Anecdotal Truths :
This is what I know about Charles Payne, my father. His handwriting was like calligraphy, all loops and flying ribbons that distracted from the intention of the words. He preferred complex and impressive words to simple language,
I have proof of this fact, There were several letters sent to us in hs initial seven year absence from our lives. The letters were read aloud to my brother, Stephen, two years my senior, and to me. Mom read, her voice laced with disdain and in exaggerated, theatrical enunciation of his words. He’d written :
“1963 has seen me subject to a number of serious m-e-t-a-m-o-r-p-h-i-s-m-s, each with attendant furious manifestations of my own reactions thereto”
” Jesus Christ ! He is crazy”. my mother shouted as she shook the envelope and abused the letter decorated in word ribbons. “Can you believe this crap?” She then attacked the envelope it was mailed in, also beautifully calligraphed and sent via Air Mail from Fontainebleau Boulevard, Miami Beach, Florida, her flailing, looping arms ironically mimicking his handwriting.
I thought it special that the letter had traveled from my imagined pink and green paradise of Miami Beach to our drab and cold rented railroad flat in the Bronx. I imagined flamingoes carrying the letter to a mailbox. Never mind that. She shook it furiously at its opened side edge, trying to dislodge the check she hoped for. I watched silently, waiting for a cue. At eight or ten years old, I was never sure. Should I laugh, comfort, shout or just remain silent? I always chose silence. In silence I could recall and try to reconcile the only image I had of him in my mind. That image, imprinted when I was three years old , was of a sandy-haired man sitting in a chair, nothing more. My mother seemed to approve of silence in all things “Charles” related. That silence was tacit and persistent. It lasted most of my life. I remained unsure of how to react or to feel about him well beyond childhood. He was part of myself that was missing without an awareness of ever having been missed.
The Bronx Is Home:
I loved the smell of Bronx in Summer. Blazing hot August days on city pavement is an amalgam of hot tar, day-old garbage, and cement wet down by afternoon thunderstorms or a building superintendent’s hosing away fine , gray, gritty dirt in roiled streams. It smells better to me even now than pine-scented woods or briny, fish -scented ocean. It will always smell like home. The visual images are comely and dynamic. They are not of graceful boughs of Hemlocks dancing in a breeze or rippling waves at the water’s edge. My memories are of bare teenage knees bumping against other knees to the rhythms on a portable radio. Stoop-sitting endlessly until standing or walking was necessary to allow old people to pass or to walk to a candy store. Our language was mostly body language. There was a twilight parade of old people, bent over two-armed wrestlers with a cane in one hand and a webbed, aluminum folding chair in the other. Their time to socialize seemed to coincide with sunset. Did they understand their timing was perfectly matched to the dwindling warmth and daylight beyond that of the sun? We yielded the front stoop to them so they could whisper about us and turn their heads in unison as we paraded past them going nowhere in particular. Old ladies in their faded cotton housecoats and carpenter aprons were judge and jury for fray-edged too short shorts and halter tops. It was the finest summer resort on earth. It was a blend of soft whispers behind hands and insistent, in and out sounds of rock and roll. It was the crisp, strutting dance of bare legs and sandaled feet on sidewalk blocks, and the slow motion folding or unfolding of flimsy chairs by gnarled fingers. It was the lifted leg of a little dog adding its own scent and sound against a fire hydrant. It was home.
My brother’s mindset was cured cement when it came to his father. By contrast, I was bright green moss crowning through Winters frost. Resilient, yielding and eager to fill and encroach upon any dark and unlikely space available. Like moss, wanting only a modest claim and space to survive in. I was eager to explore the unknown landscape occupied by men called Dad. The seven year gap in his presence forgotten as I considered the physical likeness we shared, revealed on the very first meeting only months before. I was timid and unaccustomed to being the daughter of a man, any man, even one I looked so much like. Here was a man who looked like me and claimed an interest in knowing me. Our interests were evenly matched.
But now, I understand that a huge crevasse in time and space is not simply bridged by wishing. Even tenacious moss that hopefully clings is never really a part of the rock.