Saturday, June 16, 2007

Father's Day, 2007

Poppa (Clarence Gilbert Spellman), 8/16/1912-3/20/1988
With Hans (1968-1980)
Taken at the family cabin near Stevensville, Montana
Summer 1973

Faith of our fathers, living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword,
O how our hearts beat high with joy
When e’er we hear that glorious word!

--Frederick W. Faber, 1849

I never came out to my father. By the time I gained the courage to be honest, my father was no longer mentally competent. Mother tried to explain my living situation the one time my parents visited my partner and me in our Montana home, but neither Mother nor I were ever sure just how much Poppa understood.

Maybe I should get one thing out right in the beginning. I’m a PK. Now you all know what a PK is, don’t you? Poppa was a minister in the United Methodist Church. I’m a Preacher’s Kid, a PK for short. At fifty-seven years of age, I’m ready to accept that fact. It’s taken a while. As a kid, I didn’t think too much about it. It was my life and I lived it.

Growing up I quickly became aware that I was not the son my father wanted. My parents had been married for fifteen years when I was born. They had lost two children, boys both, at birth or shortly after. I grew up being told that the doctors had said Mother couldn’t have children. And indeed, her pregnancy carrying me almost killed her and me both. When my father was transferred from Stevensville to Laurel, Montana, in June before I was born in October, Mother’s doctor told her that she would have to stay in Missoula until after the birth. Mother refused, saying that her husband had been transferred and she would be going with him. The doctor replied, “You’ll lose the baby.” I’m here to tell you the doctor was wrong.

Poppa really wanted a son. When I was six months old, Poppa came home with a gift for his boy—a 30.06 rifle. I still own it. If you can appreciate the beauty in a well turned piece of wood, this particular killing machine is beautiful. I’ve even shot it—twice. I doubt that I’ll ever fire it again, but I keep it because it came from my dad. On the other hand, I’ve been told that the first “toy” I asked for by name was a vacuum cleaner. Can you sense some disconnect here?

We got our first television when I was in second grade. There was only one channel in Billings, Montana in 1957, and we watched everything. I enjoyed the variety shows. I really enjoyed the male dancers on Red Skelton’s show. I wanted to be a male dancer, but Father let me know that Men don’t dance.

St. Mary's in the Bitterroot Mountains
Our land west of Stevensville, Montana
Taken April 23rd, 2007

After we moved to the Bay Area, Mattel introduced a new toy. I didn’t want Barbie myself, but I wanted to design her clothes. Father was livid. If he’d only known how much money the big designers make, he might have changed his tune, but I doubt it. Men didn’t do that sort of thing. I put away the cloth, the scissors, the sewing machine, and gave Barbie back to the girl down the street.

I was always very close to my mother. I got my civics lessons from her. I got my reading lessons from her. Ironically enough, as a PK, I got my religious training from Mother. Over the years I would remind Momma of just how much she had taught me. A year or so before her own death, Mother asked, “Didn’t you get anything at all from your father?” I had to think about that, but yes, indeed I did.

My father was an avid fisherman—on the river before dawn and out until after dusk. He tried taking me along, even as a toddler, but the hours and the tedium were too much for this child. His statement, “Just one more hole”, became a family joke. I never became the fisherman Poppa would have wanted, but I learned that a day spent on the water is never wasted.

As should be obvious from his early gift to me, Poppa was a hunter. I grew up eating elk, venison, antelope rather than beef. We always had a freezer full of game. But shortly before my fourth birthday, my grandma was hospitalized with pancreatic cancer and Momma went east to look after her. Momma stayed in West Virginia for six weeks, long past my birthday and into hunting season. Poppa knew he had to look after me, but it was his nature to be out in the woods. Was it his fault that Walt Disney had just put Bambi in the theaters? Was it his fault that I had seen the movie just before Poppa took me hunting? Was it his fault that four-year-old Bryan screamed when Poppa shot Bambi?

And while I have never shot Bambi myself, except with a camera, I enjoy hiking the hills in crisp fall weather. From Poppa I learned how to walk with a rolling gait that makes no sound in the forest. From Poppa I learned that a day in the woods is a treasure. Frankly I feel closer to God in the mountains than I ever do in church. And I like to think Poppa might have felt the same.

Momma and Me
Taken by Poppa on the Boulder River, South-Central Montana

Poppa was an amazing photographer. He shot Ektachrome in his Kodak 35mm range-finder camera. I grew up watching all those slide shows—and they were good shots. As an adult I met a man in the camera department of a big box store. When he saw my name, he asked if I were Clarence Spellman’s son. He told me that Poppa had done the earliest color work in the Yellowstone Valley and that he himself had processed all of Poppa’s film. As I reinvent my life for the fourth time, I am studying to be a travel writer and photographer. I look at Poppa’s images for my own inspiration.

And Poppa taught me one other thing—probably the most important aspect of my life to date. Poppa taught me about “vocation.” He always said that he did not choose the ministry. In fact he fought the “call” for ten long years. The hardest thing he ever had to do in his life was ask Mother to give up their newly-built home, so that he could go to college and then seminary. I believe that we each have a vocation. Some people are called to ministry, some to education, some to being Chevrolet mechanics, but all are called. That has been my guiding principal for the past forty years, and the main impetus behind my activism in Montana gay politics.

Faith of our fathers, we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;
And preach thee, too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life.

I will never forget early September, 1976. I was headed to Santa Rosa for the annual Highland Games sponsored by the San Francisco Caledonian Society. I was going to dance. Just before stopping at my parent’s home in Smith River, California, I pulled into the gas station to fill up. Sitting at the pumps, the Cougar wouldn’t start, and I had to have the battery jumped. When I explained to my parents what had happened, Poppa said, “C’mon. We’ll get you a new battery.” Driving north to Brookings Oregon, Poppa asked me to stop at the pharmacy. He’d eaten something at Kiwanis that didn’t agree with him, and he needed some antacid. Looking him over, the pharmacist said, “I’ll give you antacid, but I’m also calling the doctor. I think you’re having a heart attack.”

The doctor couldn’t tell what was happening and decided to hospitalize Poppa for observation. By the time I collected Momma and continued on to Gold Beach, Poppa was resting comfortably in his bed. The doctor sent us home saying that he’d release Poppa in the morning.

Smith River (California) United Methodist Church
Poppa's Last Parish
Taken Spring, 2007

It was dark when we pulled into the parsonage driveway in Smith River. One of Poppa’s parishioners was standing on the porch. She had received a call from the hospital and we were to return immediately. “Mr. Spellman has taken a turn for the worse.”

Poppa had suffered two cardiac arrests and was in a coma. He remained comatose for three days. Momma never left his side. Curry General is not a large facility. It has twenty-four beds. Sitting in the waiting room, I overheard two girls discussing their hospitalized friend. “He’s not too bad. It’s that old man in there who’s in trouble.” I wanted to scream “HE’S NOT OLD. He’s only sixty-four.”

Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

Poppa lived twelve years after that episode. There were so many things I wanted to talk over with him, but it was too late. I can only hope that now, now that I’m the only one left, he can hear me when I talk. My parents are gone. My grandparents as well. Most of my first cousins have now passed on. I feel truly an orphan, which is an odd feeling at fifty-seven years. I want to tell Poppa on this Father’s Day, “I am your son. Whatever our differences, I am your son and I love you. I miss you. I want to get out on the river and talk. I want to tell you who I am.” I want to come out to my father.

1 comment:

hotproof said...

What a great tribute & remembrance of your father & also parts about your mother. How brave it is to open up to reveal your inner feelings & concerns regarding something so personal as you & your father's relationship.

Regarding parents, there are just some topics or revelations a son or daughter can sense from experience or evaluation that are not "safe" or "wise" to discuss.. unless one likes confrontation & to stir up anguish & friction. We often weigh how much we want or need to share with others.

It's natural to want to remain in a parent's good graces, and not knowingly aggravate them. Or to give a parent fodder that results in disapproval.. or worse.. estrangement.

As far as diversity in parents versus their children: I've often thought what a dull world it would be if there was no diversity in personality, interests, AND vocation. Thank goodness we have people going off into different vocations, and inventing new ones.

And I'm convinced that if God exists, it was planned in the scheme of things for there to be gay people in this world. A Higher Being does not screw things up. We are all God's children, and God is the ultimate Daddy who loves you unconditionally. Right?

Bryan, although I never met your mom & dad, they must have been wonderful people to have produced & raised a person like you. There's no need to internalize any shortcomings in your relationship. What happened is what happened.

Your parents are still watching out for you, if only in spirit. Keep them alive in your heart & mind.

Your posting was a great read. I admire your writing ability. Thanks for sharing it.