When I was six years old--some time in late 1985 or early 1986--my mother, brother, and I moved into a small cabin in Bixby Canyon in Big Sur, where her boyfriend, Pete, lived. We only stayed there for a year--half of first grade and half of second grade, as I always described it--but in that way that childhood stretches time in our memories, that period always looms large when I think over my life.
It's a strange to think that I was only a little bit older than Jason is now when we moved down there--I have such clear memories of the place and of the things I did there, and, of course, of Pete. I remember tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling it into little balls, and tossing them into the creek for the rainbow trout that lived under little foot bridge that went from the driveway to the front yard. Pete showed us how to do that. I also remember dropping a big rock off that bridge to try to squish a crawdad I saw, and how angry Pete got with me for scaring the fish away.
How I remember him now--and how I've remembered him at times past--is complicated, but it always seems to come back to those two things: teaching me things, and being angry with me.
The latter is what I mostly remembered about him when I was a teenager, after he and my mom finally split for good, after she married my stepdad, even into my college years. He's the only person who ever spanked me; he kept a piece of plywood hanging on a nail on the wall, and I remember the fear I'd feel when he'd reach for it. When he drank--which was often--he could become brooding and irritable. At the time I remember thinking he was unfair or mean, and even now it's astonishing to me how trivial some of the things that would set him off could be. He once spanked me for accidentally getting my socks wet in the creek. And I knew he was going to as soon as it happened--I remember putting my belt back on, thinking he wouldn't be able to get my pants down to spank me if I was wearing a belt, which, of course, didn't work.
And he was so unpredictable, too. Sometimes he was all equanimity, sometimes he had a short fuse. I remember on two occasions after watering the yard, I remarked that the plants were still green. The first time he looked at me thoughtfully and said, "Those, I think, are gazanias, and they're pretty hardy plants. They don't need much care, really." The second time he muttered bitterly, "At least for once you didn't kill those damn plants."
Often I reacted to his disapproval and anger with defiance, something that's always been a pattern for me. But, too, I remember wanting so much for him to love me, in ways that I didn't truly understand at the time. Once, his daughter came to visit him--the only time I can remember meeting her in all the years my mom was with him--and I remember being struck by how he treated her.
"Why is he so nice to her?" I asked my mom.
"Well, she's his daughter," she said. "He loves her."
"Why doesn't he love me?" I asked, and started crying. I remember the look on my mom's face as she tried to answer that question, and how frustrated and heartbroken I felt.
And yet, as much as I demonized Pete in my memory when I was younger, that wasn't the whole story. There are so many times that I think about now--times I didn't think about when I was a teenager--when he was genuinely interested in me and my brother, when he looked at us and smiled. The kind of smile that I can see now had real pride in it.
He built us a fort in an old, bent-over oak tree in his back yard, and he knew all the details of every story of aliens and monsters and adventures that I made up when we played in it. He introduced me both to Mel Brooks movies and to inserting movie quotations into daily life--the four of us used to spout off Hedley Lamarr lines and laugh and laugh. The first inklings I ever had of being a writer came when we lived in that cabin with him, and not only did he show real interest in my stories, but he also gave me both the first praise I can remember for my writing, and the first useful suggestions on how to make my stories better.
And he taught me things, things I still think about and use today. He taught me how to build a fire, how to comb my hair, how to tuck my shirt in straight. He taught me how to chop wood and hammer a nail. Everyone who knows my family knows that my mother is a talented cook, so you'd think I'd have gotten my culinary start from her, but in fact the first meal I ever cooked was a can of Stagg chili with a few dashes of worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, and fines herbes mixed in, along with a side of boiled new potatoes--a dish I learned from Pete. My love of John Wayne and Patsy Cline comes from the time I spent with him.
And even though he and my mom split when I was still young, so much of what I still think of as masculinity and strength comes from my image of him. Pete was such a man's man, in my memory, at least. He was a contractor by trade--I remember watching in awe as he and his coworkers poured a concrete foundation when he took me along on a job once--and an outdoorsman at heart. He loved fishing and hiking, pretty much everything about being outside, and he did his best to pass that on to me and my brother. I didn't often appreciate it at the time, being the kind of kid who would much rather sit in his room with a book than run around, but a lot of the respect I have for nature and simple living now comes from him.
I think I was ten when my mom and Pete finally called it quits. Since then I've seen him exactly twice. The first time was when I was in high school; I ran into him at a bank in Carmel when I was going to get some cash. We chatted briefly, and I remember being surprised when I told him that I was doing some acting as a hobby, and he responded that maybe I could make it more than a hobby. I don't know what I would have expected, but he was friendly and genial.
The last time I saw him was the summer I was a waiter at my father-in-law's restaurant. I was working the lawn on a weekend lunch shift, and he and his stepmother were taking a little walk down by the river. Again, he was friendly and interested in what was going on with me, and I think a little impressed that I was dating the daughter of the River Inn's owner. That was thirteen years ago now. I didn't think it would be the last time I'd ever see him. I didn't really think much about it at all.
A few weeks ago--God, I can't even remember exactly when--my mom called me at work and told me that Pete had died. An old friend of hers who was still in touch with Pete had let her know. I was stunned. I am stunned. And in time since then I've been busy. I've been working long shifts for weeks, trying to get a big project finished at my job, so much that I've barely had time to see my kids, let alone to process the fact that I'm never going to see this man again.
A couple of days ago Juliette showed me a note she'd gotten from my mom, describing the small ceremony Pete's daughter held to scatter his ashes. After I read it, I couldn't speak--I just sat there for a few minutes and tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. I don't know if it surprises me or not that I would be so affected by his death. It's been so long since he was a part of my life, but I think somehow I always thought that I'd reconnect with him some day. I wanted him to know what my life is like now, what I'm like now. How I turned out, and what kind of father I am. I guess maybe in some way I was still looking for his approval.
My mom had had contact with Pete and his family a few times over the years, and it's funny how differently he saw that time from how I did. She's told me that he always thought of himself having been a good influence on me and my brother, that he'd done right by us. The last I talked to her about him, a couple of weeks ago, she said she'd spoken to his sister, who'd said that he always talked about his time with my mom--with all of us--as the best years of his life.
How strange, the way that time erodes everything. Nowadays when I think of my year in Bixby Canyon, I can't help but think of it in terms of some garden of innocence, a natural playground of my youth. Is it that the years have worn away the bad memories and left only the good? Or was the pain of that time just too close for me to see the whole picture when I was younger? Every time I go home now, something is gone, something has changed. Every little piece feels like a bit of myself washed away down a river, never to be found again. Sometimes it seems like everything I do is an attempt to hold on to time, but it's not a thing you can keep in a jar on your shelf. Some day all of my fathers will be gone, some day all I'll have is memories and old photographs, maybe a laugh or a wistful conversation. How will I get by? How does anyone?
There's so much I don't know about Pete. I don't know when he was born or when, exactly, he died. I don't know, really, what his story was. In the past, I've judged him, maybe unfairly, and for that I'm sorry. I don't know what I can say that would be a fitting epitaph. But I think, maybe, what I can say is this: he did the best he could. In the end, maybe that's all anyone can ask for.