Moments from a Family History

by Fred Voss

My father playing his upright piano in the evening as I fell asleep, the sounds down the hall to my room in the dark

Gershwin ... Tchaikovsky ... Rhapsody in Blue ... Theme from Doctor Zhivago ... down the hall filling my head for dreams ....... his old upright piano with that seat full of sheet music hundreds upon hundreds of songs ... Fred Astaire ... Bing Crosby ... Showboat ... Sheherazade ... Ball Hai ... from the 30s 40s 50s all of it thrown out now I guess or scooped up by some collector but then they were on the fingertips of my father for me and I hear from my sisters that he played the violin too but gave it up before I was born what I wouldn't give to have heard.

..... wood shavings in his garage he let me plane wood when I was 4 took all the slivers of wood out of my fingers with tweezers or needle patching tires listening to Dodger games on his 30s radio probably he heard some World Series home run by the great Dimaggio announced on it when he was in Hawaii ..... my mother and father newlyweds (married 1937) there when Pearl Harbor mother Patricia Best Blomfield Voss told me the story so many times while bent over ironing board of their leaving on the ship and throwing the lea overboard ..... if it went to shore they'd come back said the Hawaiian myth mentioned in From Here to Eternity .....

I was cowboy in backyard and on sidewalk when I was 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ..... don't call me Freddy I'm Gene (Autry) or Roy (Rogers) or Josh Randall (Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead or Alive) and my Dad playing back by firing imaginary gun and taking pictures of me like I was in a movie playing dead was my favorite laying sprawled and dramatic on grass with my gun fallen out of my hand I always died bravely ....

And I remember my mother always out in the backyard gardening, digging in the ground attacking weeds or pruning and liking being with the flowers and the soil

..... I remember her plate or whatever it was on the wall with the big drawing of the continent of Australia, and how she would point it out to me when I was little and say, "I've got that because that's where my father was from, your grandfather. That's Australia." It was a big tray or artwork or something with the continent of Australia drawn on it, I guess a map with the different sections of Australia .... then sometimes she'd talk about "Handsome Harold" her father and how he had had "his hand in the till" and gotten kicked out of Australia and come to Hawaii, and how he'd been a big drinker fighter and gambler and lady's man when he was young, how his nose had been broken. She seemed proud and at the same time sad when talking about him, how he'd written short stories and submitted them to magazines for years and years but never had any accepted, wrote one about a snake that scared her when she read it. She'd married my father without her father's blessing and moved to America after Pearl Harbor and been out of communication for a long time when he suddenly died of a heart attack in the bathtub, and she went into withdrawal, didn't sleep for 5 nights and had a complete nervous breakdown and had to go to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for I guess about 6 months ..... my Dad told me a few things about it after I'd found out, things that let me know it hurt him a great deal and that there was something tragic and special about my mother.

And my mother told me about her brother Valentine and how beautifully he ran and how I ran just like him, how he was a football star when she was in High School and how wonderful it was seeing him make those LONG LONG runs and her brother Richard and how brilliant he was, his teacher at University of Hawaii (I believe it was) telling him he was one of six of the most brilliant students he'd had in 30 years of teaching, how Richard had gotten straight A's while working full time in the Navy, and her little sister Mildred ("Pest" because she was always following her siblings) and how she suffered with her lung problems.

And one of my strongest memories of my mother was of her watching the movie "Marty" with me on television several times when I was a teenager, "Marty" the story of the 34-year-old miserable homely butcher who sees himself as a lifelong bachelor living with his mother but who finally meets the right sweet girl and falls in love just like his mother always told him he would and is ecstatically happy. And I certainly felt homely with my bad acne and glasses and braces complete with rubber bands and my ugly duckling Pterodactyl face and my mother and I identified with Marty and his mother but I never believed the end of the story through 20 years of bachelor loneliness until I DID meet my love of my life Joan and married her and am ecstatically happy just like Marty and though my mother is now dead I know she is smiling somewhere knowing she always knew best just like Marty's mom. In fact, my wife Joan Jobe Smith is not only a wonderful wife but also a wonderful poet, novelist and editor of Pearl, an almost 30-years-old literary magazine out of Long Beach CA, as well as editor of the Bukowski Review. An article on her and myself as poets appeared in the just-published book, Literary L.A., written by Lionel Rolfe, longtime Herald-Examiner journalist and authority on L.A. writers

My mother always told me she was a failure for not going to college with her superior mind, in her depression hours when I was in High School treading water waiting desperately to get out of the house, but I've always considered the most brilliant (and qualifying as brilliant in any university of life) thing she ever did was to defy her father and marry my dad even though her father I guess never forgave her. And how lucky I was that she did marry my Dad.

Because when I was 22 I dropped out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D. program in English literature and went into the work world from the true bottom up: busboy, foundry, gasket factory, delivery driver, steel cutter at a blast furnace, finally machinist. My mother no longer understood me, but my Dad stood by me, offering the moral support with tales from his Depression era youth when he rode a freight car or two, drifted across the country with a series of odd jobs (he too had a college degree) such as a "fly by night" refrigerator repair company and ended up in Hawaii where he was to meet my mother. After a few harrowing years wobbling on the razor's edge of desperation, I emerged a machinist and then a writer. writing 7 novels (unpublished still) and then poetry, my working life emerging mysteriously as subject matter for the poetry, which now has been accorded some international recognition (a broadcast of my poetry and an interview will be broadcast internationally by the BBC in June 2002).

I am eternally grateful to my Dad for being there in the nitty gritty, but also to my Mom for being such an inspiration in my earlier youth. I can now say I feel lucky to be able to call this bit of family history my own.