By Bob Chrisman
I possess no physical evidence to offer in defense of my father. Family stories and my own fragmented memories comprise what little I know of him. Fifty-seven years have blurred much of what I remembered, but I will bear witness for him.
At a trial, the court clerk would instruct me to raise my right hand. “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” I would hesitate before I answered. I don’t know the “truth.” I only know my truth. But the court doesn’t want to hear my doubts. The only answer to the question is, “I do.”
My Father – 8 Months Old, circa 1914, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.
On February 28, 1914, my father, Len Chrisman, became the first child of H.T. and Annie Chrisman. In September of that same year, H.T.’s gall bladder ruptured. The resulting infection killed him. My father never knew his father, not even from stories, because his mother didn’t talk about the man.
Several men courted the Widow Chrisman. A local banker, my father’s favorite, asked her several times to marry him, but she refused.
When she remarried in 1920, she chose a widower, William Hecker, who had seven children. By all accounts, including some from his children, he was a very angry man. Mr. Hecker stipulated one condition for the marriage. “You must promise that you’ll never favor your son over my children.” She promised, and she never broke a promise.
My father rarely talked about the mother of his childhood. I remember him saying, “She married him because the children needed a mother. She felt sorry for them.”
The step-daughters resented her. Ruth, the oldest, had already married and left home. Fern and Gladys soon followed their oldest sister’s lead. The remaining daughter, Myrtle, who was my father’s age, loved both her new stepmother and stepbrother. The teenaged stepsons, Ralph and Glenn, took after their father. They hated my dad because he had been an only child with a mother all to himself. The remaining step-son, Everett, died in 1926. My father rarely spoke of him, except to say, “He died too young.”
Early in the marriage they lived in western Nebraska. One day the boys roped my dad and dragged him behind a horse through cactus patches. “I never cried. Mom pulled the needles out of my bottom and back with a pair of pliers. I didn’t cry then either. I never let them have that satisfaction.” His voice remained flat as he told the first part of the story, but cracked when he said. “You know, my own mother didn’t say anything to Dad Hecker or to the boys.”
A high school teacher offered to send him to college and pay his expenses. My father wanted to go. “Mom and Dad Hecker listened politely. The last thing he said was, ‘A brilliant mind like his shouldn’t go to waste.’”
“Mom answered as soon as he finished, didn’t even take time to mull it over. ‘None of the other kids went to college. Len doesn’t need to go either.’ It wouldn’t have cost them anything. I left the room because I was so mad at her.”
Her decision doomed my dad to a lifetime of farm labor and blue collar jobs. He worked at a dairy. He worked in a foundry, a meat packing plant, and finally in a grain mill. He never fit in with his fellow workers. He read too much, thought too much.
My father met my mother in the mid-1930’s. She lived down the street from his parents. The two became friends. In the late 1930’s he traveled to Oregon to pick fruit because local jobs didn’t exist. His traveling companions were his future brothers-in law. He wrote letters to my mother. She saved them, called them “love letters” even though they contained no obvious expressions of love, other than “Love, Len.”
I asked my mother why she married him. At that time, he had been bedridden for five years. “Did you love him?”
She dodged the question. “I promised myself that I would marry someone like my dad.”
“Was Daddy like him?”
“No, he was nothing like my father. I felt sorry for Len. He needed me.” I cringed. My heart hurt. She hadn’t loved my father. I didn’t ask any more questions because I didn’t want to know the answers.
In 1942, my sister was born. My father loved her. She was his special child.
In 1943 his stepfather died, but not before he secured a promise from his wife to watch over Ralph. My father never understood why she agreed to put up with someone who had treated her so rudely, a man who cussed and swore about everything. Maybe she felt sorry for him because his vision was so severely impaired. Whatever the reason, she took care of him until her death 32 years later in 1975.
In 1952 I arrived. Unexplainably, my mother laid sole claim to me. She excluded my sister and father from taking care of me. I was her child. The possession of my life had begun.
For the first five years I slept next to my parents’ bed in a crib, then on a tiny rollaway bed. Our four-room house didn’t have any extra rooms. My father added two rooms, moved my sister to a new bedroom and moved me into her old room.
He lived his early life abandoned and betrayed by the people who loved him or should have loved him. He had no protector, no father. Long after he died I complained to my mother about the kind of father he had been. “Don’t be so hard on him. He never learned to be a father because he never had one himself.” My father and I never had a chance to have a normal father-son relationship. That’s all the truth I know for now.
About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. This is Part II of a series of three about his father. Part I, My Father’s Witness, was published on red Ravine in August. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters, Hands, Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, The Law Of Threes, and In Memoriam.