Things Die/Life Still Goes On (Me Part II)

Things change, constantly. The 1947 Plymouth I learned to drive on is beyond rust now. The apartment building in the projects in East Falls I spent from seven until 19 years of age was demolished on national television. The original buildings of the college I attended are hard to find in the current configuration of that campus as I write this forty-seven years after I graduated. I go places that I thought I remembered and get lost, have to circle back to a spot I do remember and either have to ask directions or turn around and go back the way I do know.

This past weekend I drove up to Easton, Pennsylvania to spend time with the college kid. Saturday he wanted to spend time in Philly, to revisit my old neighborhood and just drive around. As we drove down the northeast extension of the PA turnpike he fell asleep, I mean knocked out cold asleep for about an hour. When he woke up he said it was the best nap he’s had since he’d been home for winter break. He said it was because there were only two places where he could fully nap; the couch, his couch, in the great room in our house, and in my 4Runner, because he’d grown up in it.

All I know is that it will be a sad day when I have to put that truck down because he’s right, both children have only known that vehicle. It’s twenty-one years old, about 240,000 miles on it. My mechanic says we should be able to get it to 300,000.

People come and go from your life. Electronic devices die, your old classic iPod, you know, the one that has a shit ton of your transferred music from your vinyl collection, the one that has about a quarter of your massive CD collection on it, the one you copied over with a borrowed vinyl to digital turntable on a computer that you had wiped clean years ago.

Listening to that iPod’s music can only happen sporadically now, on a cheap turntable connected to half-assed speakers. As the old iPod dies I plug it into those speakers and listen as it occasionally sputters and clicks its death throws as it takes me on a sonic journey to the past. The songs stop me from whatever I’m doing. I sit and listen. For some of them I play my congas or other hand percussion. Rarely though am I tempted to play my flute or alto saxophone. They are painful reminders of the longing I still feel to have lived my life consumed by music.

Consumed…burned to a crisp, nothing but embers and the destroyed bits of flesh and dreams remaining of the person I might have been floats on these dying notes. Dreams die and dreamers somehow keep living.

We interrupt this dispatch to alert our music loving audience that Chuck’s old iPod Classic just died. Its last song was Jose Feliciano’s Americano. Funeral arrangements have not been made at this point but if you’d like to participate in the farewell here’s a link to that song .

Sometimes in meditation I visualize what my life would have been like had I not quit my last band and started my career as a corporate learning facilitator and leadership coach. It’s a joyful experience for the most part and I revel in it until it is time to come back to my present life and grocery shop, pick up my youngest from her current adventure, or sit with a client.

Here’s the thing that really upsets me. There’s music on that old iPod that has time machine qualities for me. Songs that remind me of things that have happened in my life, memories that fuel happy, sad, profound stories.

Robert’s about two, in the back seat of the 4Runner and we’re at a red light. Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Jimi comes on. After about three or four bars Robert asks, ‘Dada, who’s that?’ I say ‘Hendrix’, and Robert, after another two or three bars, says, ‘Turn it up!’

I just got off the phone with an old friend who reminded me that I’m enthralled by all aspects of life, that I find myself fascinated by things that most people don’t even notice. Another friend tells me that I have a huge appetite for life, that I ‘take big bites’ out of every moment.

Moments come and go, memories stay. I can close my eyes and be in a memory so much so that I can experience the taste of the food in my grandma’s kitchen, the smell of her homemade bread or blackberry cobbler. I can still feel the chair or stool I sat on in my house on Foxhall Road where I jammed with my first drum circle. Still remember what it was like to stay up for two straight days recording tracks for a friend’s demo tape. Still remember how playing music binds people together.

Do those things really die? No, but sometimes they change…

Band Pic

Drummer

ME (Part I)

And even now
there’s still a secret part
of me, unknown to the outside
filled with dark corners,
shadow, and
things that go bump in the night.

I wondered if I would ever be saved, ever
be one that others could like,
then it flashed. If there’s shadow,
there has to be light

(From an old journal entry, undated)

*

I’m the kid who hid in the clothes closet the first cold day at school because my warm clothes were raggedy. I got laughed at as I approached school, not just by the well off kids, but even the kids that were, for all intents and purposes, just like me. They seemed to laugh the loudest, I was someone worse off than them.

Mom told me that she had to steal money from my father’s pockets to buy me warm swaddling clothes when I was an infant during my first winter on the planet. The school year I found myself crying in the closet mom was gone and while I didn’t blame her I was too hurt to understand why children could be so mean.

I couldn’t understand how I could hurt so much. I hated my clothes more than I hated the taunting. If I had that year’s fashions it wouldn’t be me, in the cloak room, crying, hiding, wishing I were not there, invisible.

Who the fuck teaches their kids to be that damn ugly?

*

Warm weather means recess outdoors. There’s a regiment to all of it. Picture fifties playgrounds, same demographic splits, hidden warring within the order, but order nonetheless. Then there’s the lining up, boys on one side, girls on the other.

Lois McIntosh held my hand walking back into school. She looked just like her name sounds. She smiled that freckled face at me when we were told to reach over and hold the hand of the child next to us. She played next to me the following day and started to hold my hand even before we started walking toward our line up posts. She smiled at me with those bright eyes.

She later told me that she cried the night she told her mother about me hiding in the closet.

I missed my mom growing up in ways I’m still uncovering. I wonder how many questions went unasked because of her absence, how many conversations I’d have had with her about things that I soon learned to settle with my fists instead of my words…or by just walking the fuck away.

My feminine side had to learn how to grow all on its own.

*

I’ve had a series of different occupational titles over my career. The best way to describe my work life would be to say I help people. (That’s in defiance of all those adults who told me I’d never be able to make any money ‘helping people’ when that was the answer to the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?) The last thirty years or so I’ve worked as a leadership and executive coach, both in private practice and within corporate structures.

Over the years I’ve participated in a variety of professional and developmental workshops. In one of them I was the only male participant and after the end of the first of three days when we were debriefing our experiences one of the facilitators remarked that I was a queer heterosexual.

“Judith Light (the actress) said that about herself.”

“The fact that you know that proves my point, Chuck!”

I don’t know if that solidified my full embrace of my feminine side, but it certainly felt like it acknowledged it.

*

Being a dad has been the pleasure of my life. For one thing, aside from the pride of watching my children grow, it has given me a wealth of memories and stories to tell. And I light up when telling stories. One, they are about my children and I can feel what it was like when the thing I’m talking about was happening. Memory on a quantum, cellular level shit! Two, being a parent is the hardest and best thing I’ve ever attempted in my life.

I used to think I had to do the opposite of whatever I’d imagine my dad would do to be a good parent, a good father. That line of thinking stopped when Robert started asking questions. My favorite stories about him all start with his questions.

He’s about three and we’re walking around our neighborhood just before dusk when he notices the sky is filled with crows and he asks me where the crows are going.

“They’re flying to where they’re going to spend the night It’s called roosting.”

“Like where they sleep?”

“Yeah, where they sleep.”

A few evenings later, after I get home from work and before dinner we’re walking again. He looks up, sees crows and says, “Look dadda, the crows are going to bed!”

*

Parenting doesn’t always come with an immediate feedback loop sometimes it takes awhile for you to know that the child has actually picked up on what you have been trying to teach.

A few weeks ago my son the college kid told me I was level headed. I doubt I would ever use those words to describe me, but after twenty years of listening to whatever I’ve said to him those were the words he chose.

Right now I feel like an unfinished story, one that has meandered through life with a relatively unfocused view of what it means to be alive. I am more feeling than thinking, more emotional than ‘level headed’, with a quick anger and deep passions.

I am as fractured as this attempt at an essay, but so far, I am, and unfinished isn’t such a bad thing at my age. At least not to me!

Being a dad is like being a writer. You can only get better at it with practice, can only be better when you stay open to criticism, self examination, and a willingness to change.

(Another undated journal entry.)

My Parents (Part Two)

Mom was the kind of person who would call you up at three in the morning and just start reading to you something she had just read. Or worse, at three in the AM she’d see that your light in your apartment was still on, and knowing you were a night owls, would have her date stop and park and ring your apartment’s buzzer and come up for a night cap.

I loved the role reversal, watching grown men squirm while we either talked about them or, conversely, totally ignored them while she had her whiskey and I busted a joint. Thankfully she never dated a cop. I got her to try weed once. She said she just didn’t like the way it made her feel, she’d stick with the sauce. In those days it didn’t phase me so much that she drank. Hell, I used weed to self medicate so what was the issue, right?

When I was twenty I decided to find out who this person was. Sporadic visits, dramatic court room scenes, and occasional letters didn’t give me any sort of feeling that I really know her in any real sense. My family’s barrage of negative images of her and her family…wait, let’s be fair and accurate, my father and my father’s family badmouthed my mother and her entire family. This went on for years. I don’t remember one good word about them for any of my relatives.

This memory is painful to this day. In a very real way it still functions in my life I have first cousins on my mom’s side that have continually shown me love. Yet I don’t feel close to them. That’s a net loss no matter how that shakes out. The few times we’ve been together have been fantastic and rewarding. That’s changing now. (Promising myself to contact them soon, this weekend).

Okay…back to me and mom…

I showed up at mom’s door one Friday night after hitching a ride from Princess Anne to DC. In and of itself not an unusual occurrence but this time when Sunday night came I stayed. I hung out for almost two weeks, went back to school and got caught up on work that I’d missed for a couple of weeks then went back to DC for a couple of weeks. I repeated this pattern three times. We spent most of the first two weeks just talking, finding a way to communicate. Nothing really deep, just talking.

But I noticed that every time she came home from work she went straight into the bathroom and seemed to be throwing up. Every day and every day when I asked her if she was alright she acted as if nothing happened. Thursday I waited in the hallway not far from the bathroom door. When she came out I was very insistent that I heard her throwing up and told her I wanted to know what was up.

When mom left Philly in 1952 she got a job at the Defense Department. In the sixties she was working in the Pentagon and living in an apartment off Georgia and New Hampshire avenues in northwest DC. (The Hidden Figures story resonated with me as mom had become one of the head programmers at DOD…there were lots of trips to get educated on the latest room sized computers back in the day. She’d marvel at the size and power of the MacBook Pro I’m using to write this!).

She calmly pointed out that she was not only the only woman where she was then stationed, she was the only person of color. She was surrounded by “majors, generals, oak cluster-fuckers, and full of shit bird colonels, and enlisted men. All of them think they can boss me around like I’m their maid. I get angry and upset several times a day but I’m not going to let them see that they have any affect on me.”

“So you bottle that all in and let it out when you get home?”

“Each and every day! All of them are white, all of them think they’re better than me. Some of them know how intelligent I am and they are the ones who treat me the worst!”

*

She started attending Hampton at fourteen and was in Who’s Who at 20. The next year she was teaching at Fisk. Her mom had multiple degrees, her dad was awarded his PhD from Lincoln University in 1914 (Between 1910 and 1919 546 PhD’s were awarded in this country. My grandfather was one of them!) Mom was fucking brilliant…This was the person, this was the family I had been taught to belittle.

I had multiple offers for post graduate work, I chose the scholarship the National Law Center at George Washington University gave me to be in DC to be near my mother. I’ll write further about that experience later in this series. I moved here after the summer I graduated and spent as much time with her as I could. Looking back on it I can say we did make up for lost time, we created many memories, most warm and good, a few painful.

All of them I carry with me every day…I’ll share them soon.

My Parents (Part One)

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…