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Southern Charmer

By the time this was taken at my grandparent’s lake house, my father was already established as a successful doctor with a family practice and an alcoholic. And there I was, the mascot. Hopes that I might rekindle my parent’s marriage. That I would be enough of a reason for my dad to stop drinking. But we know how that goes, right?

By the time I was a sophomore in college at our local university, my father was dead. Earlier during my first semester at college, he said from the hospital bed, “God has struck me with lightning twice. It’s not fair.” It seemed the bypass surgery successfully reestablished the blood flow throughout his body and delivered the “c” payload to his brain. He was back in the hospital for pre-op brain surgery.

College, the entire experience, was a mixed bag of depression, experiments with alcohol and drugs, and a careful respect for both. Money, it seems, may not have been the root of all evil, but it did tend to corrupt successful men in the 70s and 80s. Maybe more so now. Money and alcohol and men become invincible. Like tragic superheroes. Certain they can thread the needle of joy and pain with mercurial liquid fire. My dad’s choice, Cutty Sark. And then as they were picking up his and hers cases of booze, my cheapass millionaire dad switched to Evan Williams. I don’t remember what SAM drank. SAM. Sarah Anne McElhenney. But we just called her SAM. Even my dad. Not sweetheart, honey, lover. Just, “SAM! Where are the damn keys to your car? You blocked John in again!” He was not a loving or patient man.

You can’t tell that from the photo. He seemed like a demigod. A movie star. A fabulously wealthy allergist in Austin, Texas, the allergy capital of the world. And in this moment, I’m certain he was as loving as he could manage. The liquid courage warming his attitude. His mom was the pusher. “What can I get you to drink, darlin?” she would ask my mom, every single time. “Nothing.” “Oh, honey, you’ve got to have a cocktail. I’ll whip you up something you’ll like.” So, Sunday afternoons at my grandparents’ lake house were blurry for the adults, heaven for us kids, and lit with tragic foreshadowing.

I do believe my father loved me. I also know he struggled mightily with his dad about most things. He wanted to take an invitation to Hollywood for a screen test. Father said, no chance. He rebuilt an Amercian Graffiti hotrod all summer long. After his first night out on the town, he was forced to sell it. “Mrs. Alloon heard you were drag racing other cars.” He was an athlete and a gymnast. In college he was a cheerleader. A winning smile, charm, and the charisma of Machivelli’s Prince. My mom said it was due to his mentor and residency sponsor, Dr. McGovern, of Heart Clinic Corpus fame. “He taught your father how to win. How to destroy your enemies without them suspecting any foul play.”

My dad took made some power moves after returning to Austin, to join his dad’s family medical practice. Within a year of joining the board of directors, my dad forced his dad to retire. He voted his father out of a job and life purpose. My grandfather was a legendary liberal. He treated everyone who showed up with a sick kid. He took chickens and tamales in trade. He had a gentle voice and warm hands as he probed the neck and chest for anomalies.

I don’t remember much about Gran Dear. We had fishing contests when I was very young. Nickle prize. I always won. We would walk up the yard to the pier as the sun was setting. The lights came on shining down into the water attracting the bugs that attracted the fish. Perch. Me and my granddad. He loved me. I was a light in his fading kingdom. His wife, my grandmother, was the grandam alcoholic. Grand Dear struggled mightily with her moody rants. A savior of the people at work. A sad failure at home. Powerless over the baffling and cunning disease.

My dad drank with his mom. According to legend, he would often stop by his mom’s lake house on the way home (yep, he commuted by boat to Cadillac to the clinic each day) to his newly built lake house. The habit stuck. He soon developed a friendship with a realtor alcoholic who rented an office in the back half of my father’s father’s building. Charlie. They even bought matching 450SLs. And when Charlie had tired of his, they swapped cars before he traded it in, my father’s blue version had not been as mechanically sound, and Charlie and his wife rarely drove the convertible.

What I was given by my father is a healthy respect for alcohol and mental health. Was he bipolar? There wasn’t even a term for it until I was in the mental hospital for a “manic depressive episode” in high school. Did we share the moodiness? Yes. He showed me how divorce instantly crushed his dreams and left him with a penthouse apartment, a quadraphonic stereo, and once in a while visits from his seven-year-old son. He would try and taper his booze a little on the nights I went to stay with him. But he would be singing along to Charlie Pride’s “Most Beautiful Girl” every time. Crying. Singing. Crying. I was huddled alone in the kingsize bed.

And when my dad withered and curled into a mummy he left an empty mix of joy, relief, and horror in my chest. He also left some money. But that was going to be a fight. An epic, good ol’ boy fight between law firms eager to fan the flames into “billable hours.”

One of my last good memories comes from my first year in college. After the surgery that instantly ended my father’s relationship with alcohol. My sober father woke up in a terrible narrative. He was rich beyond imagination. He was dying of cancer. And alcohol brought convulsions rather than delusions. It was a mean and cold turkey that stopped the king’s reign. My three siblings who lived elsewhere returned to Austin to be with Dad. A very different dad.

Born again, by the power vested in the Methodist minister who presided over his adult baptism in his massive new mansion on top of Miller’s hill with a sweeping view of downtown and the same river/lake where his family life took a turn for the worse. He chose alcohol and a new young wife, also an enthusiast, who had a fetish for the color green. Green eyeshadow. Green pantsuits. I supposed she would’ve told you her eyes were green to, but they were gray. Dead, lifeless, grey. Even her custom graphite golf clubs had green luminescent shafts.

And SAM lawyered up weeks before my father passed. She also jetted around with a small-time grifter, Rod, who sold my father pistols and exotic cars. He and SAM loved New Orleans. Go figure. I think that’s where she was when my sister and I joined hands as beside my dad’s deathbed and cried.

What I learned from my father was mostly what not to do. I do have warm fuzzy feelings when I think about him, but they are from the period in the photo, pre-biographical historical fiction. I can’t possibly have much more than a silhouette of Gran Dear, and my early memories of my father are of the chaos around building the new house on the lake and the few years we had there as a family. All three siblings, one asshole brother, and two sisters, were away at boarding schools. I was an only child. Six years younger than my nearest sister, the one who hated me for taking her place as the baby.

My other sister, the hippie, was my surrogate mom. She’s why I’m still a hippie at sixty. Internally, at least. My tribe tells me I’m a bit too hip and technical for a hippie these days. Everything I learned about love, and nurture, and caring for each other was from my sister, Sidney. Named after this fellow.

pic of Happy Oakley to come

My mom, the pretty thing in the photograph, kept her eye on my future a bit later in life, after the tragicomic divorce that lit up the Austin legal system for three years. My dad wanted to bury his ex-wife under a pile of debt, bad apartment complexes purchased for the write-off, and attorney-encouraged rage. “You won’t be able to survive selling pencils on the street,” my dad allegedly told her.

I learned that money is not the key to happiness. No money is also not the key to happiness. Kindness may be the ultimate lesson I learned. Humility as my dad’s lake house empire was set ablaze in an attempt to demoralize the enemy. The enemy was my mom. The prize, according to my father, was me. The fight was about me. “I’m doing this for you,” he said, from the drunken penthouse. “I’m giving it one more try, for you, buddy.” I was seven. He was doing it to reset the balance of power before the real divorce fight began. My mom lasted about two weeks after his return. She bolted to Mexico taking my older sister in the escape. My other sister says she was getting packed for camp when Mom left, and she had to pack by herself. My dad was wounded, drunk, and clueless.

That’s my antithesis. Wounded. Drunk. And clueless.

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