I have vivid memories going back to when I was two. I have none of my mother and father being happy together. The first time I saw a copy of the Cuyjet family tree my mother was listed as deceased as of the date of the finalization for their divorce.
The main memories I have of mom were split between the times she visited us in Philadelphia and when my sister and I were either in Washington to see her or visiting our grandmother with her in West Virginia. Her visits to Philly were never pleasant, we usually met in a restaurant and after awkward pleasantries there might be a few minutes of relative peace before she and my dad would get into it and she’d start drinking.
Cuyjet family elders, as well as my father, bad mouthed her whenever the subject came up. My dad waged a propaganda campaign against my mother and her family. There were at least three custody hearings where my sister and I were awarded to our mother after their separation and each time my father, during his visitations in either Washington, DC, or in Beckley, West Virginia, would take us back to Philadelphia.
As a child I do remember hating being in DC or West Virginia. Washington in the fifties was a small, provincial, southern town. If I thought Philly was bad it was a racist purgatory compared to the racist DC hell at that time. I’ve always been a city kid, even as a young child. I did love hanging with my two ‘country uncles’, especially mom’s younger brother, Uncle Jack. He taught me a lot about fishing, camping out, and best of all, he let me ride with him on his Indian motorcycle.
Washington was never fun, mainly because we were there in the summer and mom didn’t believe in air conditioning.
I remember standing on a traffic island on Rhode Island Ave NE on hot afternoon and asking mom, “Where are all the white people?”
“West of the park, son, west of the park.”
When I was twelve at the divorce hearing in Philadelphia I remember my sister and I had a closed session with the judge where we were asked our preference as to which parent we wanted to be with. Both of us chose our father.
The most amazing thing my mother ever told me was that she was always/still in love with my father.
I was watching an episode of M*A*S*H when the phone rang (you younger readers just hafta imagine a world without cell phones for this) and one of my house mates picked it up, spoke for a second, then called me into the kitchen because the cord didn’t reach into the living room. Me, I was pissed. I mean alla my people knew never to call me during my show, right?
It was my cousin, a nurse, in Philly. Telling me I had to come up because my dad was in the hospital and it was bad. I said, “So what, it doesn’t matter to me.”
She said he was dying. Again, “So what?”
“Your mom is on her way…”
I got a call from one of his girlfriends once. He’d been arrested, didn’t want anyone else in the family to know and he needed to be bailed out. I was a poor ass musician so I borrowed money and a car from a friend and drove like a mad man to Philly to bail him out.
I drove even crazier that night my cousin called, never saw the end of that episode of the show. My mom was going to see him before he passed. It blew my fucked up mind…my mom who’d suffered decades long heartbreak, who’d given up long term relationships and had an abortion because of the torch she kept carrying for him was already on her way to be at his side one last time. If cops saw how I was driving that night they must have known. “That dude is setting new land speed records because his asshole dad is dying and his angelic mom is rushing to be there in spite of the pains he’s caused her.”
I got to Philly and realized I wasn’t any where near ready to see him. I drove over to my brother-cousin Leon’s place and asked him to come with me. Leon was my dad’s god child. His dad, my Uncle Leon, and dad had been best friends, but that wasn’t the reason I wanted Leon with me. Leon is six-six and was about 265 pounds of muscle. I wanted him to hold me up. No, more, I just wanted him to hold me.
Being at the hospital is a blur of images, flashbacks of childhood visits and stays whenever I got sick: warm milk and lights always on, even at night; ice cream after my tonsillectomy, bland and vomit inducing food, being told that this was the place where I was born…but this time, this was the place where my dad would die.
Leon walked in dad’s room with me and stood on the opposite side of dad’s bed and the three of us talked. Talking to dad had been prelude to yelling and fighting ever since the day I hit him when I was fifteen. We had filled the craters of our silences with grumbles and short exchanges of petty hellos and good-byes, filled them with more than enough sad anger and disappointment to last several generations. I was thirty-two the night I stood there holding his hand but all the younger versions of me were silently crying for all the wasted years.
It was all either he or I could find words for, “I’m sorry and I love you.”
Six words repeated twice. That was all that was said between us.
Leon gave me the biggest bear hug of all time…
Mom, my sister, and I buried him on a Saturday. I remember standing in the church looking at his burnished wood and brass casket and wanting to blame him for dying and yet thanking him for the four of us being together without any angry words being exchanged.
The following Monday I started my second career, my first job after giving up the idea that I could make a life for myself playing music. I was the first field manager hired on a national project for a government contractor. Our national offices were on K Street, lobbyist alley, in Washington. Friday after I had come back into the office something happened to me. I found out later when I talked to the only other person in the office at the time, our administrative assistant, that I had walked by her desk and said, “I have to go out, I’ll be back in a bit.”
Four hours later I became aware. Now that might seem like a strange sentence, but between around one o’clock and five I have no memory of what I was doing. But at five, on a busy rush hour street I was sitting on a raised curb with my feet in the street. My sides and chest hurt and I was aware of the hot tears on my cheeks and the six people in a semi-circle in front of me standing in the open lane waving cars around us.
When I looked up an older gentleman told me he had been following me for a few blocks while I cried and was saying something about my father. He told me I finally stopped and sat there for a few minutes but had gotten up a few times and looked like I was going to walk into traffic. the others had come over to help calm me and stand guard over me.
I thanked them after awhile and told them I was okay enough to walk back to my office. The older man and a woman walked me back to my office building, rode up to my office door and Hank was still there wondering what had happened. The man told her. She called her husband telling him what had happened (the entire staff knew my father had died the week before I started there) and sat with me until almost ten that night. She listened while I cried and talked about all the pain and anguish that existed in our little family and showed her how fragile I was. I don’t know that I ever thanked her enough for the solace and patience she gave me that evening.
I started therapy about a year or so later. I spent the first two years of therapy doing work about my relationship with my dad.
After becoming a parent for years I used the question, “What would Jerry do?” and do the opposite as my guiding principle until I realized there were different options. Working through the anger was almost easy compared to the sadness that unlike the twenty years I had with my mom, I didn’t have my father alive to work through our issues.
Mom died suddenly of a heart attack eight years later. I miss her to this day. But my story with her is much different because we built a bridge and met there in the middle of it and found one another.
And told each other stories…