Monday, April 7, 2014

Memoir: Remembering Dad

Mike Welch, our resident memoirist, returns with slices of life dredged up from the movie, Nebraska.

Robert Knightly

Nebraska is a black and white movie that portrays the colorless life of a character who rages against that lack of hue with all his considerable, if addled, might. In the movie, there is an interminable, bleak stretch of RTE 90 between Billings Montana and Lincoln Nebraska that Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) and his son David (played by Will Forte) traverse on a Quixotic quest to collect one million dollars that the geriatric but extremely combative Dern thinks he has won from The Publisher’s Clearinghouse. It’s a long road, but at the end there is something of a reconciliation between the two, although coming back together implies once having been together, which these characters had never really been. My Dad and I were never really together, either, at any time during our journey or at the time he died in 2006. I’m now in the process of seeing if you can reconcile with someone who isn’t there, which is perhaps possible, or maybe can only be contemplated, like one hand clapping.

Dern and Dad. Dad and Dern. David realizes his dad is losing it when the cops call him after finding Woody feebly wandering down the road in Billings, insisting that his destination is not the grocery store or a bar, but Lincoln. I realized my Dad had lost it (he always had seemed to be in the process) when my brother called me to report the police had picked him up in the dead of night, dead of winter, walking down Main Street in Bay Shore, Long Island, in his bare feet. This was in the late 90’s, and I was not really surprised, knowing that when my Dad was in the manic stage of his manic depression, he did some pretty weird stuff. I hadn’t talked to Dad in years, having handed him off to my brother when I went to college, having carried him for much of my childhood. Now I was pulled back into the drama.

By the end, Dad loved only Louie Prima, Mickey Mantle, Paul Robeson and Winston Churchill. You’ll notice that there isn’t anyone on the list that he actually knew. Actually, he also loved his nurse at the mental hospital in New Jersey he ended up in when he lit his room on fire in the halfway house we had gotten him into (I didn’t mean to be incendiary, he said tearfully, but it was hard to believe he didn’t, knowing him), but he didn’t really know her, either. She made the mistake of smiling at him, is all, inspiring him to write semi-pornographic love sonnets to her.

It’s hard to say why Dad was the way he was. Like Mickey Mantle, who could hit home runs and bat for average, and who could drive in runs, Dad was a triple threat—he was annoying due to his bi-polarity, his personality and because he was, at the end, having multiple infarcts, or little strokes, that “disinhibited” him, as if he was not enough lacking in inhibition in the first place. My brother and I go back and forth about how much he was responsible for his behavior, but it’s ultimately not one of those questions you can answer.

Dad and Dern. By the end of their lives, neither liked much. Both could barely walk. My Dad, who did the barefooted trick “just to see if I could do it,” tried that summer to take a long walk on a hot afternoon, got dehydrated and took a seat under a tree to rest. He then found he didn’t have the strength to get up. A cop saved him again.

I took him to the theater to see the heartbreaking and funny Life is Beautiful, thinking that it was intelligent enough and grim enough for his taste, but he complained that it sucked, so loudly that I had to hustle him out of there before our fellow, irate moviegoers strung us both up. Not that he cared. Not for the movie, and not for the offended patrons of the theater, or for much else. To be fair, Dad did also like Cool Hand Luke: “Gentlemen, what we got heeere, is a failure to comyoonicate,” as the prison warden says in that movie, and that failure afflicts Dern and his son almost as much as it afflicted me and my Dad.

Nebraska is funny, in a savage way, and my Dad would have liked that. David’s brother gets into a silly fight with two very weird cousins over the dispensation of Dad’s (imaginary) fortune and their childish, kind of feminine flailing at each other is at once hysterical and pathetic. Humor just the way my Dad liked it. Grotesque, sad, bizarre—bring it on. Dern’s wife, the mother of the boys, visits the grave of an old suitor, and pulls up her skirt and yells at him across that border between life and death “Look at what you could have had if you hadn’t been so damned boring!” Dad would have fallen off his seat.

At the movie, Life Is Beautiful (which I watched to the end on video years later), the father (Roberto Benigni, no problem walking for him) is killed, but not without having saved his son from realizing the horror and despair of the death camp they had been in. Maybe that triumph of love and will was too much for Dad. In Nebraska, the reconciliation and resolution is much less clear and satisfying, but it exists. The son buys Dad a used pick-up truck, and for a short drive down the street where he grew up, Dern is greeted as a winner, having hoodwinked his hometown into thinking he bought the truck with his winnings. And Dern is happy, kind of, for a little while, and so is his son.

I couldn’t find that conciliatory gesture, or that gesture that would heal things, or perhaps the gesture that would have made my Dad sit up and take notice of me. For at the end, he dwelled on all those he felt had betrayed and humiliated him, and I was just his audience, not a player in the theater that was his life. Oh, that we could have gone on a quest, even a silly one, but we didn’t.

At the end, he was obsessed with what he termed the “humiliations of my pitiful life.” He set about redeeming himself, I think, by annoying people. I would take him to dinner when I visited, and we would eat steaks (he ate his with his bare hands) as he talked about what a horrible shrew my mother was, and his mother was, and how he wished he knew where his father was buried, so he could dance on his grave. I don’t want to dance on his. Really, I don’t.

He would rant and ramble, or sit silently and weep. He had a wild crush on that Filipino nurse, and talked about a preacher he had met and to whom he was going to bequeath his money, for some kind of People’s Church. When I tried to dissuade him of this, he informed me I just wanted the money for myself. He reminded me that I’d been a lousy adolescent athlete, a poseur whose only weapon was an intensity that better ballplayers were not intimidated by, and when I showed him a paper on Metaphor I’d written in grad school that was praised by my professor, he said it was “felicitously written, but basically bullshit.” And so it went, and so it goes sometimes still for me, when his voice visits me from across that aforementioned divide. Maybe I should have bought him a fucking truck.

© 2014 Mike Welch


  1. With the parents, it's always something.

  2. “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891.

  3. Another great, honest piece of writing, Michael. We are products of our parentage and our parents are products of theirs. I hope I am not damaging my own children. My sister and I were raised in a warm and loving environment, so i hope that is what will be passed on, but there are no guaranteed or givens in this crazy life!