Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I Recognized His Smile Right Away

1977 was a rough year for me. Many things in my life were turned completely upside down. The world I had inhabited for the previous 18 years turned out to be a sham; and, to be honest, I didn't handle it very well.

Earlier, in the summer of 1976, I was working for Opryland USA. I have shared, previously, that I was among a very lucky group of 16-18 year olds who were hired by the most unique theme park in the USA.

When school started, my senior year was divided into 25% school, 25% band (rifle team) and 50% work. My home life which had always been tumultuous suddenly became a minefield. My parents' (my mother and my adopted father) relationship, which had always balanced on a razor's edge, began to fall completely apart. The happenings are not really mine to share, but as someone who survived it I feel I do have a right to share how it affected me.

I had always known that my 'daddy' was not my REAL father. He and my mother married when I was only 6 months old. Daddy adopted me when I was in the 2nd grade and I took his last name. If ever it even occurred to me to ask about my REAL father, I was told that it was my mother's first husband. Case closed...

During the fall of 1976 it seemed that nearly every night brought a new argument. Anything could set him off. These arguments started with loud screaming, verbal abuse, escalating into violence. Dad would scream and mom or I would try to defend ourselves. He'd push mom, she'd bounce of the refrigerator. He'd come at me and I'd try to cover myself. Mom would try to protect me from Daddy's rages that I could never fully understand. If I tried to protect Mom he'd get even more enraged. They'd throw things and scream so loud that a neighbor-friend of the family actually tried to intervene to quieten them. When I was 11, I was diagnosed with an ulcer. Supper-time at my house was a tense situation..I could barely eat for fear of dropping my fork or spilling my milk. I learned to stay in my room with the door closed in an attempt to keep Daddy from going off. Of course, a couple of hours after these explosions Daddy would call me to him (taking me on his lap when I was younger). He'd be crying..."Daddy's sorry, you love Daddy don't you? Daddy loves you."

It seemed I couldn't do anything right. I began to have anxiety attacks in health class when we'd study First Aid. The pseudo-catastrophe-filled films they would show in class..people laying around bleeding and injured were more than my sensitive, over-stressed psyche could take. I would start to arms and hands to tingle, my lips to feel like they were being drawn together and the feeling to flee the room was overwhelming. The Dr. prescribed valium but I was terrified of taking pills. Yes, it was the late 70's and I was a teenager, but I did not do any drugs. I had always preferred being the one in control, the designated driver, the clear thinker in my group of friends.

I missed a lot of classes that came after 1st period (eg. biology, geometry, shorthand) because I would end up being sent home by the school nurse. My body and mind were freaking out because of the war at home. I wasn't built for that shit.

One day, after a particularly harsh confrontation with Daddy I screamed "I'm going to go find my REAL Daddy, because I KNOW he loves me!" Keep in mind that I didn't even have a picture of the man, but no matter what, I figured HE had to be better than this.

My mother, having the foresight that our life there was coming to an end and we'd be going out on our own, dropped the bombshell that blew my teens into oblivion and pushed me into an emotional purgatory..neither child or adult..was I even who I thought I was? Apparently my mother had met a man, a radio DJ, in the late 50's when all those sentimental love songs filled the airwaves..."is that your little girl? She looks a lot like me". My mom and the DJ had fallen in love and Mom got pregnant. Mom showed a picture to me. I had seen it before but never suspected the significance of it. It was me as an infant, laying on a white cotton bead spread, 45's laid around me in a circle. Those records were THEIR songs. The DJ, had a son and twin daughters from his 1st marriage as well. I was not only the child of a man I never knew existed but I also have siblings! As an only child I was often lonely and had dreamed of an older brother.
Selfishly, I supposed, I wished for someone to turn to when things got scary, a witness to the insanity of my life, and someone to watch over me.

Unfortunately, Mom and the DJ fell apart soon after my birth. Mom, finding herself in a desperate situation, divorced, new baby, married the man I call Daddy. This other man, the DJ, had a son and twin daughters from his 1st marriage as well. To find out that I was not only the child of a man I had never known existed until this confusing night in the fall of 1976 but I also have siblings!

Meanwhile, being a member of the high school rifle corp, I marched my heart out! I loved twirling my rifle, throwing it into the air, performing with determination. The honor of traveling with our winning football team, marching at half-time, holding hands with my boyfriend (a trumpet player) as we sat on the bleachers cheering our team to victory, was a Godsend! I threw myself into practice, twirling and tossing that rifle for hours. I believe it helped me to focus on something completely outside of the turmoil that had become my family life.

Later in that school year, I met my biological father for the only time. We chatted across a restaurant mother sitting beside me for support. He promised to take me to visit his family, to introduce me to my half-brother and sisters, to make me a part of his life..he promised many things.

As the football season came to an end so did the romance with my trumpet player but he always held a special place in my heart. He had helped me through a tumultuous time in my life and he NEVER KNEW anything was going on. I presented a happy, fun-loving, "let's go roll (t.p.) someones house after the football game" facade. I was very adept at putting on a mask, even at that tender age.

On March 11, 1977 I turned 18 and began my last summer at Opryland USA. On August 16, 1977 I worked my first day of my first full-time job..that was the day The King, Elvis Presley died.

My parents divorced about that time. The end of their marriage was marked by a huge bruise on my thigh from being stomped as I slid to the floor, deflecting the last of the physical blows 'Daddy' would ever land on me. I was limping and bruised as my mother and I signed the lease on an apartment.

On the morning of my birthday, March 11, 1978 as my mother and I were driving to work we tuned into the DJ's radio station. "Hi you beautiful ladies out there on your way to work..Happy Birthday Baby, Daddy loves's a song just for you." As he played the song I had told him was my favorite at that time, Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night"...I dreamed of what my future might hold. Hopes and dreams that would never be realized. Left to melt with the snow banks on the sides of the road. I never heard from him again.

Both 'daddies' have passed on. I sometimes wonder if they are sitting in lounge chairs together in my idea of Heaven. Are they watching me? Did I finally make them proud and happy?

You might be wondering what brought up these memories. Well, I found my trumpet player on Facebook and had a wonderful lunch with him today...31 years since the last time we had seen each other. I recognized his SMILE right away. The conversation was fun as we recounted memories...the fun we had had together as teenagers. As we brought up the names of our school friends we compared notes on who we had kept up with. When we talked about those who have passed we became quiet, reflecting on the last memory we had of each of them. We each talked about our lives in the last three decades..excitedly trying to tell EVERYTHING..but hitting the highlights and some low ones...things we had happily experienced and a few things we were lucky to live through ourselves.

Even though the things I have written about today are not necessarily happy ones..words like "tragic" and "disappointing" mostly fit the bill. The fact that I did live through it and that there is the possibility that I may find my siblings before this dance of life comes to an end are enough to get me out of bed in the morning.

The ageless feeling of connecting with an old friend and the possibility of seeing him again and even MORE of our friends has left me with a smile that I just can't wipe off my face. How cool is that?