Groceries unpacked, I had rewarded myself with a Coke when the doorbell rang. Can in hand, I came face-to-face with my younger sister who had no reason not to be back in Illinois that I’d been aware of. Had she left Leroy? On-and-off-again relationships were common with my family but hopefully not dependable Mary Ann. She being nearest my age and my level of shared trust of all my siblings, any decision about sharing my stash of legal documents with family suddenly became more immediate.
“Come on in to my messy house. You’ve got some explaining to do.” My usual short and to-the-point sister greeting. “I’ll put some coffee on.”
“Guess what.” Allowing no time for any response, “We’re moving to North Dakota.” My reaction cut off in mid gasp, “Leroy bought a farm next to his Dad’s. One hundred and eighty acres.”
“That’s nice.” Since neither of us city girls had a clue of what an acre was, I assume she merely echoed Leroy’s enthusiasm.
“It’s a dairy farm.”
With an image from Dad’s nostalgic recounts about farm life in Wisconsin, I blurted, “Cows? Pigs? Chickens?” Replacing Dad with my sister in that picture didn’t fit.
“Just cows. And a bull. Leroy don’t believe in artificial whatever it’s called.” Spoken like a not quite yet farmer.
“With your kids?” A silly question, but I had trouble squeezing them into that developing scenario.
“Of course. They’re excited about being with their other grandparents.”
Our sons, born within days of each other, had strengthened our bond, but moving to Illinois soon after put some distance between us. North Dakota didn’t feel that much closer.
Details of their decision exhausted by a second cup of coffee—and Coke, I approached my subject of interest. “Do you ever look back on those years when Dad had all his problems with the court?”
“Not without getting mad at Hachey all over again.”
The importance of the research I eagerly pursued had suddenly dimmed, and might disappear entirely as far as family is concerned. It will have dead-ended with me; any of my siblings ever digging into the matter is unlikely. However, discussing the little our family knows, or think it knows, is still fair game.
“Dad’s starting to drink quite heavy.” Continuing to drink, but I needed a starting point for our conversation.
“He’s welcome to join us in North Dakota. It’s a big farm house and getting him away from St. Paul might be a good idea.” Touching a nerve, she added, “Leroy would be a good influence on Dad.”
My husband, Tim, until joining Alcoholics Anonymous, had an overwhelming influence over Dad, quite the opposite what Mary Ann suggested from her husband. I discouraged the idea. “Dad would never give up his job at Third Street Bar.”
“Ma said that’s temporary, just until he finds an automotive job.”
“You know Dad’s employment history. Always claimed to know more about the business than any of his bosses. He’d either walk away or get fired. After completing that course at Dunwoody Institute, he did have more knowledge about automatic transmissions than most.” I shook my head in frustration. “Still that superior attitude.”
“He did well with his beer and snacks route, until he stepped on some hoodlum’s toes.”
I left that false impression ride. The hoodlum was a local mafia boss who actually protected Dad’s venturing into Wisconsin. They were old buddies. He even wanted to hire Dad as a body guard after the war. Dad refused, probably his best decision ever, and they often played cribbage until Dad met Mother. “He quit that delivery job after an attempted robbery. Some colored fellow picked on the wrong guy for drug money. When cornered, Dad will protect himself.”
Mary Ann asked, “Is that when the NAACP got involved? I thought that was just one of Dad’s stories.”
“They defended Dad, even though one of their people got hurt pretty bad. Dad quit driving because he injured his back unloading beer barrels.”
“So, he takes a job at a bar and gets involved with a motorcycle gang.”
Away from St. Paul these past four years, my sister seemed well informed of family matters. My expression must have given away my surprise.
She explained, “Ma told me about some guy named Tiny and his motorcycle gang.”
“Gossip hardly worth the cost of a long-distance call.”
“No, not over the phone. Just yesterday, at home.”
“In St. Paul? At Conway?” Home should refer to husband and family, not back with Mommy and Daddy. Or, maybe I’m just envious of Mary Ann’s nostalgia for the place where we grew up.
“Yeah. Been back a week. I took Ma shopping and out to get her hair cut.”
“Back a week already?” Trying to make light of her slight, I chuckled. “Catering to Mother’s vanity.”
As a child, I longed to run my fingers through her hair. She wouldn’t allow me to get that close.
“What’s with the gun? Ma mentioned a revolver, but didn’t elaborate.”
“Belongs to the bar’s owner, keeps it hidden in a drawer near the cash register. A few weeks ago, Dad refused to serve one of Tiny’s buddies because he was drunk and obnoxious. The guy must have stewed a couple of days before rousing the gang to rough up Dad a bit.” A tidbit of information that should and did get my sister’s attention. “Tiny warned Dad ahead of time, and they hatched a plan. When a bunch of motorcycles pulled up in front of the bar and the gang tromped in, Dad greeted them holding the revolver like he was John Wayne. In a calm voice he said, ‘I’ll serve you, but I don’t want any trouble.’”
“Faking surprise, Tiny stepped forward and said, ‘Oh Hell, let’s just have a drink and let bygones be bygones.’ They all proceeded to get drunk.”
“Dad shouldn’t be messing with guns, especially at a bar.”
“I got on his case, too. He just sloughed me off. Claimed it wasn’t even loaded.”
“I’m surprised that Ma puts up with him anywhere near a gun, even if it’s not loaded. She sold his shotgun while he was…” Mary Ann paused as if trying to find the right word. “Gone.”
“Nearly gave it away, according to Dad. The guy took advantage of Mother because she didn’t understand its real value.” I accidently touched on Dad’s superior attitude toward his wife and most other women. With Mother, I agree he’s smarter, but she seems to have more common sense. Makes it all the more difficult for him to give up a good deal of control to her and his mother. I felt his defeat.
I changed the subject to another family trauma. “Do you remember the fire?”
Eyes lit up. “That kid could have gotten all of us burned to death. And what was his mother thinking? Shutting the closet door and leaving their apartment like nothing happened.”
“The kid was a pyromaniac and she covered for him.”
Mary Ann asked, “Were you home when it happened?”
A fair question. I was in junior high school and seldom hung around the apartment during the day, or even after dark, for that matter. “All eight of us kids were. Don’t you remember?”
“I was only ten. But I can still picture Ma walking us to Aunt Rita’s small apartment like a bunch of chicks following Mother Hen. Lucky Ma was there when the fire broke out.” Mary Ann peered into her coffee cup. “Seems like she’d been gone a lot. Was she working?” Her attention focused on Mother rather than Dad.
“The job at Whirlpool came later, after Hasting put Dad on out-patient status. At the time of the fire, she kept herself busy trying to get Dad transferred out of St. Peter.”
“And taking care of us kids.” Mary Ann reminisced. “I remember moving to the Projects quite clearly. Less crowded than at Aunt Rita’s, but the boys got the bigger bedroom, and four of us girls squeezed into the smaller one.”
“We had lived there years earlier.”
“I must have been a baby. How did we…?
I paused but Mary Ann failed to complete her question.
“When I got hepatitis from that filthy back yard and passed it on to our parents, Dad moved us back to the apartment on Seventh Street where we used to live with Grandma Leslie.” Thinking about that place conjured many unhappy memories as a toddler. Grandma fighting with my mother and forced out of her own apartment. Mother leaving me unattended and I fell off the second story porch. My being sent back to my Wisconsin grandmother because Mother was pregnant with Mary Ann. I can still feel Grandma’s swats across my butt with a willow switch.
“When did we move to the apartment on Ostego where that kid nearly burned the place down?”
“After a year or so on Simms Avenue.”
Mary Ann’s mood turned somber. “I remember moving often.” She brightened. “Well, once Dad got out of the hospital, it didn’t take him long to get us moved out of the Projects to our own house on Conway.”
“Thanks to being put back on one hundred percent disability. He made the down payment with the three years back pay he received.” The moment seemed right. “After nine months of lock-up at St. Peter, do you think Hastings’ psychiatrists should have allowed Dad that much freedom so soon? He was barely there a month.”
“No thanks to Hachey!”
“I suspect the judge made his decision and couldn’t change his mind without looking weak.” A deep plunge. “Dad could have gone haywire again and done something worse. Maybe even killed someone.”
“Dad would never do that.” Mary Ann voiced the opinion I’d shared until I read the newspaper accounts.
“That’s what we thought that back then.”
A childhood vision flashed of Dad asleep on the couch yelling and firing a make believe rifle into the air. Ma shooed us off to our rooms, said Dad was having a nightmare. Little did we know how his nightmare would become ours.
Mary Ann’s opinion remained firm. “Well, he’s a different man now.” She reflected, “That part of my life is cloudy. I was still in elementary school. All I remember is crying myself back to sleep ‘cause Dad wasn’t there to tuck me in.”
“You had Mother,” a direction I hadn’t intended for this conversation.
“Ma wasn’t as affectionate as Dad.”
“She let you brush her hair.” There, it was out, my only childhood envy of any of my siblings. Mother had long soft hair but, like touching a hot stove, a second attempt didn’t happen.
“Fixing her hair was my chore. We all had our jobs to do.”
“I never thought of it that way.” My leadership role in our family, belated but glaringly necessary, to stand up for my father as a counter to siblings who side in with our mother, or don’t give a damn about either. Mute though it must be, I will maintain my opinion about our father’s too casual treatment by his psychiatrist, a feeling I had resisted until researching the facts. He shot two men with little or no provocation. Location of the entry wounds indicted an intent to kill rather than just wound. Within inches, just one of the bullets would have changed Dad’s charge from attempted murder to first or second degree, or an insanity plea that would have been taken more seriously.
My head tells me Judge Hachey’s opinion was correct, and my heart sides in with those who diminished Dad’s crime. Why hadn’t I left the matter rest with family lore rather than dig into the facts? Consider the entire coverage of Dad’s criminal act buried permanently, along with the curiosity of one snoopy daughter.
The conversation with my sister steered back to Dad spending time in North Dakota. I agreed to work toward that goal, if I can’t get him to help himself without having to leave home.