On May 7,2018 I came upon a wondrous experience at the Vancouver Art Gallery. First there was a gaggle of girls who welcomed me, then off to the gym with an accepted invitation to return. I did and the music, the singing, the energy filled me with such joy. Then the girls that I had met went and got food and ate together. We left with the promise that I would attend their final band concert. I have always planned to do that but find I cannot. I hoped that the trip to Abbotsford would be restorative but the memories are far too painful. I sent my apologizes to their wonderful spokesperson whose name is the same as mine. But i cannot – it is too painful. The story written perhaps three years ago will be printed. I am the Eldest Daughter of the First Marriage. I will write later of the implications and knowledge gained from the experience. But if you look to this blog to cheer – look elsewhere.
THE BACK STORY
The setting was a deconsecrated church in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. Every expense had been spared for this event, the second celebration of the nonagenarian’s 90th birthday. Cheap fold-out tables and chairs were placed in rows. There were no centerpieces, no candles, no color-coordinated napkins — just paper tablecloths, paper plates and plastic utensils marking place settings. There was an empty hole between the plastic knife, fork and spoon to be filled with a paper plate which would be piled with food from the buffet. There was nowhere to sit except at the tables and as the food was not immediately served, people just milled around awkwardly. The awkwardness was further heightened by the failure to serve any booze. The quiet, uncomfortable, milling-about never gave rise to the boisterous roar that the consumption of alcohol usually induces.
The crowd was local, mostly friends and family of third wife, J. J. younger by far than the nonagenarian, was boisterous, rather folksy, friendly, clearly making an effort to turn this event into one of celebation. She hovered over the old guy, who she affectionately called Zander. There were two groups making up the guests but it was difficult to bring the two disparate groups together. One group was members of Zander’s family who were living on the West Coast. They included nieces and nephews, the only remaining sister-in-law, a middle son from the first marriage, and the daughter of the first marriage. Zander had had seven brothers, now he was the only one standing, all of his brothers, and their spouses (save M.) had predeceased him. Dave, Zander’s eldest brother was the hero of the family but had tragically drowned in 1948.
At this point Zander was sitting on a rickety metal chair, holding court. Guests went to him to play homage; he was loving the attention, particularly if the attention-giver was female. He flirted, joked, but as he laughed he did something strange with his tongue that made him look like a reptile. No one seemed to mind.
It was a fairly uniform looking group. Everyone was rather casually dressed. The apparel of the men suggested a recent ride on a skidoo. The women’s attire suggested they donned whatever they had been wearing yesterday and/or the day before, or in some cases the day before, the day before. The eldest daughter from the first marriage, who had traveled from California, stood out. She was costumed in the latest style, black dress, black leggings, a bright red paisley scarf draped around her neck and shoulders.
In another setting, one where liquor was served, this dutiful daughter could have been the life of the party. She valiantly strove to overcome this liability. She was surrounded by strangers.
Despite the fact that Zander and J. had just celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary she had not met the members of J’s family that were assembled for this the second 90th birthday party. (His first party was held in Edmonton, a large boom- town in Alberta, where Zander had lived since 1955. Zander has been married to Wife Number Three for about 27 years. She is only three years older than his eldest daughter from the first marriage, is plain but pleasantly so, and is absolutely devoted to “Zander” in a way that is at once doting and complaining. They met late in life at an Orange Julius, an auspicious beginning. J. has two daughters who were teenagers at the time their mother married Zander. In light of what his eldest daughter from the first marriage had endured during her childhood, she was horrified to hear that at Zander and J’s wedding, he threw a quarter into one of J’s daughter’s bras and leeringly said: “Now I’m going to come and get it.”
Until the party the eldest daughter from the first marriage had never met her “stepsisters.” She met her youngest stepsister first. The stepsister did not have a great deal of trendy style] but was most friendly and affable. When an animated conversation began between the two Zander rushed over, but up until then, he had been ignoring his eldest daughter from the first marriage. The younger stepsister had purchased a condo, which for some reason seemed to give him much pleasure. He thought she had “arrived,” in his eyes. The eldest daughter from the first marriage had, by this point, purchased real estate on a fairly regular basis, although Zander had evidenced no pride in her ownership.
The older stepsister had not yet arrived at the party. From family lore it was known that she had been married and had two sons who were now in late latency.
J. adored the boys, but her daughter had abandoned her own family, for reasons unknown. The grandsons and their father were the first to arrive and stood uneasily near the door, somewhat embarrassingly acknowledging J’s teasing, high-spirited remarks.
Then an attractive fortyish woman made an appearance and was introduced as the other long lost stepsister. She was superficially the opposite of her sister – blonde, attractive, casually but stylishly dressed. Where her sister was relaxed in her skin, this one was just the opposite. She seemed a stranger to her children. She could barely think of what to say to them, and obviously had not seen them recently, from the tenor of the conversation. It seemed the last visit had not gone well. She was an embarrassment to most of her family, although J. jovially spoke to all.
Then amidst some fanfare (purely hypothetical, the party was devoid of any music, live or recorded) the Dryburghs arrived; nieces, nephews and sister-in-law, cousins not seen for years marching in with their mother, who was rumored to be dead, but obviously wasn’t. Gail, another cousin, was there too. The eldest daughter from the first marriage had not seen Gail for a long time but the girls had shared a close relationship when they were younger. The eldest daughter from the first marriage was suddenly in her element, booze or no booze. These were relatives she had not seen in decades but as she joked with them it was possible to appreciate how awkward she must have felt in the presence of her erstwhile “step family.” The Dryburgh family all exchanged emails, took pictures of one another and laughed about barely remembered times spent together.
The imposition of the unwrapping of gifts was not a highlight of this 90th birthday party. It was brief because hardly anyone had brought presents, admittedly under direction. The eldest daughter from the first marriage did not come empty-handed. Her gift was framed passenger declarations from 1920 of Zander’s mother, father and eldest brother. They were enroute from Scotland to Saskatchewan on the Melita. The gift was particularly poignant for all with reproductive knowledge and math skills for mother J. was pregnant with Zander as she “crossed the pond.” But Zander barely acknowledged the gift, much to the present J’s apparent dismay.
The party lurched onward. The eldest daughter from the first marriage, apparently not feeling the slight, was in conversation with her cousin Gail. They were the same age, but had not seen each other since they were eight when the eldest daughter from the first marriage, had been sent to visit her West Coast cousins for the summer. Both women were laughing but looked up when, during a lull in the homage he was receiving, the nonagenarian stood up rather shakily, propelled himself across the room toward the blonde stepsister and unceremoniously grabbed her ass. (Groped her, caressed her rear end, however you want to put it.) He seemed not to say anything to her, or she to him. Both Gail and the eldest daughter from the first marriage observed this interaction. Both said in disbelief: “Did you see what I saw?” They both nodded.
It was subtle, but a change came over the eldest daughter from the first marriage. Her demeanor shifted. She became as stiff and lifeless as wife J’s eldest daughter, almost in a fugue state as she sought out her brother and quietly asked him to take her home.
The Inner Thoughts of the Eldest Daughter From the First Marriage
Some incurable optimists might see the groping as a solitary act of a senile old man. But I knew better. I had been the victim of such inappropriate behavior, and far worse, from Dad most of my young life. Memories of his abuse came flooding back to me, not in terms of specifics but just that overall crushing feeling of shame and disgust and hopelessness. I know now that at that birthday party, at that moment his actions triggered a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback.
But I am consummately strong. The bond that Cousin Gail and I formed that day was a gift, without her I would not have had the resources and the companionship to go on this long journey to find Uncle Dave, the man I regard, for sanity and hope, as my dear Dream Dad.
I was determined never to see my father again after that birthday party, and I did not until the book propelled the search for knowledge. It was a mistake. He slipped into dementia. Wife J. reported on May 29, 2015 in an email: “We are fine, your Dad has good days then off minutes, hours, and as quickley (sic) as the memory goes it comes back. His favorite word still starts with F and it’s not fruit, fun or fancy. We still go out every day.”
He continues to be living proof of the adage that only the good die young.