids, and the teachers, constantly pointing out in side conversations that I was fatherless, whispered in a way that I could overhear and understand that it was something that was supposed to be whispered. That made me feel like something was “wrong” with me, wrong with Ma. I felt different from other kids in many ways, really. Somehow distant and not related to their experiences. Having no father was just a part of that, and was compounded with Ma’s own uniqueness, with me being a hippie kid, having no siblings, having a weird name, living an unsettled gypsy lifestyle, eventually realizing I’m gay, having long hair, and on and on. In many ways it was timing: in the 1970s, there was still largely a cultural hangover from the 60s. In retrospect, many kids of my generation had similar upbringings. We were all products of the hippie generation, after all. Whether or not our parents were actually hippies, the cultural influence was prevalent. But, during those early childhood years, we were taught and shepherded by the generation of adults who’d grown up with the nuclear family mentality. We were almost like zoo animals to that generation. We were outsiders. We were different, and our differences were to be pitied. We were made to feel like something was wrong with us, simply because that older generation didn’t know how to deal with experiences outside their own realities, and thought the hippie generation was screwing up their kids. The notion of embracing differences was just beginning to gain a foothold in the American psyche. It wouldn’t be until my generation was raising its own generation of children that “different” would even begin to normalize. In many ways, childhood conflicts about my own differences were a healthy thing: they made me question my reality, challenge others’ thoughts and my own, and learn to understand myself and others. If I’d grown up with my father, I know for sure I would have different perspectives on many subjects today. But, I didn’t, and I don’t. I like where I am, and where I’ve been. It’s all part of who I am. All those differences that made me unique are what I’m proudest of now.

When we moved to California, Farley followed us out a few months later. We were living on the Russian River in a tiny one-room cabin. It was a bit tight for us all to live together, but he stayed with us for a spell. We all spent time driving around Sonoma County in his van, getting to know the area we had chosen as our new home. Soon he got his own place – a 40 foot trailer in Graton, nearby in apple country. He wanted to be a bit closer to Ma, so as soon as he found a place to park it closer to Guerneville, he dragged it over. The River Bend Trailer Park had a space where he could hole up, right on the edge of the river. The upside to that trailer park is that it had (and still does) a giant metal cowboy at the entrance, standing about twenty feet tall – that’s what I remember most fondly about the place as a kid. A throwback to 1950’s roadside tourist attractions. The downside to that trailer park is that, being right on the edge of the river, it was on the floodplain.

Now, we had already experienced our first flood in Guerneville the winter before Farley joined us. It was in our first house, and in the first month, in fact. We were in Rio Nido, just outside of Guerneville, and our house was on the river side of River Road. Our apartment was the lowest of the three in that building, with the uppermost unit being at street level. To get to our deck, we had to walk down a staircase that descended the embankment from the street. We thought it was funny that there was a canoe tied to the deck, dangling fifteen feet over the river. We entered into a red-countered kitchen from the deck, and went down another set of steps to get to the dark wood-paneled single room that served as living and sleeping quarters. We had a bunk bed, and I had the top bunk. It was a cold room, I remember, and I loved to wake up in the dark of early morning and close myself up in the tiny bathroom with our little electric-coil space heater that served as the sole source of heat. I would lie there, curled up in fetal position on the bathroom floor, with the heater radiating warmth in the confined space. The orange light of the coils glowed on my hands and face, and I would practice counting as high as I could until Ma awoke with the daylight. My goal was to be able to count to ten thousand, but I never even got close.

It was February, and the rainy season was already underway as we moved in. We’d only been living there a week or two when I woke to Ma shaking me. Our living room was filling with water! We sloshed over to the steps leading up to the kitchen, and out to the deck. With the way the steps from the deck led down a few feet before going back up to the street, we suddenly realized why there was a canoe tied to the porch railing. By now, it was actually floating almost level with the deck surface, and some of the steps were under water. Fortunately, the river wasn’t yet high enough that we had to have our inaugural canoe experience in a flood, because I don’t imagine that would have gone well. We moved later that day into that tiny one-room cabin, where Farley later joined us.

That was not considered a bad flood, by local standards. Only the houses built absurdly close to the river got flooded that year. Like ours. Our first bad flood waited for the next year. When those floods came, our cabin was high and dry. In fact, our driveway became the access route around the flooded area for people on Drake Road, on our side of the river, across the bridge from town. Farley was away during the flood, “visiting a friend” in Ohio, and he called Ma to ask us to rescue his things from his trailer at the River Bend. When we made our way over to the trailer park, the metal cowboy was already knee-deep in water. It was nearly up to Farley’s threshold, and the rain was still falling hard. We waded up to his trailer, a bit intimidated by the current against our legs, and went in. As we gathered boxes, we could feel the trailer starting to wobble from the water underneath it. There was a cinder block foundation around it, which was the only thing keeping it in place. Ma noticed he’d left some letters and photos out on the table, and the photos were of him and another woman looking chummy. In Ohio. Where he was now. We put all the boxes back in place, closed the front door, and waded back to the car. We sat and watched, not for very long in fact, until the trailer finally freed itself from the cinder block foundation and floated away. For me, it was very exciting to see the destruction. For Ma, this particular destruction was cathartic.

Some of my fondest elementary school memories are from Guerneville: playing with tree frogs in the back of the school field, dominating the tetherball scene, frequently “experimenting” with my neighbor girl friend’s brothers, running barefoot around town all summer, swimming to town, climbing through the bridge trestles down onto the towering pilings, tunneling into giant branch piles people would leave on the beaches for the floods to take away… Our little cabin was right across the river from town, and was surrounded by the park playground, a giant Super Slide, a putt-putt golf course, and a seasonal amusement park. What more could a kid ask for? Guerneville was a fantastic place to while away the days as a kid. One time, that neighbor girl friend, Amy, and I took a bike ride out Drake Road to where some culvert construction was taking place. There were some stacks of giant (four foot diameter?) concrete pipe sections on the side of the road, awaiting burial. We adventurously climbed into the vertically-stacked pipes, only to realize we had no way to get back out. Fortunately for us, a passing driver who had seen our two small bikes leaning against the pipes noticed they were still there when he was heading home a couple of hours later, and got suspicious enough to investigate. Even he couldn’t rescue us himself, and had to go find someone with a ladder to extract us.

Amy and I always got into all kinds of shenanigans. We loved to bike a couple of miles out Highway 116 to explore the dump. One time we decided to play hooky from school to go play there. While scrambling around, we found unopened beer cans in a discarded fridge, and had our first-ever brewskies. They were hot and so nasty. The next day was a Friday, and halfway to school we realized we couldn’t go back without notes from our parents to excuse our absences. The most logical course of action was to skip another day, because after the weekend the teachers would probably have forgotten we had been gone, right? We kept on course past the school, heading out to the redwood forest state park a little north of town, but were getting tired from the walk. The obvious solution to us was to try hitchhiking. Not the usual thumb-style hitchhiking, but sexy-leg style hitchhiking, like you see women do in movies to get cars to screech to a halt. The first car to come around the corner was the sheriff. I don’t think it was our sexy leg maneuver that made him screech to a halt, though. He didn’t believe us when we told him we were running loose because the school had burned down, and he took us to the principal’s office. Over the years, I would come to be familiar with principals’ offices. Ma had to come pick me up and take me home, and the sheriff actually came over to talk to her about me shortly after. She was recently single from the Farley incident, and perhaps that’s why I was acting out. He was concerned that I was going to turn out to be a bad egg because she didn’t have a man in her life for me. He didn’t go next door to Amy’s house to talk to her parents. She had both still, so he must have assumed she had been influenced by my behavior. Our love of truancy was quite mutual.

In my middle school years, Ma was going to Sonoma State University; we had moved to Penngrove so that she could be closer to school, and could easily get there by bicycle whenever the car conked out. Penngrove was an interesting place. I was very much the poor kid in an upper-middle class school, once again conspicuously different from my peers. It was a small school, small enough that I had the same teacher for more than one year, and multiple grades were combined into the same classrooms. My fifth/sixth grade teacher was Mr. Murphy. He had a dark beard and curly hair, and his bright, wide-open eyes always hinted that he had the most exciting thing ever to tell you about. I liked him very much as a teacher. In hindsight, I realize I actually had a crush on him. I used to cut the cala lilies from beside our house, and put them in a vase with food coloring. When they had drunk up the color, I would bring them to school, ostensibly to “decorate the classroom.” Really, they were for Mr. Murphy, but I certainly couldn’t acknowledge that as a ten-year-old. I knew that would be awkward, and played it as if it were a science experiment, showing a plant’s vascular system or something. Penngrove was the place where Ma’s extended period of instability had led me to be alone for several weeks one time. I remember a couple of occasions, during her absence, of arriving late to school, and Mr. Murphy taking me outside to talk to me. I broke down and told him what was going on with Ma, crying and confiding in him, reaching out so much for some fatherly comfort. He obliged, taking the time to console me, and telling me I’d get through all of this.

I had a bit of a network of support at home, too, fortunately. Our house was on a little dirt cul-de-sac not far from downtown Penngrove. “Downtown” is a bit of an overstatement, as Penngrove only has about a dozen businesses, if that. Two of the five houses on our cul-de-sac were occupied by friends of Ma, whose kids were my own friends. The adults all checked in on me regularly during that tough period, bringing me food and making sure I was okay. A particularly fond memory is that the neighbor girl and I would play hobo. We both had some ratty, shredded clothes we’d put on for the occasion, and we’d smudge our faces with dirt. We would bundle up sandwiches in handkerchiefs, and tie them to the ends of sticks before slinging them over our shoulders to walk the abandoned railroad tracks to the park in town. I had procured a classic red handkerchief explicitly for this purpose, along with a long, straight acacia sapling that doubled as my wizard staff on the days when I was being Gandalf. I was disappointed that the tied-up sandwiches always looked lumpy, rather than being a perfectly round bundle like in the cartoons, so I would pack scraps of fabric to round my hobo lunch sack before we headed out. It was a game of introversion and introspection we played, and it was one of my favorite escapes from reality. We usually finished up the outings at the general store, with some new-fangled video games called PacMan and Frogger, before kicking rocks along the tracks on our way back home.

About this same time I started having some bad nightmares. They would continue, visually and aurally, even after I had awakened, so I suppose they were more hallucination than nightmare. These hallucinations would always begin with a sensation of falling, and were accompanied by a taste that I could only describe as “thin”. Still to this day I can’t think how to describe the taste in my mouth any better than that. Perhaps acrid. Yet sweet. And thin. I can still taste it if I think about it. The predominant hallucination was usually the same: I was being chased by fathers. Not church fathers, but father fathers. Once awake, they would still be chasing me, but now in airplanes. Biplanes, specifically. WWII biplanes, that flew across my ceiling by the hundreds, in black and white that flickered like an old film, with the fathers parachuting from them. Eventually I would run down a long dirt road across an endless plain, and escape them as I reached the cover of a circle of tall eucalyptus trees on the horizon, where I myself would suddenly lift off the ground and disappear into a melee of airborne gorillas within. Flying was stressful; I had to pump my arms and arch my back uncomfortably to stay just a couple feet off the ground, but at least I would get away from the fathers. Ma was always freaked out by these episodes, especially the attempts at flying that must have seemed like convulsions, but she would sit there and comfort me until I had flown away from the fathers and was finally able to return to sleep. This went on nightly for several months.

I also started acting out during that period. I would hobo my way into town alone, sometimes, and steal things from the stationery supply and the general store. The stationery supply was a giant Greek Revival vault of a building, with all sorts of fun stuff that could easily fit into my handkerchief. One time (really, it was only the third or fourth time I’d stolen) I acquired a dozen bottles of correction fluid in various pastel colors, and some rolls of adding machine paper. I didn’t have a use for any of it, so I gave it to kids at school. These were kids I didn’t ever play with, so I was likely trying to buy their affection. These were righteous kids, at least one of whom ratted me out. The police came to school and I was called into the principal’s office. I had to go back around the classroom and ask for each and every bottle back, and apologize for what I’d done. I was mortified, and it was intensely humiliating. The police and school counsellor questioned me and told me I was a bad egg, probably because I had no father to teach me right, then they brought me home to tell Ma the same thing. They said she’d better get me into some sort of therapy; if she didn’t get a man in her life to take care of me I would only go downhill, and there was no telling what sort of criminal I would turn into.

Ma thought perhaps all these issues were a sign that I needed to have some communication with Pop. Perhaps all these father hallucinations were meaning that I needed to reconnect, and she was willing to make that happen for my sake. Ma knew his sister’s address, and knew that she was the type to stay put at that address even after more than a decade, so she sent her a letter asking her to forward our address to Pop. Not long after, I got a card from him. He was right where Ma suspected he would be: in his tiny home town in the Florida Panhandle. It was such an exciting thing for me. Part of that excitement was simply getting something in the mail that was actually for me, naturally – I was still at that age, after all. I sent him a letter in return, the content of which is long lost to me. We even had one phone exchange. His voice was deep, with a Southern accent – slow and deliberate. I sent him a Father’s Day card, and then never heard anything again. Ma pointed out that was “just like him” to be so distant and disconnected like that, and expressed her regret at getting my hopes up for a relationship with him. I let him go. I often wondered what had happened, if perhaps my card to him had something to do with him disappearing again. Perhaps it was just too much for him. I would probably never know. Incidentally, none of this had any direct affect on my hallucinations…

One fringe benefit of me having such issues going on is that Ma stayed focused on my problems, and was less apt to get swallowed up by her own. She did send me to a therapist. A male therapist, in hopes that a male influence would be good for me. He had an office full of various toys, and kept trying to encourage me to do “boy” things with him, like play with the boxing gloves or take out aggression with giant inflatable baseball bats on each other and on a life-sized Raggedy Ann doll. I didn’t like that therapist. Apparently, punching and pummeling was the “correct” way to act like a boy, and I wasn’t liking boy things. I just wanted to play with the Raggedy Ann doll, not bat her into unconsciousness. And, I didn’t like being hit either, even with an inflatable bat. Fortunately, Ma pulled me from seeing him after only a couple of visits. With his guidance, she had gotten me to join the Boy Scouts, but even there I still felt like an outsider. I really wasn’t like the other boys. They just wanted to play sports. I just wanted to wear Ma’s skirts and halter tops, and knit. I had a favorite skirt/halter combo that I loved to wear to school a couple of times a year, with several strands of colorful stone beads. I loved how wide the skirt would circle out when I twirled around the playground. The Scoutmaster was dubious about my demeanor. I was a bad egg, and didn’t belong in the Scouts. I belonged in therapy, and needed a father in my life to set me straight.

The hallucinations did finally stop, but for not for any obvious reason. Perhaps I just grew out of them. We moved from Penngrove to Willits the summer before seventh grade, and started life anew in a new town, in a completely new county. Yet again, I found myself in a place where I felt like an outsider, at least at first. Willits was a redneck town, and it took Ma some time to find the local hippie element, as prevalent as it was, and is. I connected with the Scout troop in town, but yet again I really wasn’t like the other boys. They just wanted to run and throw rocks, kill lizards and fish, break things, make play guns to play shoot things. I just wanted to knit and make things, and collect leaves and rocks. When I tried to introduce the Scouts to knitting, as my contribution to Arts and Crafts day, I was made to feel very uncomfortable. Apparently, that made the other boys feel uncomfortable around me, too, and I was asked to not come back anymore. I was a bad egg, and didn’t belong in the Scouts. I belonged in therapy, and needed a father in my life to set me straight.

Our house in Willits was a few miles up a dirt road on a mountain called Shimmins Ridge, which in turn was itself several miles north of town. The house was as rural as rural can be: off the grid, fire for heating and cooking, and with a hand pump for water. A large, circular driveway around a trio of redwoods served four or five houses and a large hen-house. There was an outdoor shower at the edge of the driveway that was a platform on a tree, with a sack hanging over it. You’d fill the sack with water by siphoning from the creek below the platform, then untie the bottom of the sack to let the water dump over you. Very rudimentary. “Relaxing”, the neighbors called it. I called it “freezing”. More often than not, we would just head into town to use the showers at the RV campground rather than deal with mouthfuls of creek silt, and cold water from a tarp full of spiders and redwood cones. I loved the house itself, though. It was the first house we had where Ma and I each had our own rooms, and I had mine painted lavender. Her room’s walls were unfinished on the inside, and I entertained myself by carving little panels to fit across the studs, creating secret places to hide things. Secret panels bristling with glaring nails, and huge gaps that showed the contents inside. Our living room had an enormous stone fireplace, about eight feet deep and wide, that I could walk into fully standing. A wood stove was in the center of the fireplace, presumably for safer fire containment. My favorite part of the property was the three hammocks slung between the driveway redwoods. I spent almost that whole summer right there, reading. Mmm. Loved that.

Of the houses around the driveway, only two were occupied. Well, three, for a time, until Ma started dating Hoppy, the bachelor living in one of them, and he moved in with us. He was a good guy, another Midwestern carpenter. I never did feel a really fatherly connection with him, but he was nice enough and I liked him. We all spent lots of time driving around Mendocino County, getting familiarized with our new surroundings, exploring back roads and tiny, rural communities. That fall, we discovered there was a different reason for having the wood stove inside the fireplace. The people in the big house of the property made their living in the famous Emerald Triangle way: they grew marijuana. Our fireplace served as the drying spot for said marijuana, which made our house and belongings saturated with that musky, skunky smell. Ma was a smoker, so sacrificing our living room for the season was not a bad thing to her, especially since the compensation came in the form of sacks of weed. Sacks. I never really smoked it myself, actually. Probably because it was so prevalent in my childhood, and never hidden from me, so there was no mystery of experimentation. I knew what it was, and as a teenager it wasn’t alluring to me.

I had made a friend in school, Jonny, and as was often the case with my friends, he was another social outcast like myself. In his case it was because he was a socially awkward fat kid. He lived on a rural ranch with his widowed Christian fundamentalist dad. He may have turned out gay, too, if my one overnighter at his house was any indication, but his religious upbringing probably made him squelch any further activities. And develop a depression and a dislike for himself that would explain his weight gain. In any case, his dad pulled him from school and disallowed our friendship not long after that night. I don’t think our pubescent tryst was the reason, though, and doubt he was even overtly aware of it. Our mutual suspension from school was behind it, really: Jonny had mentioned wanting to try marijuana, and I knew where to get it easily. One day, I acquired a small bag full for Jonny, and brought it to him at school. He was shocked, and I could see the panic in his face about the idea of even thinking about bringing it to his dad’s house. I was surprised at his reaction, given that he said he wanted it, and for me pot was no big deal. In any case, he hid it in a duffel bag in the back of his locker.

Being that we were outcasts, we were both often bullied. Some jock types decided to pull a prank on Jonny the same day I brought him the weed. They raided his locker and threw his duffel bag into the sink to fill it with water. Something floated. Something that shouldn’t be in a seventh-grader’s school locker. Jonny was called to the principal’s office, and shortly after, I was called in as well. I knew it was considered a serious offense among people outside Ma’s hippie circles, but I couldn’t stop giggling. I was giggling because the principal’s name was Mr. Uberhart, and I had recently learned the kids called him Mr. Bubblefart. Bubblefart! He didn’t find his nickname as amusing as I thought he should when I called him by it. I mean, it’s hilarious, right? Apparently not. We were both suspended for three days, and I can still clearly picture the suspension papers with the one-word reason for the punishment, in quotations – “Pot.” Ma got to school not long after to collect me, getting the familiar lecture about needing a stable male influence in my life or I would turn out to be some sort of heinous criminal. Personally, I was thrilled about the unplanned school vacation, and spent the days in a hammock, finishing off the last few books of the Hardy Boys series. When I got back to school, my popularity had risen exponentially. Somehow, suspension earns respect among school kids. But Jonny was no longer a student there, and I never saw him again.

Summer on the mountain had been great, but by the time school started, I was growing less fond of the rural lifestyle. Partly because it was difficult to stay in contact with any friends when you’re that rural, and partly because the school bus stop was at the foot of the dirt road, which meant I had miles of trekking up the mountain to get home from the bus. Fortunately, mountain folk would generally pass by at some point, and give me a ride at least a bit closer to home. Hitchhiking was, remarkably, not uncommon to see in Willits, even for kids by themselves. By the time winter came, and Ma came to fully understand what it means to heat and cook by fire, she was over it. And showering in a tree with creek water when temperatures were in the low 40’s was not an enticing option. Plus, a dirt road in summer becomes a mud road in winter, and after getting stuck a couple of times and walking home from the car to get help, we’d decided it was time to move closer to civilization.

“Closer to civilization” was still fairly remote – several miles above town in the hills, in an area called Brooktrails. But at least it was paved, and the bus came to within a mile of my house. I could even shortcut straight up the hillside and make it more like a half mile. It was a fantastic house, the newest and nicest we had ever lived in. It was a chalet, cantilevered off the side of the mountain, with a giant gabled wall of windows facing into the forest. I loved a rainy day in that living room. My own room had sliding glass doors out onto the wraparound deck over the forest. The house was still heated by a wood stove, but Hoppy was great at keeping that going and I was getting better at it, and I was just so grateful to have electricity again. The area was too mountainous for TV reception, but we had a radio. Tracy Ullman’s song, “They Don’t Know About Us”, was my favorite, and played at least hourly. I memorized every word, and danced around the house as if I was her performing the song in a concert. We didn’t even make it through the end of the school year there, though. Ma and Hoppy started realizing their differences, and she and I left to find our own place after just a couple of months.

I had started dating a girl while we lived in that chalet, my first and only girlfriend. After ten months, though, we had never kissed. I had hugged her once, but aside from that all we ever did was talk on the phone about clothing. And gossip. Eventually we went our separate ways. That – eighth grade – was when I came out to Ma. Her immediate reaction was that she had done me wrong by not having a father for me, and that’s what had made me gay. Once again, therapy was the answer. Ma sent me to a family counsellor, who was also the head of the Peer Counseling program I would become a member of at the high school that year. (Eighth grade was on the high school campus back then.) After two meetings she called Ma in to meet with us in a family session, and explained to her that there was nothing “wrong” with me, that gay is okay, and that Ma had nothing to do with it. She was done seeing me as a client, but wanted to continue to see Ma to help her through the process of acceptance. I was fortunate to have such a forward-thinking therapist, who helped me realize myself and be able to come out at thirteen.

Ma was very much a hippie, but was raised by that nuclear family generation. She was, in many ways, still bound to the concept that a woman has to have a man in her life no matter what. The logical feminist in her struggled not to abide by that rule, but when she wasn’t in a long-term relationship she seemed to be seeking one out. Only after I came out was she able to not have a husband or boyfriend for my sake, but even then it was an uneasy solitude, and she still continued to have rocky relationships. Pop had left us. Farley was distrusted. Hoppy was behind us. Despite her attempts to keep men in her life as I grew up, I repeatedly got the message that they were betrayers and not to be trusted. It made it difficult for me to understand what it is to be in a stable relationship with a man, but I got there, and continue to evolve on that topic. But that’ll be another chapter…

Later in my life – in my twenties – the Internet came along, and I got a bug in my bonnet to try to find Pop. I didn’t go as far as paying to track him down, or anything, but I put some feelers out there. I knew his name, and that he was from the Florida Panhandle, and his parents’ names. Using a few websites, I found out… nothing. I found out Goff is a very common name in the South, in Florida and Georgia in particular, going back to the 1600’s. Given that Pop’s first name is a common one, that also didn’t help the situation any. Again, I let him go. Again, I would probably never know.

One day in late 2003, I came home to a phone message. The voice on the other end had that familiar slow, deliberate Southern drawl that I immediately recognized from a single phone call over twenty years prior. “Ahm loookin’ fowah Zayan Caaaannon Gaowf. Ah think this heyah is heyis nuumba. Ahm his daayad.”

(To be continued…)


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