I remember this day. This is before the parade. I am six years old.
I remember things vividly. I see scenes from my past like some people watch Technicolor films. Both blessing and curse, my memory makes it impossible to ignore things. It’s like a huge game of Mahjong: matching and placing, recognizing patterns, and hoping for a winning hand as random chance creates new memories. The memories are almost always linear, but I can jump from face-to-face and connect events.
On this particular day, I felt unsafe.
With me, I have my sister Laura, my brother Mark, my mom, Aunt Ann (my Uncle Larry’s first wife), Aunt Annie, cousin Erin, cousin Ann Sydney, and cousin Jason. I remember wanting to stay close to my mother and my Aunt Ann. I sat next to one or the other throughout the day.
In a year, I would be begin skipping school, because my first grade teacher, Mrs. Wehling, openly despised me. I was inattentive and daydreaming. I resisted her authority. In another year, I would have a teacher I loved, Mrs. Blume, who would “punish” me by making me sit next to her. Sitting next to that loving woman made me feel safe. And safety is what I lacked…
Before the parade, before we drove to Harper Woods, my father had a meltdown about getting ready and being on time. I dressed quickly. I refused to comb my hair (yes, I had blond hair as a little boy). We were going to see a very small parade, but, for some reason, my father was already upset and yelling. We were supposed to meet my grandparents (his parents) at 11:00am on a Thursday.
It was a rare day off for my dad. He once worked double shifts at the GM Fort Street Plant as the maintenance manager.
Unfortunately, the energy crisis began shutting things down in the city several months earlier. In the middle of winter, I remembered watching the evening news with my father and my mother and hearing him say that he was “laid off” and would get a new job at Kelsey-Hayes where he would work “midnights and days”. For months, he came home from Kelsey-Hayes at 2pm. At the plant, they machined wheels and transmission parts for GM and other automakers. Dad would return from his job exhausted and would slump in his black vinyl chair near the fireplace. I would pick metal shavings from his curly hair, gathering them in a pile in my small hand. I would be careful not to wake him.
I dressed myself before the parade, while my sister Laura dressed herself and Mark. Mark slept in Laura’s room, and she was constantly caring for him.
Before we left Harper Woods for the parade, my dad insisted on taking the picture above. I didn’t “do” fake smiles well. I never was able to pretend that everything was fine.
At the parade, I sat between Erin and my Aunt Ann. I sat quietly, unobtrusively. My father sat behind me next to his father, Grandpa Portell, Sr.–a man as serious as the heart attack that would eventually kill him during my senior year of high school. My father decided to tease Grandpa George by making a “babushka” of his shirt. My grandfather fussed at him. My father smiled and said it helped keep the sun from burning his head. Eventually, Grandpa Portell decided to pretend the “babushka” didn’t exist.
As the veterans walked past–older men in their 50s–my father made jokes about random things, continuing to dig at his father. A restored Sherman drove past us. I had seen them before. One was outside my favorite military surplus store on Groesbeck.
But my mind returned to before the parade, and I was unsafe. My father had one of his meltdowns and grabbed my hair, shaking my head violently because I wasn’t moving quickly enough. Mark saw this and started crying. Laura cried, because she thought she was next. My older brother George was downstairs. My mother was behind my dad, begging him to calm down and let me go. She told him to set me down. I cried. I could not stop sobbing. This made my dad angrier. He yelled loader. He reached for his belt, and my hands shot to my feet to tie my shoes quickly, haphazardly.
My teachers always wondered why I never could learn to tie my shoes like other children. I wish I could have told them why. I did not have the words or the courage. I felt small. I was small. To this day, I tie my shoes in the same screwed up way.
A little boy’s memories and experiences forge the man-to-be. At the parade, feeling unsafe, I turned to watch my father. Dad was alone.
I realized that my dad was always alone. Then, I realized he was isolated and lonely.
And, suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt very sorry for him. He was a terrifying presence. A violent, sad and unpredictable presence. In moments of silence or on holidays, he became extremely loving, charitable and gentle. When we went to 6am Mass at St. Malachy, I was the only one with him. Sometimes, he would turn to me and say, through his own tears, that he was sorry. We both knew why. We would then sometimes go to amateur radio swapfests together, and he would buy me doughnuts and ride me through the crowds of cigar-smoking men. He would buy me anything I wanted from the old men who talked about the wars. In those moments, I still did not feel safe–only confused. My father was a kind/violent/generous/angry/loving mystery to me. I didn’t know how to reach him. And he didn’t seem to know how to reach me. He was huge. I was small.
Donovan sometimes reminds of this moment in my moral development. On that day, I awakened to a new understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Everything after that parade was different for me. Not better. Different.
Peace & Love,