The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The girls who poured my father’s gin-and-tonics were slim, brown-eyed beauties, quick to wipe up his spills, freshen his drinks, and smile at his wisecracks. They looked nothing like him, and they asked for nothing from him. Maria worked in the city bar, where my father drank in the afternoons, and Debbie worked in the suburban bar, where my father drank in the evenings. Maria and Debbie were aware of each other — that is, each of them knew there was another bar, another woman — and when my father died, each of them hastened to prove herself the better caretaker. “I always made sure he ate something,” first Debbie, then Maria, assured my stepsister and my sister and me. “I don’t know about her.”
I imagine that, in the days immediately following his death, my father’s bartenders tossed expectant smiles at the door when they heard it swing open at his usual time. Then they remembered, their heads dropped, their hands stayed busy, and they moved on to the other old men.
At the memorial service, Debbie and Maria met for the first time. They greeted one another with the frosty civility of two ex-wives. Debbie had long brown hair, wore a floral-print, Laura Ashley–style dress, and manifested a quivering, doe-eyed prettiness. She pressed her fingers to her cheeks to stop the tears that spilled from her eyes. I was struck by the grace and economy of the gesture. If I were a director shooting a brief scene at a funeral home, I would want an ingénue to do just what Debbie had done: dab fingertips at her cheekbones, conveying her sorrow, her gentle hands, and her daintiness all at once. But I would never have cast her as a bartender. Maybe she could have strolled in slow motion through a flashback, playing some woman whose loss, in his youth, had set one sad old drunk on the path to the bar stool. She was that pure, that maidenly.
Indeed, the old men who sat at the bar never teased her. When they called her over for another round, they did so with an apology in their voice, as though they were sorry she had to be in such a coarse place, as if there were some domestic tragedy behind her need to work there.
Maria, the urban bartender, was pale, and looked paler still in her black pantsuit. She moved with the swift, purposeful stride of a tough young woman who does not shed tears in public. She called her customers “my guys,” greeted them from across the room when they trudged in, bantered with them when they sat down, remembered their birthdays with greeting cards set down next to their drinks. Her “guys” were far less reverent than Debbie’s; they told her filthy jokes, teased her about being flat-chested. She deflected their remarks without joining in the give-and-take. Her domestic life was, in fact, tragic and thankless: She cared for homebound parents. Her father was clinically demented; in his lucid moments, he accused her of stealing from him, when she was, in reality, supporting him. Her public face was so jaunty that when I learned of her personal hardship, I was stunned. I was also shamed by her example. I felt that I, too, ought to be able to laugh it off, pour another round, and keep my tears to myself.
Throughout the visitation, Maria held the arm of one of my father’s drinking buddies, the men whom I referred to, with the stupefied lack of charity I exhibited throughout the funeral weekend, as “the barflies.” The barflies were, with few exceptions, a generation younger than my father. My father had outlived two wives and one set of friends, but his longevity was nothing of his own doing. He was sixty-eight years old when he died, in his bed, coughing blood. He was found by a posse of barflies who journeyed to his apartment after three days of his absence from Debbie’s bar. They saw the newspapers piled up outside the door. They looked in through the windows. (He lived on the ground floor.) They summoned the police. A week later, they were still dining out, so to speak, on the adventure. I pressed them for details, dumbfounded at the thought of such heroics from these sedentary, inebriated, blurred companions. Who would have thought they had it in them?
My father died of heart failure. (But then, as a favorite mystery writer of mine is fond of saying, everyone dies of heart failure.) His heart had failed him years before, probably — poetically, romantically — when my mother died. She was forty. My father was forty-three. I was eight.
The day the barflies found my father, I came home from the theater in the evening and was greeted by my houseguest, an unemployed actor who had overstayed his welcome and was supposed to have moved out of my apartment that day. I had gone to the play, in fact, to give him time to be completely gone. But there he still was, telling me to sit down, telling me there had been a call, a call from the police in St. Louis.
I immediately feared my father had had a drunk-driving accident. It was a terror I’d felt throughout my adolescence, grinding my teeth in the back seat while he drove. Now I played in my mind the movie I had always dreaded living through: some wholesome teenager, some Bobby or Kathy, broadsided by my father’s Oldsmobile, spinning across four lanes, dying at the scene, no goodbyes. Then I would have to face Bobby or Kathy’s family: the tanned, athletic father, the dedicated mother, the shattered younger siblings; a family alien to grief, now united by fate with their evil shadow family — mine.
So part of me was relieved when I heard that my father had died alone, at home in bed. “Peacefully in his bed,” I kept saying on the phone, until my brother overheard and corrected me: “We don’t know how peaceful it was.” And I remembered my father’s coughing, his orations of coughing that would freeze the rest of us into immobility. He had smoked since his days in the army. When he developed thyroid cancer and had his thyroid removed, he’d switched from cigarettes to cigars. His coughing fits were minutes long, debilitating bouts of hacking and hawking that seemed each time to be unsurvivable. And as soon as my brother said that — We don’t know how peaceful it was — I realized, of course, that my father must have coughed himself to death. We had witnessed the rehearsals for his demise for at least a decade. We had stood by while he coughed, our adrenaline racing.
“Dad, please stop smoking,” we’d say.
“Goddamn pollen!” he would rasp, leaning on whatever was handy — even us sometimes.
But there was no one for him to lean on in the end. He must have been frightened. He must have been flailing. Peaceful? Probably not. But even so, I was glad that he had taken no one else with him.
My father’s bartenders had no such recriminations. Debbie and Maria were idealized daughters to him, the daughters he had always wanted. Soft eyed and nurturing, they handed him his favorite drink — Tanqueray and Schweppes, no lime, no lemon — with neither fear nor reproach. They did not tax his memory, nor his emotions. If he got too drunk, if he stumbled or slurred his words, Debbie and Maria took it in stride. They didn’t blink an eye. It was all in a day’s work to them.
They didn’t, for example, pull away from my father when he was sodden drunk. They didn’t pester him for love, attention, advice, approval. Instead, they laughed with him, flung their hair, wiped down, filled up, freshened, collected, cleaned. Their hands moved perpetually, reminding him of his mother and his aunts in his St. Louis childhood, transplanted farm girls, hands busy beneath their gossip. Gin-and-tonics had replaced the German sugar cookies, the snickerdoodles, but the result was the same: these women created Gemütlichkeit, a place of cozy homecoming. “Home is the place where,” Robert Frost wrote, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Maria and Debbie gave my father a home. They did not reprove him with sulking, but soothed him with their constant busyness, their mild demeanor, their tolerant smiles. The bartenders, those beautiful women of mercy, accepted him.
I couldn’t go to Maria’s bar. The thought of it was just too painful. My brother reported that Maria had tied a black ribbon around the bottle of Tanqueray. “When I saw that, I lost it,” he confessed to me. I have no doubt that Maria and he comforted each other. My brother was a legend among the barflies: a handsome, aging bachelor, an accomplished golfer, a scientist who searched the globe for oil to propel their big brown sedans. I was the “New York daughter.” My sister was the firstborn, the provider of his only grandchildren. We were all fiercely attached to our father, haunted by him, so much so that friends who had never met him could do credible imitations of him. Yet, as a family, we behaved more like stray cats with similar markings. My sister had left St. Louis, with great reluctance, because her husband had joined the navy, and there are no naval ports in the Midwest. My brother, after earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the University of Missouri, my father’s alma mater (“Seven years of college and you still can’t tuck in your shirt!”), had become a geologist and gone where the work was. As for me, since sixth grade, I’d been counting the days until I could escape, get away from all of them and all of it — every person, every habit, every belief that had sought to define me.
“We were his family!” exclaimed one wounded barfly at Debbie’s bar. “You were all scattered!”
He was responding to an insult of my — albeit unintentional — devising. I’d put in the obituary, “Services private.” I’d never planned a funeral before, and since my teens, I’d lived in New York City and read the New York Times, where the obituaries always stated: “Services private.” (Only later did I realize that the Times obituary section focused on the deaths of celebrities and people of accomplishment, and that my father was not Elvis Presley, and that the cemetery grounds would not have been overrun by grief-stricken fans.) So, obliviously, I had added “Services private” to his obituary, and when we were challenged in that beer garden by the insulted barflies, my brother stood by me as a matter of principle. I would have conceded the point, having realized the effect of that thoughtlessly inserted phrase, but when the barfly insisted, “We were his family!” I dug in my heels.
Because they were not his family, and they had no idea what it meant to be his family. Just look at them. They must have had families of their own, wives and children they had long since abandoned for the bars. Sometimes their families were physically gone — “all scattered,” like ours — and other times their families were simply discarded as a concept: There had been a bride once, and then there were babies, and then there were demands. These women and children expected more than simple food and shelter. They wanted another kind of sustenance. They wanted these men to render up pieces of themselves that the men were not willing to part with — that the men, in fact, did not quite believe existed. The promise of the past was an echoing vow, so they made noise to cover it: the clink of ice, the chatter of televised sports, the murmuring companionship of other hollow men.
Maybe I was wrong to resent that barfly. Maybe those men were my father’s family, the one he had chosen, just as I had left home as early as I could to try to find a better family than the one I’d been born into. But while I went off in search of people who would understand me, my father preferred those who spit out, like flat soda, the whole concept of understanding and being understood. My father sought daughters who would fill his glass.
Elizabeth Bales Frank