In the Blink of an Eye (or, thinking about the father I never knew)

I’ve spent the last few years deliberately redirecting myself to keep on the sunny side of life.

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It’s not always easy, believe me. And I don’t always succeed.

For instance, last Sunday, driving to work, I was behind a terrible automobile accident on Highway 24. It had just happened; Bob called me as he had heard about it and wanted to make sure I was okay. I thought to myself, “Great, I am going to be late for work and we have a crowd waiting for the shelter to open to so they can adopt those 6 incredibly cute beagle puppies that just came up.” Maybe a silly thing to stress out about, but I don’t like being late for work. And people get emotional about wanting to adopt puppies, so the more hands on deck to handle to crowd, the better.

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I settled in with my audiobook of American Gods (the mind of Neil Gaiman is a crazy place!), and sipped on my coffee, periodically moving forward a foot. Six lanes were being merged into one. People were getting fractious, honking and not letting other cars move in. It was 11:30 on a Sunday; most people were likely on their way to the mall or some such weekend pursuit.

I was doing my best not to look at the accident. Then the CHP officer directing traffic suddenly stopped the single file of cars with me up front, right next to the overturned car, to allow the clean-up crew to move some final wreckage from the one operational lane. I couldn’t help but see the car. Overturned, destroyed, horrifying. It didn’t look at all likely that anyone in the car would have survived. I started to shake and feel sick to my stomach. In the blink of an eye, lives were lost, destroyed, unalterably changed forever. It could happen to anyone.

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I don’t know why it took me so long to connect this to the death of my father. Stephen Pierre Cottraux, Jr., aka Daddy, was killed in an automobile accident on November 15, 1962, not quite a full month after my first birthday. I have no memories of him. But I grew up hearing stories about him from my siblings, and wondering if he was watching us from heaven.

As first-born, Cathy remembers him the most. I recently asked her about the piano we had growing up, which led her to relate a Daddy memory:

“I have a few memories of Daddy playing [the piano], he was really good. They would have band practice at the house (in Macon) and he played the piano a lot of the time. I remember one night, I must’ve been 8, and he was playing and I was sitting next to him on the bench. I hugged him (I adored Daddy) and he smiled and said ‘Why don’t you go in the kitchen and tell your mama that I love her!’ That’s a memory I have carried my whole life.” She also remembers that Daddy liked to dance and he taught her to do the twist. Cathy was 9 when Daddy died.

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Daddy with my sisters Cathy and Ellen, circa 1956.
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Daddy, second from the left, and the jazz group he was in.

Here are some writing exercises I did a couple of years ago that say more:

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

   Number one:  

There are no photographs of Daddy on display in the house. Mom keeps one, with an old Valentine card from when they were high school, in the top drawer of her dresser, which I go through looking for jewelry to dress my dolls and stuffed cats with. We don’t ask about him; I’m not sure why but we don’t. But when Mom isn’t around Cathy and Ellen tell me and Steve stories of what they remember. I love to hear the ones about when I was born, of course.

            “He said if they were all like you, he’d be happy to have a house full of kids,” says Cathy.

            “He liked to feed you eggs at the breakfast table and say ‘Is it good?’; your first word was isitgood, all run together in one word.”

            We watch the movie musical Carousel, and I am captivated by the idea of Daddy up in heaven watching down on us. Especially me. I could sit in the dark den with the late show on the television watching that movie night after night, warmed by the feeling that Daddy is with me.

Number Two:

Mom was only 26 when Daddy died, so we are used to her going out on dates. It’s been almost 10 years, after all. We even like some of the men. There is Joe Kellum, who owns Pizza by Candlelight. At first I love going to the restaurant, red and white plaid plastic tablecloths and red plastic water tumblers, candles in old Chianti bottles, the smell of garlic in the air. He has 2 kids, Mike and Angel. They hate me. They are the same ages as Ellen and Steve. They like to remind us that it’s their father who owns the restaurant and we are intruders. I begin to dislike them and the restaurant and their father.

            The one we do like plays the guitar and sings the Mountain Dew song. We don’t drink Mountain Dew, but it’s still fun. We all crowd around him in the living room and ask him to sing it again and again. He quits coming to the house.

            I love to read stories about widowed mothers with broods of children, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. In these stories, the mother struggles, but dating and men don’t come into the stories and everyone cherishes the memories of dear old dad. The kids do what they can to take care of the mother as the years go by. That’s what we will do.

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The only picture I have of me with Daddy, 1961.

I spent the rest of Sunday in a funk, triggered by the car accident into thoughts of how lives change in split seconds, people leave for work and don’t come home again. Families are left behind. Promising lives are cut short. Perhaps the driver had been distracted. Perhaps the driver had swerved out of the way of something, a deer or a piece of debris in the road. Maybe the driver nodded off to sleep. I don’t know.

And then I got mad at the fractious drivers of the other cars, honking and impatient. Put things in perspective, people! So you’ll be a little late for wherever you were headed. At least it wasn’t you and your car turned over in the road. Your life goes on. Appreciate that. And our hearts should go out to the survivors.

My father was so young, and he left behind an even younger wife and 4 small children. In the blink of an eye.

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Mom and Daddy, circa 1953.

Of course, good things can happen in the blink of an eye. Falling in love when you look a certain someone in the eye. Making a new friend who will mean the world to you. A split second decision that will change your life for the better even though it seems crazy (like signing up for online dating even though you swore you wouldn’t, leading to life with Bob). Meeting a beagle puppy and knowing she’s the one.

Be open to the special moments, but be careful out there. Don’t drive distracted. Seriously. That one quick text could be all it takes to end it all for someone, maybe yourself.

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The beagle puppies all found homes that day. I snapped out of my funk eventually. But I’ll aways wonder how my life would have been different if my father hadn’t driven away never to come back.

I love you and miss you, Daddy.

Nancy and Pete: A Love Story

 

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A little Valentine’s Day shrine in memory of my parents.

I don’t know why I’ve been feeling so sentimental about the past. Maybe it’s a normal part of growing older. Not so long ago I wrote about my mother’s 80th birthday. Today is Valentine’s Day, another source of memories. When I was a child in Atlanta, I didn’t like to sleep in my own room, so I often camped in my mother’s room. I loved to go through her jewelry box and the “pretty things” inside. Among these were an old Valentine’s Day card from my father and an identification bracelet, both of which were kept in an old envelope at the bottom of the jewelry box.

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I don’t remember if I am the child who made the pencil scribbles on the card. It wouldn’t surprise me, though.
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Maybe this was “the rest” that goes with the card?

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In my child’s mind, with no memory of my father, I naturally romanticized the stories I’d heard into an epic and tragic love story, a la Romeo and Juliet. The Scarboroughs were the Capulets and the Cottrauxs the Montagues, with high school sweethearts Nancy and Pete caught in the crossfire. Actually, there wasn’t a feud between the families, but my grandmother Scarborough (Nana) didn’t approve of the Cottraux grandparents (Mimi and Grandaddy). My Cottraux grandparents were world travelers, golfers, and loved a good cocktail party. Despite Nana’s hard-working farm family roots in Vermont, she very much embraced the role of Atlanta society matron and “old money” traditionalist. I was a little bit afraid of her, and adored Mimi and Grandaddy. Neither of my grandmothers, however, was the warm, hugging cookie-baking grandmother of my dreams. Nana was very stern and forbidding in my mind, and Mimi was more interested in the country club than baking cookies.

Nancy and Pete (aka Mom and Daddy) met at a dance, and the story was that the instant Daddy saw her, he told the friend he was with that he was going to marry that girl some day. In 1952, when Mom was only 16 and Daddy 17, they did just that. They eloped to South Carolina, where a 16-year old girl could marry without her parent’s permission. They kept it a secret until they no longer could. My sister Cathy was born in 1953. Mom was allowed to get her high school diploma, but had to study from home as it would “corrupt” the other girls to be around their married and pregnant friend. Her dream of going to college to study journalism was set aside. In 1950s Georgia, young mothers didn’t do such things. My father was by then a freshman at Georgia Tech, and they set up house in family student housing. (When I was little, this was very romantic to me as I had no idea how young they really were. As I turned 16 and then 17 I began to think of it a little differently. They were just babies themselves, I think now.)

Daddy became an engineer with Georgia Power, and was sent from Atlanta to Savannah and then Macon, where I was born in 1961. Daddy died less than a year later. Of course I’ve always wondered how different my life would be if he hadn’t been in the car at that time, that day, when the world irrevocably changed for us. Mom moved us back to Atlanta to be closer to family. By then my Cottraux grandparents were retired to San Diego, making them that much more glamorous and exotic to me than ever. Nana, however, was a powerful influence and support in our lives (and I never got over being a little afraid of her).

Remembering how much the card and bracelet had fascinated me as a child, when my mother was dying of lung cancer in 2009, she had me bring her the jewelry box one day. She handed me the card and bracelet and said, “I know you’ll take care of them.” I feel honored to be their keeper.

Never take your loved ones for granted. Someone might leave for work one day and never come home again, like Daddy.

And enjoy Valentine’s Day!