MY FATHER’S LEGACY
a companion memoir to yesterday's story post
by Dianne Moritz
Mother always said she married my father because he was gorgeous. He was. The photograph, now framed and hanging on my staircase wall, confirms it. Still, a photo shows only a shallow truth. The back story isn’t always as pretty; it’s complicated, murky, sometimes ugly.
My mother, Norma Jean Pittenger, met my father, DeVoe (Joe) Harriott, in the spring of 1944 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where they were both enrolled.
“Joe was the best-looking guy on campus,” my mother said. She had seen him around, usually with coeds flocking near like preening pigeons, and admired him from afar. One fateful day, Joe staggered into economics class, tardy and drunk. The professor was not amused. Mother was. Joe asked her to go for coffee that afternoon. She accepted.
“Surely there were other things you appreciated about Joe,” I often remarked.
“Oh, he was charming, stylish, intelligent, witty, tall, and fun,” Mother answered, “but, God, he was handsome.”
Mother, with her smooth brown skin, long ebony hair, and perfect Pepsodent smile, got the guy. A few months later, after a night of bourbon and 7-Ups, they were married. Joe pulled Norma into his car and drove straight through Iowa to Kansas. They tied the knot at a justice of the peace off the highway, two friends along for the ride, as witnesses.
Joe had been married before. Mother had known that he had fathered a couple of kids (he claimed one daughter), but she didn’t care. She was 20 and in love. Soon after the elopement, Joe transferred to the University of Minnesota. He and Mother moved to Minneapolis and set up household in the bleak Quonset hut village for married students.
Minnesota winters are brutal and long. I was conceived in November 1945. Perhaps coincidentally, Joe took to carousing like an old tomcat right about then.
“Let’s see . . . I’ve got my ID. Got some money. Got some rubbers,” he would say, patting his right hip pocket as he bolted out the door. Mother fumed, and I’ve heard this tale more times than I care to remember.
Mother, miserable, powerless, wrote letters to Gramma, begging her to take the train from Des Moines to visit.
“Please don’t have any more babies,” Gramma warned, but Mother was already pregnant with my sister, Renee.
Years later, eons after Joe died an alcoholic’s death, cirrhosis of the liver, in a sleazy downtown Minneapolis hotel, Mother, full of cocktails, leaned across the kitchen table and jabbed her finger in my chest.
“I know why you’re so f***ed up!” she slurred. “I always left you home alone when I went to the laundromat.”
“Wonderful, ” I said, “you’d be charged with child abuse for that today.”
“You don’t have kids. You can’t understand,” she retorted.
Seething with anger, I should have stormed from the room. I didn’t. I longed to hear more. Her stories were like misplaced pieces from the jigsaw puzzle of my life.
I don’t remember my father; I have no memories of him whatsoever. I know of him only through Mother’s repeated narratives and from what I conjure up in my imagination.
As a teenager, I came across a poem Joe had written in school, scrawled in pencil on a scrap of notebook paper, buried beneath some snapshots. I gleaned nothing from it. In the pictures, Joe looks pleasant. He’s grinning and cuddling his daughters. In one, I’m sitting on his lap; in another, Renee is laughing down at him as he holds her high in the air, his back to the camera.
Mother claimed Joe was out boozing the night I was born. He showed up at the hospital the next morning, hung over. He took one look at me and said, “She’s scrawny, isn’t she?”
“You’re the spitting image of Joe,” Mother always said. “And you absolutely adored him. You’d stand at the window in the late afternoon and wait for Joe to come home. When you saw him outside, you’d shout, ‘Here comes my daddy now!’”
Picturing this scene, I feel a great melancholy wash over me; I quickly close the curtains. I’m unable to gaze into the past for too long without wondering what might have been.
The inevitable end to this tale is actual fact. My mother caught my father with another woman. One rash night, while a neighbor watched us girls, Mother hopped on a bus, traveled downtown to Joe’s favorite hangout, didn’t find him, stalked to a nearby hotel, rode the elevator to “Joe’s door,” and tried to break it down with a fist and a curse. In the retelling, Joe opened that door and a marriage ended, just like in a B movie.
I don’t want to know the grimy details of that encounter and, from there, Mother’s accounts turned vague anyway.
Joe graduated from college soon after that, which necessitated our move from married-student housing. He packed us off to Des Moines while he hunted for a place to live. We never saw him again.
Mother filed for divorce, found a job, and we stayed with Gram until Mother remarried.
“Didn’t you consider leaving when you knew Joe was cheating?” I asked my mother a thousand times. “And didn’t you ever think about planning ahead?”
Mother had no answers.
My father, Joe Harriott, was, at best, an attractive, troubled man; at worst, a selfish, colossal jerk. Countless clues pointed to his instability, but my mother chose to ignore them.
I want to hate my father. I want to hate my mother.
As time passes and memory blurs, I’ve come to accept these people, my parents. They’re human, flawed and fumbling like the rest of us, after all.
For most of my life, I feigned indifference to my father. While my sister tried desperately to make a connection with “Daddy,” through letters, cards, and telephone calls (I have no idea how she got his address or phone number), I didn’t. Years later, I learned that I had frequently passed by the very spot where Joe spent his final months while I, full of hope and promise, walked to my first career job at Dayton’s Department Store in Minneapolis in 1968. I find this both ironic and depressing.
My glamorous, intelligent, screwed-up father died at 50 in a fleabag hotel room, sick and alone, having never reconciled with his two (or four?) daughters. What a waste. What a tragic, unfathomable waste.
Sometimes I indulge in a reverie . . . .
I envision a reunion with Joe. I look him in the eye and ask, “Why? Why did you leave us?” But Joe has no answers, either.
The trouble with fantasy is that it distorts the truth. When I think of my father, I always see a beautiful, elegant man, a man ambered in time. I see that movie-star handsome guy in my dated photograph.
Soon . . . reality creeps in . . . as a door creaks open . . . I’m face to face with a bloated, wrinkled, washed-out loser. The drinking life is a hard life; it destroys beauty, glamour, potential, relationships . . . everything.
Still, my mother was wrong — I do understand some things. I understand want. I understand need. I understand loss. This is my father’s legacy.
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Dianne Moritz writes poetry and children’s books from her home in Southampton, NY. Her book, 1, 2, 3 BY THE SEA, was on Bank Street College’s “best book list of 2014.” Adult pieces have appeared The Drabble, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Haikuniverse, The Haiku Foundation, 101 Words, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, and others. She is a frequent contributor to Highlights Magazines for kids.