The Cast of Characters in my Memoir

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Cast of Characters in my Memoir
Clarence William Sims, Sr. stretched to call himself five feet eight inches. A Golden Gloves Bantam Weight boxing champion, Dad was wiry, athletic and smart---long torso, short legs and low-slung ass---I inherited all three. His white blond hair and crystal clear blue eyes completed the image of bon vivant. He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy but was discharged after a diagnosis of rheumatic fever. With carpentry skills learned from his father, he expanded his knowledge to brick masonry and other construction expertise, enough to build whatever needed building. Gorgeous limestone homes and tall office buildings in Evansville, Indiana were built with my Dad’s hands and overseen by his intellect and expertise. The word-on-the-street maintained he could read a set of architectural plans and bid a job better than any contractor in town. Mom once pointed out to me that my Dad had the same occupation as a man in our church whom I thought of as “rich folk.” Sounds like he could have and should have had a successful career. To say tritely that Dad blew that career and a brilliant mind on wine, women and song would be a generous interpretation of Dad’s career path—more like booze, broads and bawdy ballads.

The house on St. Joseph Avenue in Evansville provides my earliest memories of Dad. I was six, Bill eight and Margaret was a baby. Our first black and white TV enhanced that shotgun house. Dad hooked it up in the small living room and it almost seemed like we were a ‘normal’ family, at least as seen on TV. Strangely enough, I remember all four rooms of that house as well as the rare memory of Dad living with us.
In the only bedroom, I cowered in the corner as Mom and Dad had a violent fight over whether to buy me new shoes. I had been chosen to be the crown bearer on the princess’ float in the Westside Nut Club’s Fall Festival Parade. All of Evansville looked forward to this festival and I thought I had arrived at age five. I had to have a princess dress and a new pair of shoes. Coming home from work drunk, Dad didn’t grasp the importance of this occasion, so Mom threw a pan of dishwater on him and the fight ensued. I caught the combs from Mom’s thick chestnut hair when they flew my direction as he whipped her around the room. Memory fails about the specific outcome of the fight except I did ride on the float in a new dress and shoes. This episode engendered one of dozens of times Dad moved out, then moved back in, always a revolving door.

The bathroom in that St. Joe Avenue house is where I first saw a man’s penis, my father’s, and thought, “Oh my, that’s different! I wonder if I am supposed to be seeing a man naked.” No prurient thoughts or behavior accompanied the incident and it felt somehow ‘safe’ because it was Daddy.
In the kitchen, I remember Mom trying to get me to recite for Dad all the cute verses and songs I learned from my older brother. I refused. Was I thinking even at five that he had not behaved like a daddy so why should I relate to him like a daddy?

I can’t piece together the jigsaw puzzle of Dad’s life chronologically. He came and went in my life. I longed for him in ways I couldn’t name. Fragments of memory about him poke through my reminiscing like ragged edge shards poking through soil at an archeological dig.
During my third year at Georgetown College, Georgetown, Kentucky, Dad fell from a three story scaffold and pulverized most of the bones in both feet. During his recovery from this accident, Dad threw his wheelchair down the steps of his second floor apartment then worked his way down step by step on his butt. He then rolled himself right over to The Super Inn. Dad spent the day listening to Hank Williams, Little Jimmy Dickens and Faron Young, all the while getting plastered. In this drunken state, he started his trip home. Unfortunately, the wheelchair stuck on the railroad tracks---with a train coming! He relished telling the story on himself and how he wiggled the wheelchair loose just in the nick of time.
The accident must have tapped some paternal vein deep inside him which I hadn’t known was there. He sent money for me to come home and visit him. I can’t say I’m proud of this, but I spent the money on a navy blue pleated wool skirt from Seymour’s, my favorite little shop, instead of going to visit him. (Maybe a wee bit passive-aggressive.) We never discussed this change of plans that would have required more intimacy than Dad and I ever achieved in our relationship.

Dad has always been short on words so I grasped at random comments to piece together some knowledge of him. He found babies and small children irresistible. I remember a night during one of the periods he lived with us, the husbands were taking care of the children while the women were elsewhere. To occupy an obstreperous three year old Dad and his buddies put molasses on the boy’s fingers and gave him a feather. It typified Dad’s relationship with children. More child than adult, Dad stayed “at the ready” for teasing and fun. While playing with babies and making them giggle, he would invariably say, “You ain’t good for nuthin’ but it sure is fun whittlin’ you out.”
One summer during high school I left California and returned to Evansville, Indiana where Dad still lived. I stayed with Grandma Sims and worked as a waitress at Helen’s Restaurant where Grandma cooked and grew famous for her dinner rolls and pies. After a long day at Burdette Park swimming and hanging out with friends, I got a severe sunburn. That night I put on the stiff black nylon uniform made specifically for torturing sunburned waitresses. The next afternoon, I lay in the front bedroom coated with lotion, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt so much. Dad came in to see me and actually showed real compassion for my dilemma and said---out loud---in real words---that he was proud of me for putting on the torture costume and working my shift at Helen’s the previous night. The comment may seem de rigueur for dad-to-daughter encouragement. It was not common for us. I forgot how much the sunburn hurt for the moment as I basked in his approval.

Staying that sixteenth summer at Grandma Sims’, I added to my budding and befuddled sexual identity when sunning in my bikini in the back yard and I saw Dad look at me with an expression which could only be interpreted as lust. I thought “That is not right for a dad and daughter.” Nothing sexually inappropriate ever occurred with Dad. But in years since, I ponder “How does a young woman learn about sexuality? What should Dad have taught me?”  Mom pointed out to me once that I had remarked about every guy I ever dated: “Something about him reminds me of Dad.” While this may be common in father/daughter relationships, I certainly would have told you at any age that I do not want to marry a man like my father. Perhaps unintentional yearning for him to love me manifested in my desire to date or marry a man like him.

Dad visited me once on campus. I think. I’m not positive. I wonder if he felt pride that I became the only college educated Sims child of my generation. (Much later one of my half brothers joined me with a B.S. and a J.D.) I do remember when I asked Dad to help me with money for a trip to Europe with my speech choir, he answered, “Who the hell do you think you are? We don’t go off to Europe.”
At some point in my life I heard the phrase “lower class immediate gratification.” I knew immediately the phrase applied to my family. At times, Dad would cash his paycheck on Friday night, party all weekend with the best of the rednecks at Dog Town (the little community along the river bottom on the outskirts of Evansville) and deposit whatever remained of his cash on Monday morning. When Dad graced the room along with the shit-kickin’ country music, everybody had a good time. Even folks who didn’t like him (probably for sound reasons) wouldn’t deny that they found him charming and engaging. Weekends on the river with Dad and his speedboat had the lure of fun and excitement. One summer during my teen years, he let me drive the boat by myself. I beached it on a sand bar. Being harsh about such an incident didn’t fit his personality. He grinned that grin and said “Accidents happen when you’re having fun.”

I feel great sadness about Dad. He lives alone, perhaps lonely, isolated on his glorious Ohio River. That river may be the one thing he has truly loved in his life. He grew up on the river when his father ran a ferry boat taking people and cars to and from Indiana and Kentucky. At one point in his childhood, his family even lived on a houseboat tied up on Pigeon Creek. He boated, skied and fished that river whenever time allowed and many times when it didn’t.

My favorite movie as a child was The Parent Trap, the 1961 original with Hayley Mills, Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith. I didn’t consciously identify the deep connection that the children wanted to get divorced parents back together. As an adult, I have watched the movie and sobbed. Even the 1998 remake with Lindsay Lohan, Natasha Richardson and Dennis Quaid can turn the faucets on for me. I yearned for a stable family at the core of my being. Even toward the end of her life, Mom encouraged me to call Dad, go see him. “If anybody can reach him, it’s you.” Reach him? What does that mean as pertains to Dad? Reach him for what? Reach him how?

I stopped by to see Dad twice in the last few years, mostly because of the insistence of John, Husband Number Five. John wanted to meet Dad and see who gave me life. So we stopped by.

Dad had not mended his ways or his shirt but there he sat at The American Café. I had last seen him five years prior when he came to sister Margaret’s fourth wedding. He appeared sober. He faced the window so he watched as John and I emerged from our P.T. Cruiser. John parked near the edge of the gravel lot so our dog Spratley could pee and burn up energy. I walked on into the café. His eyes did not leave me as I walked through the door and toward his table. I had not notified him we were coming so I couldn’t be sure he even recognized me. I finally said “Do you recognize this face?”  

“Well, I’ll be god damned” he said “where did you come from?”

I explained we were traveling to Minnesota and introduced John. Since Dad eats two meals a day at The American Café, they didn’t mind that their regular customer had company arrive at closing time.

Dad’s grizzled, scaly, skin sagged, but Paul Newman eyes shone through decades of boozing. “That-Clarence-Sims-shit-eatin’-grin” worked its magic in spite of no teeth. Yet no one needed to be told the infamous womanizer is petered-out.

“We stopped at your house. Nothing was locked up so we went through and called for you. I wanted John to see the picture of you with cameos of all six wives. And I knew he would get a chuckle out of your refrigerator with the keg and the outside spigot. Your river’s still rolling. How are you doing?”

“Hell, I’m ok, just old.”

“Dad, did you know…” I started to ask with tears stinging my eyes.

“I know, hon.”

And that was all we said about the death of my son Mark.

He may have quit drinking (I find out years later he had not.) but he still didn’t know how to have a conversation that required a degree of intimacy. The reality that Dad married nine times is a strong indicator that he might be relationally handicapped, in spite of his considerable intellect. He married Jerri Harrison, Wife Number One when she was sixteen or seventeen because she became pregnant with my half-sister Suzanne who infamously became a Go-Go dancer in downtown Evansville in the Sixties.

My Mom, Violet Lee Marshall, was Wife Number Two, Wife Number Three and Wife Number Nine. Mom and Dad met at Camp Reveal, a religious camp for underprivileged children when she was twelve and he was fourteen. She loved him all of her life, hated him at times, but never got to the point of indifference though she strived for that goal at the end. I suppose he loved her too. She always said “He loves me in his way; he just don’t weigh enough.” She screamed at him “You can think more and say less than any man on the planet.”

Shortly after my birth, they divorced for the first time….only to re-marry again soon. My older brother Bill and I were the products of the first try; sister Margaret came along during the second try. They divorced again when I was six and re-married for the third time when I was in my thirties. A couple of times Dad came back into our lives when they didn’t marry. Once when Margaret, five at the time, lay confined in the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver and baby Ashley (half sister from Mom’s third marriage) rested down the hall with spinal meningitis. Stepfather Herman couldn’t handle the stress of two sick kids so he made an exit. I awakened one night during this period to discover my Dad on the couch with Mom. It must have been too much for him also because he didn’t stay and Herman returned.

Mother’s engagement ring, a stunning, unique setting of rose gold with rubies and diamonds, carried its own part of their story. The ring constituted Mom and Dad’s go-to credit source. They hocked it on numerous occasions. When Grandma rescued it, yet again, from the pawn shop, she announced to Mom, “You’re not getting it back this time. Brenda gets it when she turns sixteen.” So I did. But even I could not let go of the fantasy that Mom and Dad belonged together, so when they re-married the third time, I had the ring re-sized and gave it back to its original owner. Mom felt kind enough (or angry enough) to return it to me when the seemingly inevitable divorce came after the third failed attempt.

Wife Number Four and Five became Lauren.  A gorgeous high school senior and the affair he had during his second marriage to Mom, Lauren became pregnant with my half brother. Dad and Lauren broke up and got back together more times than Liz Taylor and Richard Burton but they married each other twice. Another half brother came along sometime during the back and forth dance resulting in two sons, my half-brothers, with this wife. Mom always said Lauren succeeded in relating to Dad because she fought him like a man. Family lore holds that she once almost killed him by striking him with a telephone over the head (remember telephones were once heavy) but I didn’t personally see the damage. It’s hard to imagine the woman he called his “classy pussy” fighting him physically but the stories made good family gossip. Whether or not her success derived from fighting him physically, she certainly exhibited more ability to bend him to her ways than the other wives did. The homes he shared with Lauren, the amount of child support he paid to the children he fathered with Lauren, and maybe even a slight dent in his manners and dress, testified to her greater influence over him. Although I did personally witness him sitting at the dinner table with her, his customary foot on the chair, knee up and one arm around that knee as he ate. No one successfully nor ultimately tamed the beast.  

Wife Number Six Betty entered his life as secretary at Sims Brothers Construction Company which he owned with his brother Charles. I learned on a visit back to Evansville during my high school years in California that Dad provided her with money for an abortion because he allegedly wanted to get back together with Mom. But he finally married Betty. They had no other children together.

Fortunately for all concerned, reality TV series did not exist in the Sixties because Dad’s story with Wife Number Seven Janet would have made a good one. Janet first appeared in our lives as my sister Margaret’s friend in high school and brother Bill’s fiancé.  Bill shipped out to Vietnam; Dad stole his girl and married her and they produced half brother Justin. I’m not making this up. Bill’s version maintains he dumped Janet in Evansville far from her home state of Washington and Dad stepped in. I can’t help but wonder what Janet’s truth is. Of course, their marriage didn’t last long and Janet and Justin moved back out West. Justin recently found us when doing genealogical research on the Internet. We are now Facebook friends and truth really is stranger than fiction.

Wife Number Eight was Irene. I did not get to know Irene and therefore have no knowledge or memory of the character of their marriage. Margaret speculates they founded the marriage upon drinking together---a reasonable conjecture.

Dad meandered back to Mom for marriage Number Nine. God knows how many other women were squeezed in before, during and after these nine marriages. And thank goodness, Dad and God aren’t telling.

What I learn from Dad’s marriages? One could presume I didn’t learn much because of my own five marriages. I admit I didn’t garner positive training from Dad’s marital history. I’ve learned by creating my own misguided relationships. I acknowledge one characteristic I share with Dad is my low tolerance for staying in bad relationships. Fortunately, I learned to create healthy relationships; unfortunately, Dad did not.

A Kyrgyzstani woman visiting in our home diagnosed the pain manifesting in my neck and shoulders as deep-seated anger at men. She knew nothing of my history except what my nervous laugh may have communicated at that moment. She touched the very spot that represented my Dad and I flinched with pain. The longing to know Dad and to be loved by him still has the power to blindside me. Daddy-daughter photos, daddy-daughter movies, daddy-daughter sightings in the park can bring tears before I remember to put on the steel armor of defense.    

updated: 6 years ago