"Greater things are believed of those who are absent." Tacitus
I didn’t know much about my father until I was 18 years old. I knew who is was, but his life was a mystery. I lived most of my life up until that point, where my mother was home with us, and Daddy came home every two weeks. Seemed normal to us. It had always been that way. He would arrive on a Friday and leave on Sunday morning on alternating weekends. He drove a Packard for a while, then switched over to an old Ford Ranchero, that had burn damage. I can remember one time he came in a Cadillac and said it was his boss’s car.
As we understood it, Daddy worked in the oil business and traveled. There had been 5 of us boys, Mike had passed away at age six when I was three. We moved a lot when I was younger and the reason had always been suggested that the moves were to get closer to where Mike was being treated for his ailments. Still, Daddy came every other weekend. He paid the bill at the grocery store where we shopped, he might take us to a restaurant, mostly he sat in his rocker, went for walk with us boys and smoked his cigars.
He told us he was 65 years old. He looked it. He was in good health for a 65-year-old who smoked cigars. The thing was, he was always 65. When I was 18, my mother decided to tell us the story. Daddy wasn’t 65 and he didn’t travel. He lived in a small town in Oklahoma where he was a lawyer. Our mother decided to tell us the story because they were getting married. Turns out, he was 67 when I was born. He was now 85. They were getting married because his first wife had died.
We weren’t stupid kids. We had our suspicions. My oldest brother knew. He had followed him back to Oklahoma and found his law office. A lot of things crystalized for me, my brother Tommy and I had taken him to a conference in New Mexico. We dropped him off and went exploring. We came back early and he was sitting in the hotel lobby with a woman who looked a lot like our brother David. Turns out, it was his daughter. She was the same age as our mother.
The story of my father’s life unfolded bit by bit. He was born in 1888. When he was a teenager he joined a traveling band of entertainers and spent several years on the Vaudeville circuit. He sang and danced, performed acrobatics, told stories and jokes, played the piano and guitar. At a point he fell and injured himself doing an act on a slack rope while playing the guitar. He physically couldn’t his act anymore so he got a job working for a lawyer, learned the law and passed the bar. He was married and had a daughter. His first wife developed a mental illness and had to be institutionalized, where she remained for years and years. In the meantime, he met my mother and they had five sons.
Times were different. They couldn’t get married. He felt he couldn’t get divorced because of his commitment to his wife and so we lived our entire lives within driving distance of his home in Oklahoma. When his wife died, he and Mama got married. All of us boys got some portion of his talents. Jim and Tommy were musical, playing piano, guitars and singing. David was an artist who could paint and draw, just like him. I found out he wrote a newspaper column for the paper in his little Oklahoma town every week. All of us got some of his innate intelligence.
As kids, we lived a pretty hard life. Thinking about it at the time of the revelation, there was some resentment. He had a nice big house in Oklahoma and we lived on a farm without running water for a time. We didn’t have nice clothes and our mother struggled to make ends meet. Later, as my life unfolded, what I realized is that I got independence and self-reliance. I ventured out and made my own way, as did my brothers. We never had to rely on anyone except ourselves as we developed our careers and made homes for our families.
The unique aspects of our lives didn’t seem weird at the time because it was just how things were. Daddy’s real name wasn’t even on our birth certificates. He was an old man when we met him. He died at age 91. The other thing we didn’t know about him was his family. On his 90th birthday, his older sisters came to visit, they brought him wind up toys. Looking back, the best times in our family where the weekends when he was home, there was laughter and music in the house. He told us his old vaudeville jokes, played his original songs on the piano and talked to us about life. Who knows if any of it was true?
Phillip J Hubbell is a writer, project manager and job seeker, living in the American Midwest