ONCE, I SAW THE SON OF A SERIAL KILLER interviewed in a British documentary. He’d grown up unaware of how many people his father murdered, clueless about all the bodies buried beneath the yard he played in.
When the interviewer expressed shock at one of the son’s more surprising statements–that even now, even knowing everything the man had done, he still loved his father–the son could only respond, “But he’s my father.”
How do we explain the phenomenon of love when it transcends, in this way, logic and choice? When it can get mixed up with the familiarity, loyalty, and dependence that enmesh child and parent?
It’s admittedly an extreme example, but it helps me take the next step in untangling my own family story, to come to a deeper understanding of how what happened could happen. And I remain convinced that my father, a man I believe made me a miracle child, and the broken hero I wrote of in an earlier post, is a key to unlocking this mystery.
While his own violence could never be compared to that described above, I must examine my loyalty to him. In light of his actions, am I letting him off too easily? Just this past week, a question from a relative–a woman I haven’t seen since we were both children–gave me reason to take a second look.
She was too young when we fled Ohio to have any memory of us, and in renewing our connection after so many years she asked me to tell her about my dad. As I wrote back I realized that my original post about him didn’t adequately capture how he touched me. Now, knowing what I do about how he lived his own life, I’ve decided he deserves so much more.
It’s true, James Frank Starr was a bit of an enigma.
For one thing, he seemed an unfailing anchor, though I feared that if I drifted too far he might become unstuck. For another thing he was, true to his generation, the strong, silent type, while behind closed doors he would show me that men do indeed cry.
And while my life felt, to me, safe and mundane enough that I could indulge in the same trivial concerns of most kids my age, I later determined this was because he sacrificed himself over and over again to beat back threats lurking just outside the door.
I am led then to conclude he was not only an enigma but also a sort of modern-day Job, suffering in silence.
(Or a modern-day Lot. After all, it was my dad’s timely decision, when American steel began its decline, to leave the industrial northeast, to flee the literal fire and brimstone of the steel mill for the new promise of Texas. And when my mother turned and went back, she became his Ado. A pillar of salt. Dead to him.)
All by himself our first year in Dallas, the one following my mother’s return to Ohio, he loved and nurtured my sister and me, a single parent in this strange new city at a time when “single parent” hadn’t yet become a social phenomenon. Then wondering I’m sure how long he could continue, he married my stepmother, the second worst thing that ever happened to me.
June was, at first, every adolescent’s favorite kind of legal guardian. Irreverent, sarcastic, and funny, she acted as if, like my sister and me, she was herself a helpless victim of this unjust caste system.
In what sounded like smokey, beer-induced Phyllis Diller rants, she would rail against every form of convention and authority, up to and including God and church folk. We thought it was hilarious.
Before long though, the novelty wore off, especially as we became more and more the targets of her bitterness. Eventually it seemed to poison the air around her. By high school I’d grown strong enough to resist the deleterious effects. Within a couple of years I was making my plan of escape.
My half-brother Tracey (born around that time to my dad and June who were now in their forties) didn’t turn out to be so lucky. Tracey was the true miracle child, though he would die practically his mother’s slave at the age of 26, in a body riddled with cancer, because much to my stepmother’s enraged chagrin, he was conceived immediately after she’d been cured of uterine cancer at the hands of faith healers.
As graduation approached, it became clear that family finances required I attend college close by, and even worse, that living on campus was out of the question. I’d be staying at home. I finally won June’s blessing to leave by proposing a tiny church college in Oklahoma, near where her sister’s family lived. (I would come to joke that I had crossed state lines to avoid persecution.)
My plan worked. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I was free at last.
Through all those years, sometimes from a distance, I would both pity and marvel at my father. I never heard him speak a critical word of June, though there were times I wished he had (for my own selfish, vindictive reasons).
My dad endured much in his life, especially towards the end. Some months he worked two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet, while June sat at home reading paperback novels. He died relatively young, at the age of 51, in a head-on collision with another car driving home late one night from his job as a warehouse worker. In so many ways, I feel that in his short life, my father saved me from so many deaths.
For some reason it took me years to mourn his loss. Perhaps so much was bottled up inside me, the cork had to be kept tightly in place. When he died, I drove through a bitter, January ice storm in Oklahoma to see to his funeral northeast of Dallas, and from the moment I took the call, I didn’t shed a tear.
Then, ten years later, I sat in a theatre, unsuspectedly watching the movie Field of Dreams. In its closing moments, the film’s protagonist sees the man he knows to be the ghost of his father, and is finally redeemed to be able to show him how much he loved him by asking him to play catch.
In that moment, I began to weep, right there in the theatre. And I continued as the friend I was with drove me home. I spent the rest of the night weeping, about five hours in all, finally able to mourn this man I loved so much.
This man who hit my mother.
You’ve just read part 11 of this personal account. To read the twelfth and final installment, click here.