Twenty years ago last month, I was in the daze of my first weeks without my mother. I had been attending San Francisco Lesbian Avenger meetings during the summer, and then dropped off during the weeks before and after her early September death.
Finally I called fellow Avenger Masha Gessen. I had to acknowledge what had become evident: that I wasn’t going to be able to come through with whatever commitment I had made at the last meeting I attended – back when I knew my mother was mysteriously ailing, but didn’t know it was a terminal metastasis of her breast cancer, in its final stages.
I told Masha what had just happened – that my mother had died a week or two back, and that all I could do was struggle each day to remember how to breathe and sip and swallow and walk. Masha said: “Come over. My mother died less than a year ago. Breast cancer. Come over right now.” I was staying at my parents’ place in the East Bay, and Masha was in San Francisco. It was late in the evening already, but something in her tone told me I needed to go. I was spinning in an abyss, and her voice was the first thing I had encountered that sounded like it might arrest the spinning, maybe even establish a marker by which I could begin to navigate deep space.
I got to her Duboce Park apartment within the hour. She and her then-partner Mimi greeted me with full-hearted hugs, long, meaningful looks, and a mug of hot tea. Then, with a mixture of intensity and compassion, Masha began to map out the barren, unrecognizable landscape I found myself in: a world in which my mother was memory. What would it feel like a month in, when each day was a bewildering eternity? How about in two months? Four? A half a year? What could I expect of myself and those around me; what should I simply let go of, and watch drift away?
Twenty years later, I don’t remember Masha’s exact words (that I would survive, perhaps? in spite of my disbelief?). Twenty years later, what I recall is simply a sense that the sum total of what she had to say, when she was saying it, and how, all added up to what I needed more than anything else in my life then, and I was infinitely thankful for it. When it was becoming clear that my mother was indeed dying and there was nothing we could do to stop it, I remember thinking that my father, my sister, and I were like turtles flipped on our backs, waving our limbs out of habit, but now pointlessly, in futile attempt to find some solid surface against which to right ourselves. And yet there was none: all around us was air, as far as we could see in every direction.
Dad died a week ago today, at 92. What follows is more hagiography than exposé; forgive me. Many factoids are wobbly around the edges. This is just my own vision. If you knew him, you may find much familiar, but I’m sure your mileage will vary. Also many of these are more anecdote than “thing.” As a result, this is the longest post I’ve ever published here, so it’s divided into five discrete pages. For the rest of the month, if and when I post, I’ll publish Pops stories from the LD archives. Ninety-two years here, with a generous surplus in the “love” column: it’s the least I can do.
92. Dad was born in 1921 in Seattle, Washington to Jessie Harsha and Edwin Pagenhart. His mother hailed from the Ohio River Valley (her people were Scottish and English), his father from the South Dakota prairie (his people were German immigrants). They each skipped the small towns they grew up in for thrills far afield.
91. His family was in Seattle because his father was captain of the U.S.S. Lydonia, a survey vessel for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and he was charting the Alaskan coastline in the region of Ketchikan. Not long after he was born, Dad’s family relocated for a short while to Berkeley, about a dozen blocks north from where I live now. Thereafter they returned to Washington, D.C. and Chesapeake Bay, MD, places Dad would as likely consider home as any.90. Either the greatest number of years or the most memorable ones of his childhood were spent in Manila, where his father directed the mapping of the waterways around the Philippine Islands for the Coast Survey. Here is his earliest memory, as he jotted it down in one of a multitude of unfinished wisps of autobiography:
The only thing I can remember on my own during those Manila days before I was three: looking eye-to-eye into the face of a Filipino girl or boy from the back seat of our car as we passed the big open front window of her house (nipa), must have been stopped for a moment because we looked straight at each other. She was resting on her arms and we only stared in casual close glance about three or four feet from each other as the car moved onward. That’s all I recall of my first memory of the living world. But it took place just at the end of Dewey Boulevard [ed note: since renamed Roxas Blvd] as Manila turned into the Filipine suburb of Pasay and the road became dirt instead of pavement… auto traffic continuing south had to make its way along a winding street between houses of Filipine nipa and bamboo construction so it would explain a sudden slowdown in driving, allowing me, held in someone’s arms and looking out, to gaze into the calm face of a little girl returning the gaze.
His family returned to D.C. for a number of years, but were back to Manila again in the mid-1930s.
89. He has outlived his younger and his older sister, each of whom were very dear to him, in very different ways. Younger sister first: cancer. Older sister only just last year.
88. Every day when he returned home from his younger sister’s bedside during her short, intense cancer decline, he would walk in the door, put down his things, sit down at the piano, and play song after song, as if he were Scheherazade’s accompanist, each new tune somehow keeping his sister alive another day. He steadfastly held out for a miracle (literally: a “miracle”) up until the 11th hour. “Hope springs eternal” being his operable motto. Duly noting: this was the first family cancer death of three, each as close as possible to him.
87. When he was a child, he and his sisters had their piano practice in the early morning hours. His older sister practiced in the first slot, then him. Then his little sister. Every morning, a half an hour of piano practice, before breakfast.
86. Some years back, I took him on a tour of his old neighborhoods in Manila from the comfort of his couch, courtesy Google Maps’ street views and my laptop. He could name the school he attended, their home address (1325 Gral Luna), the works. And then see what they look like now. He was as amazed at the available visual record as I was at the accuracy of his long-term memory.
85. His father retired from the Coast Survey in the mid-1930s after contracting jaundice (I think?). Whatever it was, I have the sense that there was a tropical disease-related health thing that finally ended his working life as a ship captain and map-maker when he was in his 50s. While his father buttoned up his work in Manila, Dad and his mother and sisters travelled by train overland up to Peiping, as the city’s name was then written (later Peking, now Beijing). It was during a period of great internal strife, with Civil War still ongoing between Nationalists and Communists, and Japanese invasion on the horizon, amidst “incident” after “incident.” Dad remembers being told by his father to watch over his mother and sisters on the trip, what with him being the man of the family (he was then 14 or 15). They left Peiping for Kyoto, and from there to San Francisco’s Governor Hotel in the Tenderloin (it’s now Antonia Manor, Section 8 senior housing).
84. Dad’s father, having grown up in the wind-swept hamlet of Wessington Springs, South Dakota and having surveyed up and down the Pacific Coast and the Philippine Islands, was ready to retire in an ideal climate. He pored over maps and studied annual high/low temperature and humidity records to determine the perfect place to retire.
83. His father decided the the most temperate locale would be Santa Cruz, CA, and he bought acreage on the top of a hill overlooking Monterey Bay, next to the Powell family cattle ranch (later to become the University of California, Santa Cruz). It was the first property he ever owned after 50 years of “gub’ment” work. While his father worked with local hands to build the place, Dad’s family stayed at a hotel – Piedmont Court – at the bottom of High Street. It’s still there today, though it’s no longer a hotel. Nearly every time my family passed it on our many trips to visit his folks, Dad would point out the building and tell us about how they lived there when my grandparents’ place was being built. My kids now tell me how many times I repeat references to points of family historical interest in Berkeley. Like father, like daughter.
82. My dad ostensibly helped build the roof. His Uncle Clarence came out from southern Minnesota to help with the foundation, but legend has it that when Clarence arrived at the inordinately temperate Monterey Bay, he wheeled around and boarded the next train back to Minnesota, panicked that his crops needed to go in because of the early spring.
81. At Santa Cruz High School, Dad participated in the Science Club, the Spanish Club, Hi Tow Tong (a “secret” boy’s honor society), and the scholarship society; he served on the staff of The Trident (the school newspaper), was Commissioner of Publicity, and Manager (note the role) of the lightweight basketball team.
80. He graduated from Santa Cruz High School in 1938, with a number of Japanese American classmates who would, not many years later, become interned.
Pops: son, brother, friend, student, naval officer, professor, uncle, husband, father, grandfather.
And now, blithe spirit.
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
Honestly, here’s what I remember. I remember us driving along the freeway, heading into San Francisco, around about the point where Interstate 80, the Bayshore Freeway, branches off due west and into central San Francisco. I remember us thinking somehow that this sign was hilarious, and then actually stopping the car along the freeway (was there some lane blocked off for road work that made this less insane, and actually plausible? one can only hope), hopping out, the both of us, him going to pose next to the sign (oh, yes, that is a four-plus story drop behind him), and me pulling out my trusty Olympus OM-1 SLR film camera, and taking this picture. Circa sometime in the late 1970s, maybe 1980.
What, exactly, about the sign we found hilarious, I can’t remember now. The thought that: DUH! If you are reading this right now of course you are going the wrong way. Maybe the lack of the article “the,” due, one must imagine, to the exigencies of getting the urgent message across: STOP, FERCHRISSAKES! Maybe also just the stark Puritanism of the statement, generally speaking.
Heaven only knows.
But I know that I have kept this photograph through the decades, a badge of his willingness to pretty much go along with anything that smacked of adventure with his daughters. A sign of his inextinguishable sense of humor. A reminder to try very hard never to take anything, even what seems like the gravest calamity, without a hint of mirth.
A month’s daily output here has been dramatically interceded upon by a marked jolt to my Pops’ biographical timeline, in the form of another stroke. He has surprised us by being the proverbial Eveready bunny after past setbacks.
Not so, this time.
This afternoon, my daughter took his hand in hers (first holding it alongside my hand, and then taking it into both her own). For minutes upon minutes on end, she stroked the back of his hand, and then his forearm. Put her soft-soft nine-year-old girl cheek against his hand. All the while, smiling at him radiantly, deeply. As if she knew something he and I didn’t quite. We both looked on in wonder.
(By way of explanation to the children: “Think of DadDad as a magnificent castle, and room by room – sometimes a whole wing at a time –the lights are going out.”)
Buddha, providing me positive role modeling since the late 1990s.
This is a bona fide Polaroid transfer I did of a bona fide analog film slide I took with an actual, physical film camera in 1997, on my beloved’s and my “sweetiemoon.” (That’s non-marriage for “honeymoon.”) We went to Thailand for about a month following our commitment ceremony. Her brother’s gift to us had been frequent flier miles enough to go anywhere in the world. First class.
Back in the olden days, there were actual physical bookstores, so we went to one (Cody’s, the late great Berkeley institution), sat down in the Travel aisle, and pulled book after book off the shelf. Seychelles? Chile? Thailand, a Buddhist country in which it was reputedly easy for two “unaccompanied” women to travel, won out. So did we.
Girl at dusk, Berkeley, CA.
“A” could be for a hundred and one things, A hundred and one things, but we have to start somewhere. Apolplectic. Amblin’. Anti-social. Agita. Anima animus. But one has to start somewhere, and so thus with About time do I start a month o’ photos, a semi-annual (by which I mean, somewhat annual and not every half-year) tradition here at Casa LD. Casa El Dee, as a reader long ago suggested.
About time I return to this very helpful place. One of my biggest challenges is about time, generally speaking and particularly in an era governed (perhaps ruled? not always benevolently?) by Moore’s Law.
I usually resort to this month o’ photos thing when I’ve fallen to a very low output, which I have as of late. This time around, it is attributable to some of the usual reasons, and other less than usual. The usual: the press of the actual of life against the virtual, and the increasing challenge of representing the lives of increasingly subjective subjects. The less than usual: some good – such as a big redirect of my online writerly (mostly editorly) att’n to VillageQ, née Lesbian Family; some less than good – such as renewed/ intensified internal familial stressors, stemming from the gentle, insistent decline of an aging father, the difficult-to-process (and -manage) estrangement from sibling, and protracted employment instability. By which we really mean, insufficiency. The stuff of early 21st century midlife living.
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LesbianDad is a personal essay/photography blog. It began as a document of my parenthood but, like life, its ambit has stretched to include much more than I expected. My kids call me "Baba," and together we work toward a world in which amor really does vincit omnia.