It was the summer of 1967 and I was fifteen. On the verge of being a woman but still very much a child, I had little knowledge of human relationships or why people behave the way they do. Nor did I comprehend my own thoughts, fears, or frustrations.
My father was fifty and I hardly knew him. For several years he had been in and out of the Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, because he had a mental disease. Mommy would commit him when she reached the point of desperation, and the hospital usually kept him for about a month each time. They treated him with shock therapy and sent him home, where we would try to deal with a man we could not understand. As far as we could tell, Daddy was just crazy, plain and simple.
I seldom talked to Daddy. Some mornings Mommy would stop my younger sister and me on our way to the kitchen and warn us to say good morning to him. How I hated having to do that. I am not a morning person and I would just as soon not speak to anyone until I decide for myself that I want to talk. But to keep down trouble, and to please my mom, I would mumble a grouchy “good morning” so he would be satisfied and go back into the living room and watch TV. My mom couldn’t peel potatoes to fry for breakfast till he left the kitchen. She kept the knives hidden from him in the back of the stove, and if he didn’t leave the kitchen she couldn’t retrieve a knife. We couldn’t afford cereal. If Mommy couldn’t fry potatoes, we ate only biscuits and gravy. Then, of course, Daddy would be mad and screaming for his potatoes, so it was in everybody’s best interest to say good morning to him.
Mommy and Daddy separated when I was fourteen. He visited us once a week, getting off the Greyhound bus every Friday morning. At first he came on Wednesday and stayed till Friday–until one of our neighbors saw him poking around in a ditch with a stick one Wednesday evening when Mommy, my sister, and I were gone to Bible study. The neighbor, knowing Daddy was mentally ill, complained to the supervisor of our housing project, and the supervisor told Mommy that Daddy could no longer spend the night with us.
It was late June, that Friday in 1967. Daddy seemed particularly interested in talking to me. He followed me around like a shadow all day, demanding my constant attention. I grew weary of him, as I had no desire to talk to him and nothing to say. Don’t get me wrong, I am a talker. When I want to be anyway. I can talk circles around most people when I’m in the mood. But I wasn’t in the mood.
“When does school start back, Tina?” he asked me.
What a stupid question, I thought. School wouldn’t start back till late August and why did he care anyway? But I muttered the answer.
“You gonna be in the second year of high school this year?”
“What’s your favorite subject?”
Mercy! I thought. Can’t he leave me alone?
It was 4 o’clock and I was trying to watch my favorite TV show, Dark Shadows. I loved science fiction, and the vampires, werewolves, and other strange creatures on the show intrigued me. I was in awe of Barnabas Collins, the well-dressed vampire who wreaked havoc in the New England town of Collinsport every day. The soap opera had captured my attention the first time I watched it. Barnabas, played by Jonathan Frid, an older actor who was both distinguished and intimidating, mesmerized teenage girls, and his power over me was almost hypnotic. I couldn’t go to bed at night until I made sure all my windows were locked. I looked in every corner of my room and under the bed before I flipped off the light and plunged under the blankets. I wanted to see for myself that my room was safe from vampires and any other nocturnal beasts that might desire my blood or other parts of me. Even after taking every precaution, I still pulled the covers up around my neck. I didn’t want to wake up with two small holes in the side of my neck.
I feared Barnabas, but I also loved him. I wrote his name on my school books as if he were my boyfriend. He was my hero and my greatest dread. I was sometimes petrified of being in the dark after watching him suck blood from unsuspecting, disposable characters who gave their lives for my thrills each day.
It seemed odd to me that I enjoyed Dark Shadows. I certainly didn’t enjoy the terror in my own life. Daddy threatened us often, especially before the separation. “If y’all knew what I was going to do tonight you wouldn’t go to sleep,” he sometimes warned. I had seen what he could do. I watched him throw my younger sister against the wall. I dodged bullets from his gun on numerous occasions. Many times I had come home from school to find my mother’s clothes ripped and see bruises or cigarette burns on her arms and legs. He wasn’t always like that. Sometimes he could be sweet and kind, but we never knew when the demon in him would manifest itself.
Yes, horror reigned supreme in my life. But perhaps that’s why Barnabas captivated me. Even though he possessed horrific and extraordinary power to destroy, deep down I knew the truth–Barnabas wasn’t real.
Daddy got up from the couch and ambled over and sat down on the edge of my chair. If he wants my seat I will let him have it, I thought. I stood up and moved to another chair. Daddy finally gave up and sought out my sister. A few minutes later he headed for the front porch to wait for the bus. Before he reached the door he paused and said, “I’ll see you Friday, Tina, if I’m not in the hospital.”
Now ordinarily that might have caused me to look up at him and ask what he meant. But I was engrossed in my horror soap opera and tired of Daddy for that week, so I ignored him.
I heard the bus coming. I heard it stop. I knew my daddy was walking across the ditch and up the bank and climbing into the bus. I always watched him do that. I don’t know why. Maybe I wanted to know that he was safely on the bus. Or maybe I simply needed to know that he was gone.
But that day I didn’t watch Daddy. I was irritated with him. I was enthralled by the pain and misery Barnabas was inflicting. I was tired. I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I didn’t watch as the bus drove away carrying my daddy back to Mare Creek and his little house in his brother’s back yard.
Monday morning around 10 o’clock the phone rang, and my mother answered it. “Oh no,” she said, and then hung up the phone. “Young’uns,” she said to my sister and me, “I’ve got something to tell you.”
I put my hands over my ears. “Don’t tell us!” I screamed. Somehow I knew what she was going to say and I didn’t want to hear it.
She ignored me. “They found your daddy in bed dead this morning,” she said, “all wadded up on his knees, clutching his chest. Drunk paint thinner last night, they said.”
I could discern no emotion in her voice. I saw no tears in her eyes. I didn’t know what to do. I might have tried to comfort her but she didn’t seem in need of comfort. My sister was oblivious, or at least she appeared so to me.
This was our life. It was how we always handled bad situations. Go to school every day and make believe that we were just like everybody else. Study hard. Get good grades. Gain respect because we were smart. Don’t let anybody know what went on inside the walls of our home. Pretend we lived a normal life and maybe nobody would ever suspect.
I turned and wandered out onto the front porch. I gazed across the ditch to Old U.S. 23, where Daddy had climbed into the bus three days earlier. Why hadn’t I watched him leave? Would he still be alive if I had? I walked out into the yard and rambled around aimlessly, not knowing whether to laugh or cry–whether to curse God or thank Him.
They put a blue suit on my daddy, though he had never worn a suit in his life. I looked at him once in the church building. He looked so different, so handsome, so young. So dead. He reminded me of Barnabas sleeping away the daylight hours in his coffin in the old house at Collinwood.
I slowly reached out and touched Daddy’s hand. It was cold and hard. I jerked back and my arm instantly grew numb from my shoulder to my fingertips. It scared me so badly that I was afraid to look at Daddy again. I preminisced the nightmares I knew were inevitable–my crazed daddy in a blue suit roaming in and out of dreams I could not control.
When it came time to bury Daddy I watched the men lower his casket into the ground. I watched them fling shovels of sweet-smelling earth down on top of him. I heard the man standing near the grave croak out “Time is filled with swift transition. Naught of earth unmoved can stand. Build your hopes on things eternal. Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”
The preacher’s wife was talking to me–trying, I knew, to bestow comfort. But I didn’t want her comfort. I wanted to watch my daddy go home.
from Appalachian Heritage magazine, spring 2001, p. 22