Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Papa Bob

Papa Bob and Mom

Papa Bob died today.  That's what he wanted all of Mom's kids to call him when he married her a little over a decade ago: Papa Bob.  It evolved into Grandpa Bob when Katie was born seven years ago, and honestly I was glad because I always felt dorky calling someone Papa Anything.  Papa seems so babyish.

I was a middle aged woman when Papa Bob and Mom married.  It was her third marriage, his second.  I never even called my own father "Papa".  I remember distinctly the day when I stopped calling my father "Daddy" and started calling him "Dad".  My oldest sister Glenda was visiting us.  I was in third grade.

Glenda is my dad's daughter from his first marriage to a woman named Shirley.  Dad left Shirley when Glenda was thirteen.  They divorced when Glenda was fourteen.  Dad married my mom, Beverly, who herself had four children from her first marriage that ended in divorce.  Dad married Mom six weeks after his divorce was finalized with Shirley, and I was born a year later, when Glenda was fifteen.  I lived with my mom's kids--Jay, who was nearly thirteen when I was born, Kit, who was nearly eleven, Pat, who was nine, and Jenny, who was seven-and-a-half--but I never lived with Glenda.  Her mom got full custody of Glenda in the divorce.  Glenda would visit us during the summer and on holidays, but I never got to spend as much time with her as I did my mom's kids.  My first memory of Glenda is attending her high school graduation when I was three.  It was the first and only time I met Glenda's mom Shirley, as she would pass away a few years later, when Glenda was just twenty-two years old.

By the time I stopped calling our father Daddy, that day Glenda was visiting us when I was in third grade, her mother had already passed away.  That left Glenda with just one parent, our father, who is cranky and controlling, not warm and embracing like an ideal parent would be for a young woman who lost her mother too young.  But I noticed no matter how cranky and controlling our dad was, Glenda always responded to him warmly.  He would say something jerk-ish and Glenda would laugh and say, "Oooooh, Dad," and brush it off.

I decided that day I would be like my big sister and laugh and say, "Oooooh, Dad," and act like the jerk-ish things coming from his mouth were of little concern to me.

I'm not nearly as easy-going as my sister Glenda is, so acting like the jerk-ish things our dad would say lasted about a day for me, but from that day forward I called him Dad instead of Daddy.  I would still run off to my room and cry if he was mean to me, but I was not so much of a baby that I still called him Daddy after that.  I called him an asshole or a fascist a few times when I was a teenager, but only when he called me stupid or a communist.  For the most part, as long as we ignored each other we got along OK and I called him Dad.

Buying greeting cards on Father's Day has always been a chore.  None of them work.  None of them reflect the special relationship I have with Dad.  I always said some day I'd start a greeting card business for people who only have a so-so relationship with their loved ones.  My Father's Day greeting cards would say things like, "Happy Father's Day!  Let's spend this special day by not yelling or calling each other names!"  Or, "Happy Father's Day!  You're a jerk to my mom, my siblings, and me, but I'm glad I was born, so thanks for that."  I know.  Not terribly catchy.  I need to hire some poets.  Most people I know who feel compelled to write poetry had a rocky relationship with at least one parent, so I'm sure they'd be a great addition to my greeting card company.

When I was a kid I gave handmade greeting cards to everyone, even Dad.  Having lived near the headquarters of the Hallmark Greeting Cards company my whole life, I started adding "Beckmark" to the back of my greeting cards.  I remember the first time I gave Dad a greeting card I'd made that said "Beckmark" on the back.  He flipped it over and said, "Beckmark?  Haha.  That's pretty good."

I was stunned at such gratuitous praise coming from my father.  I compliment my seven-year-old daughter Katie all the time.  I can't help it.  I'm a praiser.  And because she's so used to it, she seems unfazed by my praises.  But that day Dad said, "Beckmark?  Haha.  That's pretty good," I had to rub my sore jaw, it hurt so much from smiling so hard.

Starved for praise and validation from my father, my favorite recipient of my greeting cards was my maternal grandfather, who everyone in my family called "Pa".  That's the closest to calling someone Papa I'd ever come before I met my step-father who wanted me to call him Papa Bob.

Pa chain smoked and spent all day in his workshop building things.  He had a tremendous belly and the absent mind of a genius.  I used to love to watch the ash from his perpetual cigarette hanging from his lips grow so long it would fall off the lit end of the cigarette and land on Pa's big belly.  Most of his shirts had holes in them about mid-way down.

I loved the smell of his workshop.  Wood and tools everywhere.  And sawdust.  And dust dust.  I looked around at everything while my mom talked to her dad about something grown-uppy, tracing my finger across the dusty stuff.  I'd come to a stack of my drawings and greeting cards I'd given Pa over the years, neatly piled one-on-top of the other.  Upstairs in his kitchen sink were who-knows-how-many-days-worth of dirty dishes piled up in no particular order, but downstairs in Pa's workshop, among his most prized possessions, he kept my drawings.  I felt appreciated.

"People Stew" by Becky Burton, age unknown (about five or six)
(wolves surrounding a person in a giant pot of "people stew") 
My sister Kit saved this drawing I did when I was a kid.  

When Pa died my drawings got thrown into a dumpster along with the other moldy items from his workshop that also didn't survive the rains coming through the roof Pa never got around to fixing.  Pa was dead, my drawings gone.  Nothing material lasts forever in this universe.  Pa's atoms were transformed into another kind of energy.  The paper and wax from my drawings were eaten by mold detritivores just trying to survive like every other living thing on this planet.  No harm intended.

I'd love to have one last hug from Pa or one last look at my old drawings, but I'm OK with their passing.  Their death was not an ending of their existence for me.  I store them in my memory and recall them fondly from time to time.  What are these neurons good for if not allowing dead things to go on living inside us?

It was great when Katie was born, because then I didn't feel required to buy Dad any more greeting cards.  Katie has loved to draw since she was old enough to hold a crayon, so for the last few years I've gotten by giving Dad handmade greeting cards from Katie.  I don't know if he keeps them or not.  I've never been invited over to his place.  When we do see each other, during holidays, we usually meet each other at Glenda's house or I pick him up.  He's always waiting outside his apartment building for me when I pull into the parking lot.  Dad is not a patient man.  It would never occur to him to invite me into his apartment to hang out for awhile.  Dad does not hang out.  Dad goes.  The man is eighty-six years old.  He's had two heart-bypass surgeries, twenty-one years apart, he's blind in one eye and 90% deaf, but he still plays bridge at the community center on the days he's not dancing to big-band music played out of a boom box at the various senior centers he frequents like a fucking Rat Packer.

Dad the Rat Packer at Katie's 3rd Birthday Party

Katie doesn't seem to mind one way or the other if my dad keeps her handmade greeting cards.  She's never brought it up.  Katie's not nearly as starved for praise and validation as I was when I was her age.  Plus, up until this morning, she had Grandpa Bob to receive her drawings too.  He loved them.  Whenever we'd come up and Katie would hand him the latest drawing she'd made for him, Grandpa Bob would tell her to come closer so he could squeeze her like a big bear and tickle her with his big beard as he kissed her soft, young cheeks.

"Oh, thank you!" Grandpa Bob would say to Katie.  "You're a real artist like your Grandma Bev."

"Self-Portrait" by Katie Carleton, age 6

Back in March, when we heard Grandpa Bob was sick, Katie insisted I email him this drawing above.  Included in the email was this message:

Grandpa Bob,

We're sorry you're sick.  We hope you're comfortable and have everything you need.  We'll come up to see you in a few days when Katie's out of school for spring break.  We hope the attached self-portrait Katie drew cheers you up.  Think of her smiling face hoping you feel better.  We can't wait to give you hugs in person.

Katie, Becky, and Will

Grandpa Bob and Katie, age 2

When Mom first married Bob, I admit, I was leery.  They'd met online, on a dating site.  He had only recently lost his wife with whom he had six grown children.  They had married in their early twenties.  He had been married most of his adult life to this woman.  And now she was gone and his kids were out of the house and he was lonely.  He responded to my mom's ad and he liked her because of her smart comebacks to his dirty jokes.  Mom liked Bob because he was smart enough to get her comebacks.

Papa Bob and Mom

When I first met Bob I remember thinking that he looked like a lumberjack.  He was tall and brawny with a full white beard that touched the top of his flannel shirt.  My dad is short and stocky and totally bald.  The man doesn't own a pair of jeans.  He's a retired accountant and now he dresses like an old white man heading out on his next cruise.  When Dad was working, he never left home without a pen in the pocket of his shirt.  Now he shows up everywhere wearing a visor.  Bob, on the other hand, wore jeans every time I saw him.  It seems trivial, but when I saw that Mom's new husband wore jeans, I knew this one was gonna be alright.

"Happy Birthday Grandma Bev!" by Katie Carleton, age 7

Katie drew this picture above for Grandma Bev's birthday party a couple of months ago.  Left to right: Grandpa Bob, Katie, Daddy, Me, Grandma Bev, Sparky (Katie's stuffed "Frankenweenie" dog). She said we are in a basement because it's lightning outside.  Notice Katie put herself between Grandpa Bob and her daddy.  A safe place to be.

My brother jokes that Mom's got a bad picker.  Like someone who's got a bad knee or a bad sense of humor.  It's not their fault.  It's not something you can easily fix and you just kinda shake your head at them and say things like "God Bless."  A picker is the thing inside a person that decides which person out of the billions on this planet would make the best life partner.  Mom's bad picker got her two bad marriages ending in divorce.  I worried her bad picker would get her into trouble a third time.

I was wrong.  Turns out, Bob was Mom's third-time charm.  Bob fixed Mom’s broken picker.

When Mom finally got around to divorcing my dad I was twenty-one.  I lived a block away from a greeting card shop that specialized in funny, and often inappropriate, greeting cards and gag gifts.  If you needed to buy some penis shaped ice cube trays for an upcoming bachelorette party, this was the shop for you.  It was at this shop I found the most perfect store-bought greeting card I've ever given anyone.  On the front was a cartoon drawing of a woman driving down the open road, her scarf blowing back dramatically in the wind, the smile on her face almost maniacal as she seemed to be waving to whoever stood in her dust.  You open it and it says, in big bold letters, "You're Free!  Happy Divorce!"

Mom stayed free for about a decade after that, living on her own, in a house she bought for herself that suited her personality, doing what she wanted when she wanted, beholden to no one else's demands.  She seemed happy.  Then she met a guy named Rich.  They didn't really date per se, but he got her out of the house, or he came over to her house and played the piano no one played and sang songs she liked to sing.  He was a good friend, but just a friend.  He had other lady friends too, and he wasn't always available to keep Mom company.

Mom joined an online dating site.  She was in her mid-sixties, twice-divorced.  It was the new Millennium and she hadn't been on a real date since 1969.  It might have seemed more likely we'd send another man to the moon before Mom would find a date.

Six months later, Mom and Bob got hitched by a judge in South Dakota or Nebraska or somewhere along the highway to where they were heading for their honeymoon.  A year later they had a religious marriage blessing so the kooky kids weren't living so scandalously in sin.  They had a good life together.  Bob told dirty jokes.  Mom had smart comebacks.  They both liked to sip vodka and orange juice "highballs" while watching "The Lawrence Welk Show" or "Judge Judy" depending on what day it was.

Everybody carries on about how wonderful my mother is for taking such good care of Bob when he got sick.  But of course she would.  Bob was Mom’s muse.  He was her biggest fan and her best model:

"Bob Martinmaas" aka Papa Bob by Beverly Martinmaas aka Mom

Even though my parents got divorced, I know my dad loved my mom.  He really did seem to miss her when she left him.  But the only time I ever remember him praising her wasn't to her face.  It had been about a year since their divorce.  I met my dad for lunch at a Chinese restaurant.  One thing Dad and I have in common is our love of Chinese food.  So after they split, pretty much the only time I'd see my dad other than on holidays was when I'd meet him for lunch.  It was good because we couldn't talk much as we stuffed our faces with fried chicken in sugary, spicy sauce and complimentary ice cream cones.  While Dad was licking his ice cream cone and I was finishing my second plate of Chinese-style green beans, Dad said something that shocked me.

"Your mother is very smart.  And she's the nicest person I've ever met."

I almost cried right there on the spot.  "Oh, Daddy," I wanted to say, but I didn't want to act like a baby.

If only you'd told her that yourself once in awhile, and reminded yourself of her great attributes when you were yelling and bossing everyone around, maybe she wouldn't have left you.

Dad, Mom, and Me
Christmas 1970

It's been twenty years since my mom and dad got divorced.  I read once that the opposite of love is not hate.  The opposite of love is indifference.  Mom seems fine with Dad, finally.  She doesn't really care anymore.  She spent ten years building herself up and doing her own thing, and the last ten years with a man who truly appreciates her gifts.

Whenever I'd visit them, even this last time when Papa Bob wasn't doing too good and his memory was fading, he'd point at the artwork all over their walls and say, "Isn't she great?  That Bev.  She's a real artist."

"Becky Carleton" by Bev Martinmaas
Mom created me twice.  Through birth and through art.

I'm going to miss Papa Bob.  It was good to know someone who knows how to show his appreciation.