Dad told a story where I imagined the blackest sky with millions of stars surrounding and cradling his bedroom. It left an indelible impression. When he was a young boy during the Depression and living on a farm in Indiana, he would lie in bed at night listening to the distant train whistles calling him. He would dream of leaving his home and hopping on that train to embark on fascinating world adventures where he’d meet unique people on his travels. Dad was a history nut and very curious about cultures.
But dad’s first chance to travel overseas was at the age of nineteen, when he went off to war. He was a gunner for the Army Air Force stationed with maneuvers all through Europe, as well as Africa. It was not the magic he longed for and dreamed of; it was a miracle that he stayed alive. His back was injured in a near plane crash. Pain would flare up from time-to-time, but his spirit was marked forever. His war experiences rendered him a tortured soul with nowhere to go but alcohol for relief.
Dad never did manifest the dreams he’d envisioned. Men who lived in his era were thought of as weak if they expressed their fears. Alcohol temporarily numbed the painful memories dad carried back home from the war. I still feel sad that he couldn’t jump a train to discover and experience fascinating adventures.
Dad was the first man I fell in love with—which I know is common for daughters. As my sole
parent, he had the most profound influence on launching me into life and the type of boys I’d be drawn to. I’m sure my mother, the one who gave birth to me, even without ever having a chance to raise me and see who I’d become, had hoped to nurture a strong and happy foundation in her daughter, and knew dad would not be able to build a grounded place for his motherless daughter.
I’ve flailed and floated through life like seaweed moving with the wind and tide without knowing where I belonged. From some subconscious place, I’ve searched a lifetime for my mother. I’ve sought a feminine life force that spreads like tree roots that move sidewalks with their undeniable strength. But it was not to be.
I continue the challenging journey to be a nurturer to myself, a challenge intensified by inheriting my mother’s genetics, blossoming into cancer. It made me think of how awful it must have been so far back in time, when little was known or done for breast cancer patients and how it brought a feeling of shame to my lovely and sweet southern birthmother. If there were a way to discover my mother by jumping a train to talk with her just one time, I would’ve jumped that magical train a long time ago. I close my eyes and imagine a beautiful mermaid who resembles the beauty of my mother, wrapping her arms around me in soothing waters.
With all the barbs passing back and forth between my father and I, we didn’t have emotionally telling conversations about my mother--her life, her loves, or her dreams. I’d become known for my smart-ass ways amongst friends and dad liked it that way. It was a shared comfort zone.
I still feel a deep hole in my heart for not having the chance to participate in deep conversations with dad. He left the world early when I was in my twenties and had proven my strength and strong will to dad, but I lacked direction and was as lost as an orphan. There are so many things I wanted to know about my mother through dad’s eyes. What was their love and relationship like? Did she love me? What was she like with me as a baby before she died? Did she suffer?
I have so many unanswered questions.
What dad did tell me was that my mother looked like the actress Ida Lupino. “You have your mother’s figure,” he’d said. I felt prouder than I ever had before as a blossoming teenager of sixteen. My elegant mother possessed the beauty of Ida Lupino, and dad looked like a cross between Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, with intense blue eyes that could look right through a person. I have the impression that my mother and father were as stunning as any Hollywood glamour couple.
I want to have known what it was like for my dad to lose the wife he adored, and then in that unbearable loss, be saddled with raising two little kids. My uncle told me that whenever my mother and father were in a room together, sparks would fly from their chemistry. Sparks didn’t fly in that hospital room that smelled like ammonia where my mother laid in a bed behind stiff white curtains. I’m sure dad prayed, begged, for God to heal his wife, and highly likely that was the last time he prayed or begged God for anything. Before he married again, dad didn’t have family nearby to provide support and help take care of us when he worked and traveled for
business. What his feelings were at that time, I never did find out. Losing a wife, a job, and dreams was difficult, especially with two small children who depended on him.
I’ll bet he could hear that train whistle calling…all his life.
Years later, my aunt who lived in Kentucky told me that dad tried to get her to take me and my brother. This was blurted out in a conversation while she was driving top speed down a country road on a visit my brother and I made to her when we were in our late thirties. My brother glanced at me in a knowing manner as I realized he had already been privy to this piece of news. He had felt that any love and admiration I had for dad was undeserved.
I know this because one typical sunny day in Los Angeles, my brother and I were walking at our usual fast clip on Santa Monica Boulevard. We were arguing over something about dad. I mentioned a cherished memory about him, and my brother responded by saying, “Oh please, Valerie, dad was a scoundrel.”
I knew he was partially right, but hearing those words float out there amidst smog and traffic hit my core so hard I felt my chest closing. My brother and aunt were close and cut from the same cloth. My aunt threw this piece of news at me while communicating some past grievance she had with her brother. I wondered what made her think that I would want news that would feel like a bucket of arctic water thrown in my face causing a familiar feeling of my chest closing in on me. It would bring up the question of wondering if dad ever genuinely loved or wanted us.
Dad was no longer around to defend himself, but I knew it was true that in his grief and feeling incapable of raising kids on his own, he looked for alternatives. I got through those years believing that when dad did focus on me, I was the apple of his eye. Imagination and delusion are often a saving grace. In his way, dad loved me and believed I was a very capable woman. Starting when I was a young teen, he would always say, “You’re a fighter. Go conquer the world, dear girl.”
It would’ve been so much easier for dad to give us to his sister when we were three and five years old. My aunt said she told her brother, “Jack, you need those kids.” Perhaps dad did need us, but my brother and I needed him more.
To this very day, whenever I hear a train in the distance with its lovely, lonely whistle carried through the wind as I lay in my own bed during the silent late hours, I think of dad long ago lying on a small bed dreaming of jumping on a train for enticing destinations. I imagine he cast his hopes and visions to stars shining in the black midwestern night envisioning marvelous things to come…just as I continue to do when I hear the rumbling and lone whistle of that distant train.
Dad likely wanted to jump a train when he became a widower and single parent, but something deep inside, that sensitive part of his heart, kept him from physically abandoning us. The train whistle blew in the distance where his dreams went down an endless track. The hard upbringing, living through the Depression, the horrors of war, lost dreams, a pretty and sweet wife dying…all had a way of forever shutting down that boy’s bright hope. But dad also grew up in a generation
where people rose to the occasion and did what had to be done—and he had to be a father as best he could.
He didn’t leave his young kids behind and jump that train to follow wondrous dreams. It took until the day he turned fifty-seven to leave the globe after years of alcoholism and smoking to mask the wounds and not jump on that train when he had the chance. Like the black midwestern sky that held endless stars, the world he passed to may have stars that carry you like a train to your dreamy bliss. I yearn to see my own dreams burgeoning not only for my own desires, but on behalf of my father. I’ll listen for the distant whistle until I no longer have the capacity to hear beautifully haunting sounds that still my turbulent mind.
Valerie Anne Burns has had essays from her book, Caution: Mermaid Crossing, Voyages of a Motherless Daughter published in Deep Overstock, Sea to Sky Review, HerStry, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Rituals Anthology. She is a breast cancer survivor and presents a workshop “Living and Healing Through Color”. She lives by the sea with her therapy cat, Lucia.
More info, blog, and social media can be found at https://www.valerieanneburns.com/