Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Behalf of the Father I Barely Knew

For much of my life I agreed with the prevailing cultural narrative imposed, that we the children who grew up in a home without fathers were somehow less than, doomed to fail and never would be whole as people. Under that way of thinking, creative writing became a way to fill the hole in my broken soul.

Several years ago when I lived in New York City, I heard Joan Didion speaking after the publication of her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking where she wrote about the death of her husband. Not long after that, her daughter who was in a coma, died. She said, "I write so I'll know what it is that I think." In this framework writers are uncovering their true thoughts and making meaning out of events. That idea deeply resonated and liberated me. In years of writing about has been my response to so-called ugly things. Sacred text calls it "beauty for ashes." That became my goal in writing, taking what appears to be charred remains of events and making something memorable of them: trading ashes for beauty.

Each time I've written in newspapers about my life-long estrangement from my father with that idea in mind, readers connected in a way I couldn't have expected. The first time I saw this connection was on Father's Day in 1990. My employer, the Tulsa World, carried a front page account of my father reuniting. For years the next two years afterward, because the story accompanied my picture, people stopped me on the streets of Tulsa to talk to me about it. They either complimented me or shared stories of their fathers. The most memorable one was when evangelist Oral Roberts saw me in south Tulsa and said, "You're the young man who wrote about your father. That was a beautiful and moving tribute," and he then shook my hand. As I wrote about the events as they unfolded over the subsequent years, his death in 1995 for The Salt Lake Tribune, and the laying of his and his father's tombstone for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1997, I fell in love with the way narrative storytelling helped me discover my deepest thoughts. I had found my joy.

As I've been writing a memoir, my father's absence and presence loom large over the text. I've discovered so much more about him. This year I feel inspired to honor of his memory for Father's Day. The Salt Lake Tribune has graciously allowed me to repost the 1995 column that ran six months after his death. I've attached one of the rare pictures I have of him. On behalf of all of the fathers out there, known and unknown, Happy Father's Day.

In a few weeks, I will purchase my father's tombstone. Although I did not know him well, no one should remain in an unmarked grave. Our relationship was never fulfilling, but I wanted to make the final gesture.

A stranger found Samuel Autman Sr.'s body face-down, frozen in a vacant lot in Peoria, Ill., on Jan. 2 (1995). My father was last seen alive walking the streets after buying a beer at a liquor store. He apparently fell, broke his hip and could not get back on his feet. He was 50 years old.

My parents divorced in 1971 when I was 4 years old. I have vivid, turbulent memories of phones being ripped off walls and dishes broken. Through my eyes, he was the villain, terrorizing his family long before the term "domestic violence" was popularized. The word father struck terror in me.

Shortly after the divorce, he snatched my sister and me from my teary-eyee mother, dumping us at his mother's house in Louisiana. For nine months, we bounced from Missouri to Arkansas to Louisiana and back to Missouri. We practically lived in lawyers offices.

Ultimately, the courts awarded us to my mother. Most of the kids growing up on my block were the children of divorce living with their mothers. For me it would be nearly 20 years before I would ever look into my father's eyes and hear his side of the story.

Just Like Him: One day in the spring of 1990, I was sitting at my computer terminal, writing a story at the Tulsa World. The telephone rang.

"This is your daddy, " he said with caution and genuine interest in his voice. "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine. How are you," I said, fighting to overcome that familiar lump that seized my throat whenever I thought of him. He was in Oklahoma and wanted to see me. We agreed to meet the next day.

Upon arriving at his motel room, I saw his door was ajar. As it popped open, I stood in amazement, confronting a face like mine, only 20 years older. His tall frame, large hands and big feet were familiar.

"Hello. How are you," I said, nervously extending my hand.

"It's good to see you, son," he said. "I prayed to God for this moment for years."

Before me stood a broken man, full of regret. He had spent years plotting for just the right time to reach out to his children but feared rejection. Before me stood a key to my past, present and future. Before me stood another view of why the marriage collapsed. It would be an irreplaceable day we would spend together.

We laughed and talked the day away. I made several mental notes of our similarities. He, too, hated being called "Sammy" and was intensely interested in the spiritual nature of things. I was frighteningly like him, though we were nearly strangers.

Lasting image. But our relationship never jelled after the Tulsa reconciliation. I wrote letters and called him. Because he was so reclusive, refusing to have a phone, I could only leave messages with other relatives. After his death, my aunt discovered a cache of letters he had written to me but never mail. He would have the last word between us.

One of the last images I have of my father alive is of him wearing cowboy boots, Levis and a cowboy hate, digging his father's grave back in 1991, as I looked on. His father had abandoned him as a child, too. Now they are buried next to each other.

The older I get, the more I understand the endless ways parents shape their children's lives -- whether they be absent or present. I had always believed the divorce never really affected me other than putting me in a different income bracket. My father was a hothead who made some poor choices. Those decisions cost him a marriage and family.

Father's Day has never meant much to me, but this year it is different.

Through his death, I realize I am truly my father's son. I resemble him. I walk, talk and laugh like he did. Sometimes I feel his rage in me. Although his body is six feet under in a cemetery in Rayville, La., I don't know that I will ever really bury him. © The Salt Lake Tribune