Carol with her parents, Louise and Parker Leonard of Brewer, Maine ~ circa 1950
My father was a lady-killer. He was as handsome as a movie star- Clark Gable and Rock Hudson combined handsome. Six-foot-three and fit, he had thick, wavy dark hair and bright blue eyes, and a cleft chin like Cary Grant. Women threw themselves at him. I remember that when I walked into restaurants with him, women would stop talking and stare with flushed cheeks. I saw that a lot. Those women knew a player when they saw one.
Parker Franklin Leonard was born in 1928 in Brewer, Maine, the only child of a meek public accountant and an overbearing, domineering housewife. My grandmother described my father’s birth as a “dry birth.” She claimed that after her water broke she “dried up,” so the birth was hellacious. She said it almost killed her, so she vowed to never have any more kids. I think she never had sex again with my poor, henpecked grandfather either.
My father was playing the clarinet in a swing band in Bangor on the night I was born. He was twenty-two years old. He was a corrugated box salesman for Bird & Son. As my mother said, my father could sell snow to the Eskimos. He drove around to customers in his company car, a white 1963 Ford Galaxy 500 with the plates BOXES, chain smoking Kent cigarettes. I remember the car’s ashtray was always overflowing with stubbed out butts. When he came home from being on the road, he methodically drank vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred).
I had a pretty normal, idyllic childhood until I hit puberty, then everything went south. Apparently, my father was charged with the responsibility of having “that talk” with me when I was a gangly, five-foot-nine thirteen year old. We sat in his office. The conversation went something like this:
My father’s words of wisdom were, “Don’t wear tight pants any more.”
“Why’s that, dad?” I asked innocently.
“Because men will look at you and then they’ll desire you.” He looked away.
“Wait! Are you trying to have the ‘birds and bees’ talk with me right now?” I couldn’t believe it. “This is awkward.”
Staring intently at his martini, he cringed, “Yes. Yes, it certainly is.”
I never heard any more about the tight pants wearing business.
My father had a fraternity “paddle board” from the University of Maine hanging on the wall in his office. One side of it had a bunch of notches. My little brother told me that when they were having a “man to man” talk, my father proudly told him that the notches represented his “conquests.” Whatever the hell that meant.
My father’s drinking escalated to many martinis after work. His favorite song was “The Lonely Bull” by Herb Alpert. He put that album on the record player and played it over and over while he sat morosely drinking and smoking.
Then one day in my early teens, I answered the phone and a woman asked to speak to my father. I said he wasn’t home. She said, “Oh, is this Carol?” I didn’t like the way this felt. I said, “Why do you want to talk to my father?” She said, “I’m in the box business,” and she hung up.
I never told my mother about that call.
When I was fifteen, my father took me into my parent’s bedroom to have a “serious conversation.” My parent’s bedroom had twin beds, as I recall. He said, “Your mother and I are getting divorced.”
My mouth dropped open in shock. “Why?”
“Because your mother doesn’t like sex. She won’t give me head.”
WHAT?!? Now I was furious. I had the horrific feeling that somehow he had surmised that I was sexually active and he was trying to make me complicit with him. Still, it was entirely inappropriate.
“What is wrong with you?” I shouted. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to talk to your teenage daughter like that? That’s disgusting.” I stormed out of the room.
My father left us and moved in with his white trash, Appalachian mistress, Ruthie. She was an older IHOP waitress in Nashua. I was enraged that my father had abandoned his wife and four children, even when his youngest son was just a baby. Abandoned us for a low-rent, stupid, blowjob-giving whore. What kind of self-absorbed bastard did that?
I decided I was going to go to Nashua and give my father a piece of my mind. I had just gotten my driver’s license. I took my little sister and some satellite friends with me. My sister was thirteen. I drove my parent’s wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon with the vanity plates that said PAL (for Parker and Louise). I produced a joint from my pocket and we all smoked pot on the way down.
I knocked on the door of my father’s apartment. I had to knock several times. When he finally threw the door open, he was half naked and dripping with sweat. He was breathing heavily.
I said, “Listen, Parker…”
His eyes flew open in horror. He slammed the door shut. I heard the deadbolt lock. The hallway was loudly silent.
“This is awkward,” my sister and I said in unison.
I knew right then that I hated him.
A decade later, my sister and brothers and I met up with my father and Ruthie for dinner at a steak house near their home in the northern part of the state. Ruthie looked like Dolly Parton. She had teased bleached blonde hair; long Egyptian-looking, cat’s-eye black eyeliner, and a bra that made her breasts look like the cones of torpedoes. (Madonna would make this her iconic look years later.) They seemed happy. They proceeded to get very drunk together.
At one point during the meal, my father was holding court telling lame jokes, when Ruthie started to choke. As she struggled for air, my father, oblivious to her flailing beside him, kept on talking.
Finally, as Ruthie was clutching her throat and turning blue, my father turned to her and said, “Oh, for god sake, Ruthie,” and her gave her a huge wallop on her back. She honked and an enormous chunk of steak went flying across the table. Then she fell out of her chair onto the floor, and her front hairpiece fell off. She laughed a brash whiskey laugh and said, “Oh, look! I’ve flipped my lid!” My father thought this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
I looked at my sister. “This is awkward,” we said in unison.
One morning when I was in my early thirties, I was asleep with my second husband, when the phone rang at 5:00 AM. It was my father screaming on the phone. He was shouting that when he woke up, Ruthie’s body was cold and stiff next to him. Hard drinking and chain-smoking Ruthie had died in her sleep. I told him I’d be right there.
When I got to his house, my father was sobbing, “The beautiful lady is gone. The beautiful lady is dead.” His heart was breaking. I realized then that he really did love her deeply. That was a revelation to me.
Many years later, my father was poised to get remarried. He and I were sitting on the steps outside his house drinking straight vodka and having a “serious conversation.” He said that this new woman intimidated him.
I said, “But she’s crazy about you. She worships the ground you walk on. Go for it, dad.”
He answered, “Really? You think I’m good enough for her? She’s pretty smart.” He was married to this third wife until he died.
When I was in my late forties, my father called me to say he was having trouble swallowing. I, in return, complained that I had debilitating arthritis. It turned out I had Lyme disease that was cured. My father didn’t fare so well. It turned out he had terminal stomach cancer.
My father had stomach cancer and the oncologists decided to save him by removing his stomach. Then my father starved to death. Literally. My six-foot-three father weighed about ninety pounds when he was lying on his deathbed in a small hospital in NH. I went to visit him with my son to say goodbye. My son was twenty-three at the time.
When we walked into his hospital room, I was shocked at what a skeleton he’d become. A living cadaver. My son said, “Hi Grandpa!” and flashed him a big grin. My father looked adoringly at my son and said, “What a great smile.”
Several minutes into the visit, my father announced that he had to use the “commode.” I, being ever the stalwart midwife, was horrified. I went scurrying down the hall in search of a nurse. Every nurse I met had her hands full. One nurse, when I stated who the patient was, said, “Oh my god, he is so handsome!” I thought, “Oh, for chrissake, dad, give it a rest already. You’re half dead and you’re still flirting.”
I got back to his room just as my son was getting my father back into bed. My son had gotten him onto the commode and then wiped his ass. I felt guilty, but there was just no way in hell I was going to do that. Not ever. On the way home, I asked my son how he felt about that. He said, “Mom, he’s dying. It’s the least I can do for Grandpa.”
My father died a few days later. He was 70 years old. At the end of his church service, I read a traditional Pueblo deathingway prayer:
Hold on to what is good
even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to my hand
even when I have gone away from you.
I felt a twinge of sadness as I read those words, but I couldn’t grieve. I still didn’t forgive him.
Over a decade and a half after my father’s death, I started to understand him. I felt a slow empathy unfolding in my heart. I was married to my fourth husband by then, and I didn’t hate men so much anymore. When we were married, I was forty-five and my husband was twenty-seven. He was a wild and free whitewater guide and the whole world was his oyster.
My father, on the other hand, had three children by the time he was twenty-seven years old. When I was born he was just a kid, a knucklehead. He became a repressed and sad man. It has taken me fifty years to forgive him. But the other day, the tears finally came. I said, “I love you, dad.”