Knoxville, August 1969, the last time I would see my father alive. Negative and print damaged in the 1983 arson fire but salvaged from the rubble a year later. (Tri-X at 800 ASA; 35mm Summicron on M4 Leica.) Photo by Loren Bliss © 2023.
THOUGH MY CHILDHOOD taught me to cherish solitude for its self-healing opportunities, it was not until the extended isolation imposed by the Covid quarantine had I time enough to sort the trauma of growing up in a savagely dysfunctional family -- wounds that had remained the psychological equivalents of open sores because I never earned enough money to pay the extortionist fees demanded by the few genuinely competent healers.
Nor is my plight in any way unique: history makes it clear the One Percenters who now and forever own all federal, state and local USian governments will never allow healthcare to be acknowledged as a human right; thus for as long as the USian Empire survives, its healthcare will remain what it is today, a privilege of wealth, its adequacy (or lack thereof) determined exclusively by one’s income.
But the extended hours of uninterrupted contemplation granted by the quarantine ironically exempted me from that intentionally genocidal tyranny. It also granted me a truly priceless gift of compassionate understanding, a series of realizations that leaves me no moral choice but to write the following eulogy to my father, a man I have come to sadly realize I spent most of my life profoundly misunderstanding.
Indeed I owe that man, the late Donald Read Bliss (4 July 1910-21 February 1971), both a deeply regretful apology and an equally heartfelt debt of gratitude.
I owe him the apology for misconstruing as rejection the stiff-upper-lip remoteness symptomatic of his own emotional anguish.
And at the very least I owe him thanks times eight:
for rescuing me from my murder-minded mother’s attempts at post-partum abortion;
for teaching me the observational skills and patience required for successful fresh-water fishing;
for exemplifying and teaching the observant mindfulness by which I would discover how to become as one with my surroundings whether urban, rural or oceanic;
for giving me a .22 target rifle, a Remington 521-T Junior Special, on my ninth Christmas and coaching me to share his expert-class skill with rifles and handguns;
for protecting me from Southron viciousness by paying for parochial schooling, grades five thru eight, until I -- a typically lustful 14-year-old male -- foolishly opted to attend a public Southron high school merely because I believed the public-school girls would be easier to seduce;1
for giving me my first three cameras, a Kodak Brownie Reflex, a Polaroid and an Agfa Press Miniature on my twelfth, thirteenth and sixteenth birthdays respectively, thereby inspiring my near-lifelong commitment to journalism;
for being the one and only family member courageous enough to back me in the violent aftermath of a scandalous false arrest, about which more below;
and ultimately for being the most learned, most empowering teacher I have known in all my nearly 83 years.
Technically my father was the first-generation son of wealthy immigrants. Though my paternal ancestors arrived here in 1629 or 1630 and became prosperous farmers in what is now Connecticut, they were expelled as Royalists in 1789. My father’s father, my paternal grandfather, was the late Amos Read Bliss (1860-1922), a prominent Canadian engineer who migrated to the United States with his wife the late Wilena Marion Dewar (1889-1961) in 1900 or so. His patented automotive dynamo was a pivotal invention in the development of the modern automobile, and he subsequently headed the Ford Motor Company design team that invented the electric starter.
My father thus was raised in what to me is unimaginable privilege, its magnitude symbolized by his twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth birthday presents, respectively a horse, a 20-foot sailboat and an automobile. He received a classic British education in U.S. boarding schools and anticipated continuing his education at Montreal’s exclusive McGill University. His desire, he told me once, was to become a history professor.
By his own admission, he had no notion of the horrors of working-class existence; he was utterly unprepared for the emotional shock imposed by the Crash of 1929, which soon found him delivering 100-pound sacks of coal -- one bag per shoulder -- to fireplace-heated walk-ups in the working-class tenements of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Later he worked as a mechanic at a Standard Oil facility in Boston, next as a carpenter, then as a project foreman in residential construction on Long Island. Eventually his managerial skills would secure him high-ranking executive positions with American Houses Incorporated, a New-Deal-related pioneer in the development of prefabricated buildings, after which his ever-more-diverse talents and Mensa-caliber intelligence would earn him rapid promotions from the federal War Production Board.
I cannot doubt it was the painful lessons of the early Depression years that prompted his subsequent embrace of Marxism, to the extent the most memorable music of my childhood was the Red Army Chorus on an all-Cyrillic,78-RPM album that included the rousing “Song of the Machine-gun Carts,” a piece since omitted from the official Soviet repertoire but resurrected by You-Tube, the initial footage eerily approximate to what my childhood internal vision pictured each time my father played it on our Victrola. Likewise favored was Paul Robeson’s Songs of Free Men, and I vividly remember my father explaining, in terms readily understandable by my four-year-old self, the meaning of the album-cover’s semi-abstract symbolism. That same year, my introduction to classical music was the 1939 RCA Victor Red Seal recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Our family’s record collection also included the then-popular hit entitled “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’,” the flip-side of which was entitled “Love Is Gonna Be Rationed,” each often part of my early childhood’s background music.
But when the U.S. began its slow-boiled-frog transition to the generic nazism of neoliberalism by its adoption of innumerable German Nazi war criminals as advisors and comrades-in-arms even before V-E Day, its earliest victims were those purged as prematurely anti-fascist, a condemnation-without-trial that cost my father the equivalent of a federal deputy regional directorship in 1947, ever after condemning him and all of us in his immediate family to marginal near-poverty even as it irremediably shaped my own closely parallel political thinking.
MY FATHER WAS among the most relentlessly honest persons I have ever known. Bound by a personal code based on the Shakespearean premise of “to thine own self be true...thou canst not be false to any man” and an almost medieval sense of honor inherited from his parents, his outspokenness often earned him naught but misunderstanding, my own included, an affliction for which I realized during quarantined contemplation I share no small measure of guilt.
In 1950 permanently exiled to the vindictively theocratic white-supremacist South -- and despite his quickly earned status there as a successful mortgage banker -- my father, my stepmother, my four younger half-sisters and I were often socially rejected as “white trash,” firstly because he was already twice divorced; secondly because he was considered a 1950s version of an intruding “Yankee carpetbagger”; thirdly because of my own sensationalized false arrest and night in the old Knox County Jail during an attempted ruling-class purge to rid the University of Tennessee and Knoxville in general of persons involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement or at least peripheral to it and thus all deemed “troublemakers” and/or “outside agitators.”
It was this incident and my immediate, defiantly public embrace of civil rights activism that forever bridged the gap of mutual misunderstanding that had separated us since the familial crisis of 1945. Before 1945, we had been as fondly and comfortably close as any father and son might be.
One of my earliest memories is our mutual trip to view the wounded ocean-liner Normandie only hours before she capsized at the French Line pier in Manhattan on 9 February 1942; this was nearly two months before my second birthday, yet I vividly remember the flare of a welding torch within her starboard anchor-port, how she listed away from the dock and how the waterfront smelled there in the late-winter darkness.
Two years later, when we had access to rural areas in Virginia, my father often took me on long walks with him in the woods, carrying me piggy-back when I grew too tired to keep up. It was on one of those walks I fired my first live round, a shot from his .22 Harrington and Richardson target revolver, with him holding the piece as I aligned its sights, squeezed its trigger in accordance with his instructions and hit the tin can he had placed as a target against a red-clay bank maybe 10 yards distant.
Among the few remnants of my childhood that escaped the arson fire of 1983 is the unique valentine he air-mailed me in 1944, an artifact I have cherished and kept close-at-hand for as long as I can remember: “Dear Loren -- Inside is a picture of something that is almost as big and strong as my wish that you would be my Valentine!” Neatly printed and signed “Love Dad,” the “big and strong” is a photograph of a Norfolk and Western streamlined-steam passenger locomotive, to which my four-year-old hand later added crayon-curls of black smoke.
But after that dreadful 1945 Summer Solstice Eve, his fondness seemed to wane, so that by my teenage years, I had concluded he had forever distanced himself, a belief my hateful birthmother maliciously fostered at every opportunity. Meanwhile my father did nothing to alleviate my dismay: throughout my post-1945 boyhood and until about the time I turned 12, his most wounding pejoratives were to call me “goon boy” or to damn me for being “just like (my) mother” any time I displeased him.
I long suspected he feared I had inherited my birthmother’s penchant for sociopathic dishonesty and morally imbecilic, self-obsessed criminality. Also I felt he doubted my courage: he had boxed competitively in boarding school, but despite his boxing lessons, I loathed schoolyard fist-fighting and never became the triumphant brawler he said he was as a teen and young adult, never mind the fact he had given me enough skill to win about half of those encounters, teaching the bullies they would be hurt even if I lost the fight and thereby eventually making myself formidable enough to terminate the sadistic torment that characterized most of my public school years -- yet another reason I realize now I owe him a debt of gratitude.
But it was my defiant, unrelenting response to false arrest that finally bridged our always troubling distance and swept all his doubts away, and we began meeting for intensely personal conversations over after-work dinners, typically once every week at the S&W Cafeteria as long as I remained in Knoxville, at least once a month after I moved to Oak Ridge for a job at the daily newspaper there.
Nor will I ever forget how we outraged the homophobic Southrons with our spontaneously mutual hug at McGhee-Tyson air base when I arrived there for my final visit to Knoxville in 1969, the last time I would see him alive, when an assignment to write and photograph a report on the Southern Counterculture coincidentally corresponded with the wedding of a younger half-sister, Deborah, the firstborn of my father and stepmother.
It was during that visit I discovered we were each reading Robert Graves’ White Goddess. Nor was I surprised; at some point after my arrest -- I don’t remember exactly when, though I suspect it was during one of the aforementioned dinners -- my father had told me of an experience in the Maine woods during his 12th year that immediately reminded me of my own 12th-year encounter with otherness in the northern Michigan woods. He had been following a creek to its source, he said, when he discovered a place “where the springs sprayed water up out of the ground like fountains,” but he could never find it again, though he searched for it long afterward, and the experience itself haunted him all his life.
Years later, researching mythology for what would become the arson-destroyed “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer,” I discovered such fountains were anciently believed to be characteristic of the (extra-dimensional) realms of the goddess, much as summons by the mythical Birds of Rhiannon were described as eerily similar to my own haunting experience in Michigan.
Obviously -- though I regret we never acknowledged it to one another -- he was as fey as I; though “Bliss” is a decidedly English name, genetic testing has shown we are far more Celt than all else combined. Perhaps Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus,” here sung by the late Judy Collins, applied as much to him as it does to me.
Equally unforgettable in its tacit endorsement of my own Marxism is a long telephone conversation with him when I was back in Manhattan later in ‘69, a discussion of police brutality in which he thought-provokingly cited an Italian communist party statement reminding all Marxians that cops are themselves members of the working class, admittedly misguided but nevertheless yet viable candidates for recruitment.
However much my arrest and subsequent activism healed my relationship with my father, it was also devastatingly painful for my younger sisters, intensifying the Southron jeers of “white-trash” that had plagued them since infancy, gravely deepening the wounds that -- despite my aristocratically-born stepmother’s comforting responses -- my father’s boarding-school-limited parenting skills were never able to help sooth, much less heal. Though my conscience left me no alternative but civil rights activism, I nevertheless must share some measure of guilty responsibility for the fact it caused my sisters considerable grief from the ever-vindictive Southrons.
WHILE EVERY DIVORCE is the product of unresolvable conflict, my father’s preference for intelligent, articulate, adventurous lovers in an age when such women were routinely victimized by the misogynistic sadism of patriarchy and traumatized -- sometimes to madness -- invariably complicated his relationships, which often in conversations with me during his latter years he characterized as a quest for a woman “with whom (he) could share (his) naked soul.”
Paradoxically, like most men of his generation, he also believed that, once married, he owed his wife and whatever offspring they produced the same faithful and protective duty a ship’s captain owes his crew. From the perspective of those values -- another painful truth that did not become apparent to me until the therapeutic contemplation granted by the quarantine -- the potential for conflict with an independent-minded woman is undeniable.
Apart from a few mostly laudatory accounts of her fiercely proto-feminist independence, I know little of my father’s first wife, the late Barbara Barker Bliss, mother of my half-siblings the late Donald Jr., Jock and Joanne.
Of my father’s third and final wife, my stepmother, the late Virginia Hodges Bliss, formerly his executive secretary, a woman so skilled that in his absence she routinely supervised the
With my stepmother at the beach, Florida c. 1946. Photo by my father. ©Loren Bliss 2023.
war-effort factory of which he was manager, perhaps the most definitive statement I can make about her -- and thus indirectly about my father as well -- is that she was the absolute antithesis of the malicious stepmother we all know from children's tales and folklore. Indeed she was infinitely more motherly, loving and intellectually encouraging to me in the span of our first few months together than my birthmother had been during the first five and a quarter years of my existence, a powerful post-traumatic healing for which I remain more grateful than words can express. And her supportive fondness did not falter until she was tragically undone decades later by Huntington's Chorea, an unspeakably dreadful disease that turned her latter years into a nightmarish existence I would not wish on any living being.
In stark contrast to my genuinely protective stepmother, my birthmother was always a fearsome creature. The late Marion Woodruff Fuller Bliss, she was artistically talented, brilliant, and in 1933 among Michigan State’s first three female graduates in urban planning and landscape architecture. But even in my infancy she had become, to me, what I now recognize as the living embodiment of abuse.
Her hatred became undeniable -- even to my toddler self -- after a Brooklyn butcher-shop incident midway in my second year.
Though I was a late talker -- I did not begin to speak until nearly the end of my first year -- but when at last I began to talk, it was almost always in complete, grammatically correct sentences, or so I’ve been told. If I did not know the proper name for something, I labeled it in accordance with its function; hence the exhaust pipe of my father’s black 1940 Ford became the “smoker”; likewise the beaks of the chickens New Yorkers raised in their rooftop Victory Gardens became their “peckers.”
In that era, shopping for meat and vegetables in the City was divided, as in Europe, between butcher shops and greengrocers. My birthmother, with me toddling along, had taken our monthly quota of ration stamps and gone to the butcher to purchase a chicken. My mother pointed to a beheaded, footless, plucked but otherwise intact chicken displayed in the shop’s refrigerated, glass-and-white-enamel counter-top; the butcher held the bird aloft for her approval, and my always-inquisitive self quietly asked “mother, where’s its pecker?”
She ignored me. Assuming she had not heard me over the background noise of conversations, elevated trains and street traffic, I repeated my question at slightly more volume.
Again she ignored me; other customers within hearing grinned and chuckled.
The third time -- still believing she had not heard me above the din -- I shouted: “MOTHER, WHERE’S IT’S PECKER.”
Now all the shop’s customers roared with laughter. Abandoning the chicken, my mother yanked me painfully by my right arm, fled the store, smacked me several times around my head and shoulders and promised much harsher punishment when my father returned from his Manhattan office that evening.
But when she told him the story and demanded he spank me, he not only refused to do so, but laughed harder and longer than I had ever before known him to laugh. Even decades later he could not tell that story without laughing.
As I would learn as a young adult, he also ridiculed her for being morbidly terrified of the judgment of strangers -- a characteristic that, as we shall see, she no doubt inherited from her parents.
A deliberate wounding she subsequently inflicted on both of us exemplifies the magnitude of her vengeful hatred. Temporarily abandoning me in my crib in our Queens apartment, she stormed into an American Houses executive meeting in the upper chambers of Manhattan’s General Electric Building, scattering official papers, hurling a drinking-water-filled pitcher against a wall, ruining with its splatter many pen-and-ink documents as she shrieked knowingly false accusations my father was having an affair with his then-secretary, the wife of an Army colonel not yet dispatched overseas.
(In truth his extra-long, sometimes-16-hour workdays were mandated by the war effort, as the entire firm was working overtime on emergency construction of military barracks throughout the nation.)
By then my father was the corporation’s acting vice-president for operations, and one of the purposes of the disrupted meeting had been officially confirming his appointment as such; hence my mother’s explosive tantrum was maliciously timed to inflict maximum ruin, as indeed it did: it convinced my father’s bosses his choice of wives proved him unfit for top-level executive positions, got him demoted to manager of a building-fabrication plant in Jacksonville, Florida, and got us all exiled to the former Confederacy, literally within a matter of days.
Not long after that I had my first encounter with the murderous hatred the Southrons are -- to this day (and as re-legitimized by Donald Trump) -- taught from childhood to harbor against anyone from the North. We lived in the exclusive and therefore gated St. Johns-River-waterfront Catherine’s Court apartment complex; playing in the sandbox of its locked playground, I was assaulted by a trio of older Southron children who decided I “talked funny” and took my obvious Northeastern accent as an excuse to murder me by burying my head in the sand; I was three; they were six and seven.
Though I fought back with all my strength, they were much bigger and stronger; they quickly overcame me, held me upside-down, dug the requisite-sized hole in the sand and buried my head in it. I survived only because Mary Alice Shotwell, a five-year-old northern-born apartment-complex neighbor with whom I’d become friends, defended me by attacking my assailants with a child-sized garden hoe and sent them fleeing homeward, bleeding and crying for their mothers. As I recall, her father was a U.S. Navy officer; in any case, he was one of my father’s close colleagues in the war effort.
Sometime in the spring of 1944, my father was transferred out of Jacksonville to run an even smaller American Houses plant in Roanoke, Virginia – which I realize now was another demotion, additional corporate retribution for the violent tantrum my birthmother had thrown in the Manhattan board room.
I still remember a part of the drive northward; sitting in the back seat of our black 1940 Ford, watching out the windows as the land gradually changed from Floridian flatness to rolling Appalachian foothills, I asked if we were going to a place with mountains. My father answered that indeed we were and complimented me on my observational skill and reasoning ability – even as my birthmother belittled me for daring ask such a question.
That autumn -- obviously my father was still trying to save their marriage -- we went on vacation with our new dog, a trained English Setter named Cocoa, to my maternal grandparents’ cottage on the South Branch of the Au Sable River in Northern (Lower) Michigan for a week of late-season small-game hunting with my maternal relatives.
At age four, I was of course required to remain indoors with the women, but I remember vividly the partridge and rabbits piled nightly on the front porch floor before they were gutted, skinned or plucked and cooked, and the deliciousness of the wild meat on which we feasted set my taste-buds on a woodland path I would follow until old-age disability ended that aspect of my journey.
I also remember crying bitterly at our departure for Roanoke -- grief I assume now was prompted by my realization the temporary charade of dispensation from my birthmother’s malice that had accompanied our vacation was itself ending, as indeed it was -- permanently.
NOT LONG AFTERWARD, my birthmother literally hurled me across our Roanoke kitchen, slammed me into the far wall, repeatedly slapped me with both hands and, when my father intervened, shrieked I had accused her of using a “feces” brush to baste a fish she was cooking in the oven; watching her preparations, I had merely asked her if she was going to baste the fish, using the “fishy brush” -- my term -- she had previously stated was only for that purpose.
Early in 1945, attending a private kindergarten in which I now realize my father had enrolled me as a workday protection against my birthmother’s escalating violence, I brought home a block-printing project that required slicing a raw potato in half, drawing designs on the open ends, cutting out enough material to raise the designs in bas-relief, dipping it in finger paint and transferring the design to a sheet of paper. Visually skilled beyond my years, in my mind’s eye I saw silhouettes of dogs, though for some reason I no longer remember, I chose blue as the color of the finger paint.
My birthmother provided me everything I needed including water-color paper, a large raw potato cut in halves, a pencil to draw the silhouettes on the potato-ends, a small paring knife to turn the silhouettes into printing surfaces and ample work-space covered with newspapers on our breakfast nook’s polished oak floor.
I sat down on the papers, picked up a potato-half and began drawing a childish canine figure on its bare end.
Nearly 78 years after the fact, it still hurts me to remember what happened next: my mother suddenly damned me as a hopelessly clumsy oaf who had wasted a rationed potato, snatched the potato out of my hand, flung it somewhere I don’t remember, dragged me off the newspapers, slapped me several times, kicked the newspapers into a wad, spilled the blue finger paint onto the now-unprotected floor and -- when my father returned from his day’s work -- blamed me for the resultant mess.
The kindergarten meanwhile had decided to celebrate 1945’s May Day in a Roanoke park with a children’s performance of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night’s Dream; I was chosen to be Puck, and the teachers asked my mother to make me an appropriate costume. She did, sewing from chocolate-brown cotton cloth a scalloped-bottom knee-length dress, tights and tasseled cap I immediately hated because it made me look like a girl. My father agreed with me, but my mother insisted I wear it.
I think it might have been during one of their arguments about my costume she hammered her fist onto our mahogany coffee table with such force the blow shattered its quarter-inch-thick glass top.
Ultimately she prevailed; I vaguely remember my father comforting me, assuring me I would only have to wear the despised costume for a couple of hours, and that by so doing I would minimize my mother’s ever-more-frequent outbursts of terrifyingly hateful rage.
Nevertheless, by this time, her animosity had become so obvious, my father was taking me to work with him whenever he could, often leaving me in the comfortingly protective care of my future stepmother.
Just after New Year’s Day of 1945, my birthmother tried to poison us both with spoiled vegetables she herself would not eat, severely sickening each of us for a half-dozen days, our bedridden respites periodically interrupted by vomiting and diarrhea.
Then, on the eerily frigid Summer Solstice Eve of 1945 -- at 32º Fahrenheit the coldest 21-22 June night ever recorded in Roanoke, Virginia -- she wrapped herself in her fur coat, pocketed a paring knife and sought to carry my half-naked, summer-pajama-clad self from our residence in the last house at the end of the paved portion of Rosiland Avenue to the top of Mill Mountain, there “to meet god.’’ (The house still stands, looking nearly exactly as it did then, albeit renumbered 2927 after Rosiland Avenue's pavement was extended much further to accommodate additional dwellings.)
But my father arrived home unexpectedly early due to a canceled meeting, and when he intervened, my birthmother assaulted us both, her frenzy so hatefully violent it took all my father’s military-trained skill to disarm her and all his strength to restrain her. My mind’s eye still sees them wrestling on the living room floor, my father atop a writhing, hissing, snarling, drooling caricature of a human female, a shape-shifting creature turned suddenly reptilian and unspeakably terrifying, a lethally squirming predator who now arched her neck in hideously serpentine replications of venomous strikes, her gaping mouth slinging great gouts of frothy saliva as she repeatedly lunged to bite my father's face; failing that she gnawed and snapped at his dangling green tie, slobbering it dark as she snagged it with her teeth, spasmodically twitching to yank it tight enough to strangle him. But even as my father strained to hold her down, he somehow managed to lean back just far enough to deny her the fatal leverage she relentlessly sought.
Their epic battle seemed to last forever, and I witnessed every dreadful minute of it; effectively paralyzed by fear, I huddled in the far corner of our living-room sofa; in the end it required six burly cops to strap my birthmother to a litter for transport to jail. She was imprisoned for a week, jailed until her mother, my maternal grandmother, came by train to fetch her home to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Meanwhile I had shrunk into a psychological numbness that endured for years afterward; my recollections of some of the conversations I had with my father in 1969 leaves me with the sorrowful suspicion he was so terribly hurt by the magnitude of betrayal, malicious deception and vindictive cunning implicit in my birthmother's explosive revelation of her hitherto-concealed but ever-afterward undeniably bottomless hatred of the male gender, his wounds may never have fully healed.
Also memorably, my grandmother greeted me not with affection but with the painfully chilly you-are-now-nothing-but-an-unwelcome-reminder-of-a-bad-time rejection that would ever-after define my relationship with all of my maternal kin save my birthmother’s older sister, my Aunt Alecia.
I YET HARBOR mixed emotions about the fact my father felt it was his gentlemanly obligation not to have my birthmother charged with attempted murder.
Nor have I words adequate to describe the relief I felt when my father and stepmother each promised I would never have to see her again -- a promise that, through no fault of their own, would be broken in only two years.
At home in Michigan with her parents, my birthmother continued violently expressing her hatefulness, first against her father, later against a niece whom my birthmother twice hurled down flights of stars for daring to defy her irrational demands. That niece was my Aunt Alecia’s daughter Pamela -- Alecia was herself a divorcee -- and in 1948, as my courageously protective aunt, she would become another of my genuine saviors.2
Meanwhile, my maternal grandparents -- paralyzed by their craven fear the scandal of an institutionalized daughter would hurt their more-than-adequate income -- refused to act against my increasingly violent mother until my aunt threatened public disclosure via the police and the criminal court. Thus my birthmother was secretly institutionalized for a year in a posh private asylum.
But her cowardly parents remained so frightened by the prospect of socioeconomic odium, they defied the stern advice of her psychiatrists, who wanted her confined for life as a dangerous psychotic. Her father employed his influence and considerable wealth to secure her release, conceal her history of malevolent behavior, suppress the record of her arrest in Roanoke, thereby facilitate a divorce-court decree granting her summer custody of me and -- horror of horrors -- enable her to resume the career as a Registered Nurse her parents had bought for her after she failed to achieve employment in her chosen field.
I will always wonder how many persons she might have murdered, especially given how many times she was fired during her subsequent years as an RN.
Citing my divorce-court-mandated interrogation by a Virginia state social-worker as proof -- a still-memorable encounter with a woman whose infinite coldness was utterly terrifying to my already traumatized five-year-old-self -- my birthmother sought to convince me my father had tried to abandon me in an orphanage: a claim I am sad to admit I believed for many years was true.
Her last act of vengeance toward us both was to deny me the funds to attend my father’s funeral -- this after she had again broken an oft-repeated but never fulfilled promise to help me pay my college expenses. Two days before my father’s death, I had left myself temporarily penniless by paying out-of-pocket all my spring quarter 1971 tuition and fees at Western Washington State College. Hence, citing her broken promise, I begged her for the money to attend the funeral.
Her response? “If god wants you to go, he’ll provide.”
She was particularly hateful to any woman with whom I was close. In 1961 she physically attacked my first wife, slapping Carolyn's face and yanking her waist-length hair until I forcefully intervened to stop her unprovoked assault. In 1975 -- this after she surreptitiously obtained the names of several of my friends and colleagues and viciously harassed them by phone to compel my then-fiance Ann and me to cancel our long-planned vacation trip to New York City and instead detour to Grand Rapids -- she attempted to poison us both with spoiled chicken retrieved from garbage.
In the '61 and '75 incidents we were protected from her sadistic malevolence only by the intervention of my influential older half-brother Jock. The ‘75 incident also ended my final quest for matrimony; having met my birthmonster, the woman I’d contentedly lived with for nearly two years and planned to marry understandably decided she wanted nothing more to do with me or my family.
My birthmother’s final institutionalization occurred in the mid-1980s -- this after she was repeatedly caught hiding naked in the clothes dryers of the Grand Rapids senior-housing complex where she had rented her last apartment. Reportedly, she claimed her nakedness was necessary to enable her to conceal herself from “the Devil’s soul-catchers,” whom she believed were hunting her because she had failed to fulfill her end of a satanic pact.
So informed, I could not but wonder if herein lay the explanation for her attempt to murder me in 1945. While I most assuredly do not believe in the Devil, I am painfully aware of the global presence of absolute evil, which seems ever more the dominant force in today’s apocalypse-threatened world.
Thus I cannot escape the likelihood my birthmother believed her pregnancy was facilitated by satanic favor; that she intended its payment to be my own sacrificial death atop Roanoke’s Mill Mountain; that she believed her family’s wealth and influence would immunize her to punishment just as it had protected her from prosecution for innumerable lesser crimes (mostly theft, forgery and shoplifting); and that here was the most likely explanation both for the berserker-caliber frenzy with which she assaulted my father when he intervened – a rage so violently enormous it required, as I said, six Roanoke cops to subdue her for the trip to jail – and for her later abject terror of the supposed “soul-catchers.”
Nevertheless -- and despite the fact I am decidedly agnostic about all such matters -- the eerily unprecedented temperature-drop of that night seems to add to the associated events an eldritch element I cannot deny.
Be that as it may, when my birthmother died on 8 June 1995, I felt as if a great burden had been lifted from my life, indeed as if I had at long last been liberated from some hitherto-inescapable curse.
Not long afterward it came to me the ultimate definition of our relationship lay in the fact my birthmother never once told me she loved me. Instead she spoke of maternal love only in the third person, “your mother loves you,” as if she were speaking of some entirely different person, someone far removed from either of our lives.
The best evidence indicates my birthmother was a maliciously sadistic sociopath who -- beneath a carefully maintained veneer of upper-bourgeois heterosexual sociability -- hated all men, deliberately got pregnant to ensnare my father in a marriage she hoped would provide her with a cover to pursue her subsequently revealed lesbianism, and probably despised me from the moment she discovered she had borne a male infant.
I now of course know the violent denouement of that marriage -- for which as a child despised by his birthmother I characteristically blamed myself for entirely too many years -- was inevitable.
THOUGH MY BIRTHMOTHER had learned to weaponize the irrational expressions of her madness -- switching them on only when she felt the need to employ them as psychological truncheons to enforce her will, otherwise keeping them switched off and carefully maintaining a deliberately deceptive facade of intelligent-woman normalcy -- even at age 83 I remain amazed by the extent to which she maliciously conned both my father and his mother, the feisty, independent-minded grandmother my siblings and I knew as Nana. She likewise conned my second wife Adrienne, whom she never met in person and with whom geography insured she communicated only by telephone and mail.
I am also astounded by the forgiveness my father displayed toward my birthmother’s ever-intensifying violence and hatefulness. When I finally dared ask him why -- this in 1969 during the last face-to-face conversation we would ever have -- he replied that honor and matrimonial vows demanded no less.
That is the sort of man he was: someone a trusted friend, the late Conrad Payne, memorably described to my 23-year-old self -- then fresh-out-of-jail and still profoundly skeptical of my father’s regard for me -- as “probably the best friend (I’ll) ever have.” Conrad and his pregnant wife Mary had been among those arrested, and in the aftermath had themselves become acquainted with my father. And I now know Conrad was absolutely correct in his judgment: my father was indeed the best friend -- that is, the most understanding and accepting friend -- I ever had.
Flawed? Of course he was -- as are all of us raised under the ecogenocidal moral imbecility of patriarchy and its incipiently nazi capitalist derivatives. Sometimes hurtful toward those to whom he should have been most protective? Unquestionably.
But the truth is I loved him nevertheless, and I no longer question his love for me: else why would he have bid me farewell by a fleeting appearance at the foot of my bed as he lay dying three thousand miles away -- his spectral presence actually seen more clearly by the woman of Irish descent who was my lover at the time, and as well by my dog, who howled at his passing. Thus, until I am no more, and no doubt longer if there be afterlife, I shall sorely miss the steadily deepening bonds of friendship and mutual understanding that characterized our post-1963 relationship.
1Given the wretched educational quality, white-supremacist bias and often-violent bullying that characterized that era’s Southron public schools, my decision to abandon the vastly superior quality of parochial education is one I will always deeply regret.
2I attended first and second grade at Jacksonville’s Norwood Elementary School, where reading was taught by the word-recognition method, and where I was socially promoted despite my seeming inability either to read or do basic arithmetic. But my Aunt Alecia -- by then a working artist with a growing reputation throughout the Middle West -- recognized my problem as dyslexia and in 1948 traded a piece of sculpture to a friend to buy me six weeks of summertime tutoring in phonics. The result was literally life-changing; by mid-third grade, I routinely tested as reading at a 12th-grade level. In other words, Alecia’s beneficence enabled my life as a journalist and lifelong scholar, for which I had the good sense to make a point of thanking her profusely many times in the late 1980s. Alecia DuRand (1908-1993) after her second marriage, she was the first woman in the U.S. to head a collegiate fine-arts department, and there is a two-year art scholarship in her name at the school that so employed her, Grand Rapids Community College.
LB/7 November 2022-25 March 2023; with minor revisions for clarity 10 August 2023.