|Winter 2015 Fiction, Memoir & Poetry Anthology | Contents | Authors | echapbook.com
I don’t know when Bill left. My mother told me it was at my christening when I was three weeks old, but lately I’ve seen pictures of us cuddling together when I was older, maybe four or so. Who knows? Anyway, I have no visual memory of him when I was younger. His name was never mentioned at my house, but there were rolled eyes, unfinished sentences, and people speaking about “you know who.” I remember once being in the bathtub and getting out of the tub to lock the door before I announced that I was going to write Bill and ask him if he would buy me a new bike. My mother was on the other side of the door seething, but there was complete silence.
My mother and stepfather were loving parents, but there were many unwritten rules, fundamentalist Christian ideals, Republican rhetoric and a lack of humor that too often trumped real connection, exploration or just plain fun that I longed for.
Somewhere along the way I became really curious about this man Bill. My maternal grandmother seemed like a natural resource, but when we got right down to it, her response was Victorian. She was shocked, bug-eyed. I think she even choked a little. What had I heard? How did I know? I felt like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It was interesting to watch and I felt a little power, but I didn’t get much of a reading on my dad.
My mother had an identical twin sister. She would usually start out by saying he was a “goddamn selfish son of a bitch” and then move on. We only had a few conversations, but they all started with “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this but…” And then there would be renderings of South America and other women. After a little while, depending on how long it took her to see the pain I was trying to conceal, she would throw in some color: he had a loving mother, he was president of his class, all-American in three sports and a hero in the war. How I wish I could’ve held on to just the colors. Somewhere along the way, I put the whole mess in a box and closed the lid.
Many years later when I was working on Wall Street, a message appeared on my desk: “Call Bill Illingworth. Would it be possible to meet at the around 7:30?” My body went into some form of high alert and when I tried to read the message a second time I could hardly make out the words. Where was my secretary? Could there be two Bill Illingworths? Could it be a client? Perhaps it was a joke. I tried to squeeze every bit of information I could from my secretary. How did he sound? What do you mean it was a woman? Are you sure she had a southern accent? I took a deep breath and called the number and said, “Hello this is Barbara.”
A woman answered. “Barbie darling I am delighted to hear your voice. Bless your heart. Bill will be so pleased you can join us. We will meet you in the bar.” As I hung up I realized I had not even said I was able to join them. I wondered how he had found me.
I arrived at the hotel a little late. His wife Martha recognized me first, and waved me over to a table in the corner. Her suit was yesterday’s Chanel. Her arms looked insecure with too much gold. The dead fox around her neck and the white gloves were out of place. She was trying hard to hold onto better times. It surprised me; I had heard she was very wealthy.
It didn’t take long before I realized Bill had not been part of the plan. He had spent the day in Washington on business and would be surprised to find me there. I wanted to run. Martha sipped her martini and alternated between asking cute questions and sharing inflated history. I swear she ended every other sentence with “be that as it may.”
“Feel free to call me Mobi. That would be for Martha O’Brien Illingworth. My daddy was a very successful tobacco broker in Virgina. Be that as it may. Did you know your granddaddy was a four-star Admiral and your heritage comes from the Mayflower? You’re working where? I know nothing about work. Would you care for an olive?”
Was Bill up in their room? Had she left him a note? What was her plan? After what seemed like hours, I saw him coming around the corner. I don’t know how I recognized him. He was handsome and walking fast. I saw him wipe the sweat off his brow. I was pleased. We would be on equal ground.
Before he got to the table he was in full control, a hand on my shoulder and a slap on the back. “God damn what a surprise! Turn around, let me have a look at you.”
He was dressed in a dark suit striped tie and a white shirt with a tiny white monogram on the cuff of his sleeve. His shoes were spit polished. The only things that distinguished him from the crowd were his Annapolis ring and 18- carat-gold-football cufflinks.
Mobi mumbled something about checking in on their children and retreated. After a half an hour of trying to catch up on a lifetime, Bill took out a picture of himself, turned it over and wrote his address and two dates, December 25 and July 20, his birthday. He slid the picture across the table. “Write me on these two occasions and I’ll set you up.” What the hell did he mean, “set me up”? Shit! Had he turned into some ordinary sugar daddy game show host? I walked out like a lady, but I slammed the door in his face.
I continued walking through various jobs, more schooling, assorted relationships and marriage. One day while sorting through scrapbooks I came across a snapshot of Bill and my mother. I was surprised that it pleased me to see my parents in the same picture. I felt my body release tension I didn’t even know I had.
I didn’t think much about him again until I was eight months pregnant with my first child. I was in my studio painting a portrait of a friend’s child when it struck me that my baby could be just like my father. I started flipping through the different versions of him that I was holding in my head—sugar daddy, handsome, goddamn son of a bitch, athlete, hero. I had no idea what was real. I immediately wrote my father and told him about the pending birth of my son, and I invited him to come and visit. When the baby was born he sent a Tiffany's sterling silver Mint Julep cup with Charlie’s initials, birth date and his initials. I am sure that “be that as it may” ordered the cup and initiated the first meeting in New York.
Over the next month there were phone calls and quick notes back and forth. I sent him videos of Charlie. Mobi sent a big box full of long white christening dresses. Finally at Christmas time, they all came to visit. The house was scrubbed and decorated for the holidays. The fire roared, Christmas carols played. For the first time, I met my two half-sisters and an adopted brother. Molly was seven years younger than I, smart and eager to get to know me. Shelley, obviously the star in the family, was competing with Charlie for attention. And Fletcher was shy and quiet. It was amazing how much the girls and I looked alike.
There were several years of multi-generational meals with copious picture taking. The conversation was usually fun but superficial. Periodically Mobi would slip in little digging references to “all the money that had been sent to my mother for my support.” I remember being shocked. It was my impression my mother never received a dime.
Eventually I wanted something different. I was perpetually orchestrating group events and never really having time to just share with Bill. Somewhere between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Harvard-Yale game I gathered my courage and I asked Bill if it would be possible for just the two of us to spend time together. He hesitated at first. A week later he sent an invitation to me to come visit him in Pasadena. I was welcome to bring Charlie if I thought that would be a good idea. He informed me that several of his friends had grandchildren and that there were lots of caregivers around and pools and putting greens and things that Charlie would enjoy. I had no idea how he was going to pull off alone with Mobi seemingly omnipresent, but Mobi did have her own routine. I spent one of the days with her. She invited me to join her at the horse races. Bill and Charlie all but ruined their master bedroom jumping on the beds while Mobi and I drove off in her yellow Cadillac. She was dressed in her summer equivalent of the fox outfit. The first stop was church for morning prayer, probably some form of confession, a chit chat with the priest, slipping a little cash in the basket for reassurance, then proceeding directly to the race track for a liquid lunch, a little betting with the information from the valet and a peek at her one/one thousandth of a race horse, home for cocktails, tiny bite of something and early to bed. I remember opening the refrigerator and seeing a freezer full of the newest equivalent of TV dinners and a bottle of vodka. Nothing else was there. From then on I didn’t see much of Mobi and I did spend every waking hour with Bill.
I understood that he must be very lonely in his home and depended on his friends for fun. Bill told me he had one obligation during that first week Charlie and I were there and he hoped I would participate. One of his friends with a reputation for being a mother hen was having a surprise 70th birthday party. Everyone was expected to come in chicken-related attire. I have no memory of what I concocted to wear but I do remember feeling confident and willing to participate with seniors. Mobi went as a plucked pullet and looked the part. Bill wore his blue blazer with a New York Yacht Club emblem on the pocket, definitely a first class chicken. When we arrived at the party, the hostess answered the door in a see-through negligee, proudly announcing, “I've just been laid.” Seeing Bill's friend turning 70 was a lot more fun than anything I had ever experienced in my mother’s house. While I don't show up in see-through négligées at parties, I definitely am more spontaneous.
Bill also hired a limo to take us to Disneyland with VIP passes. The three of us romped our way through pirate raids and haunted mansions. Bill was a great sport. Together we managed to curb Charlie's exuberance while also sharing heart-felt information. We made a promise that we would meet every year for a vacation and we have done that faithfully. We have visited sites of the Civil War, driven the Shenandoah Valley, met relatives in Jefferson Indiana. But mostly we’ve met in Pasadena or Palm Springs.
We do not really have a father-daughter relationship. We are able to be silly and play together. We can banter around intellectual ideas and disagree on political issues. He has shared his experiences at Pearl Harbor. We have made Baked Alaska together and coached each other in parenting. He has creamed me at tennis. And held me when I’ve cried. We have gotten angry with each other and laughed about it later. There is lots of gentle teasing. I would bet on a daily basis I laugh so hard tears roll down my cheeks.
He is not perfect. I really have no idea what kind of a husband or father he is. But for me he is like a breath of fresh air. He is the perfect antidote for my black and white upbringing.
I remember when I told my mother that I wanted a divorce and she said “I hope you do it right.” When I told Bill I wanted to leave my husband, he was sympathetic; he shared some of his personal experiences about marriage. Where he had failed and succeeded, and what he would do differently. He told me about almost having an affair and how that affected him. He suggested I date lots before I remarry. “Enjoy the sexual freedom.” He encouraged me to pursue my talents. Get a PhD. Get a good lawyer and call him if I needed help.
When I see him tonight, he will look me straight in the eye and say, “Hi Barbar, how’s my number one daughter doing?” I’m sure it’s because I’m the oldest, but I like how it sounds anyway. This time, I’m going to remember to tell him how much I appreciate and love him. I think I will also thank Mobi. When Charlie gives Bill a gentle slap on the back, a big hug and a hearty “How is my favorite grandfather?” I wonder if Bill will see how much they are alike.
|© 2015, Barbara G. Hallowell
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