That’s how old my stepfather, John Werline, would have been tomorrow.
That’s how many times he ever stood up and stood between my mother’s rage and me.
I never understood their agreement that we were “her kids” and his were “his kids” and that he always seemed to sort of disappear when she began to rage at us.
But once, over dinner in the seventh grade, in 1979, he looked up from his meatloaf and turned to face her. “Enough, goddamnit!”
In more than 10 years and after countless beatings.
At its simplest, her temper was “You dumbass!” At its worst, it was belts. Backhands. Purses. Shoes.
Yet he remained proud of that one time, bringing it up every couple years or so. I let him have his moment, because I’m nothing if not The Good Son. But it was a dark, hollow pit at my end of the phone.
Out of dozens. Hundreds? Who counts these things.
The picture shown below was taken the last time I had seen him, in 2004. I was home for a 20-year high school reunion, and as my wife and I drove from Portland to Corvallis, I ventured into Independence, where he lived with his eldest daughter. I hadn’t seen him in 10 years, so I parked by the curb, looking through the windshield at the house. Wrestling a lifetime’s worth of family demons.
“Just go, hon,” my wife says. “Somebody in your family has to start the forgiving.”
She squeezes my hand as I wipe away tears.
“You’ll never know if you don’t go,” she says. “Just go.”
I push the car door open and make my way along the sidewalk and up the steps. I knock, and then knock again, and the door opens. He fixes his eyes on me a second. Then he grins. “Jeffy.”
We sit on the couch as my stepsister pours coffee and he excuses himself to the bathroom, to “put a clean shirt on.” We chat for the next couple of hours, just as if it was 1981 again. Or 1987. Or 1993, the last time I’d seen him.
He was as I’d always remembered him: funny, sharp, and he always told the best stories – of “freezing his cajones off” serving in the Aleutian Islands during World War II; of the characters who frequented The Palace barber shop he ran for nearly 30 years downtown; of pissing the cops off when, as police commissioner, he put an end to their habit of sleeping through the graveyard shift in, well, the graveyard, of all places; and of the old hearse his buddy owned, when they’d drive through town, a rope tied to an old wooden box, slowly easing the box in and out of the back of the hearse, to the horrified looks of those driving behind them.
His father had been shot dead, by a jealous husband, on the hop farm his family owned near that same cemetery, but he talked about that even less than he spoke of the war. He was only 8 at the time, in 1926, standing on the porch less than 100 feet away, watching as the argument unfolded. It was brief, then bang.
My stepsister pours another cup of coffee as they tease each other about how tall Maria Sharapova really is. She leans toward me, rolling her eyes, whispering, “She’s six two. He thinks she’s five nine!” The ferret in the cage by the fireplace wakes up, yawns, and meanders out, toward one of the treats she keeps by the recliner. I’m reminded of our shared love of animals and sports. He loved watching Ali box, crouching in front of the enormous TV console that rested on the floor, saying things like “He’s got a big mouth, that Ali, but look at that footwork,” shaking his head. There were the spontaneous calls to “hop in the truck!” for the minor league baseball games over in Salem — the summer breeze whistling through the open windows of our old Chevy truck, the Salem Angels hat on my head, the mitt on my lap.
He was nearly 60 when I was trying to figure out how to throw Little League fastballs, so if I fired a wild one that skipped past him and on down the alley, I’d have to chase after the ball. So I got pretty accurate, pretty fast. Even today, at nearly 51, my boys can hold a glove up, as a target, from roughly 60 feet away, and I can hit it. Sometimes I ask them to move it around, to different locations, just to see if I still have it.
I do still have it.
And it’s not as much about the skill as it is the memory.
As the conversation turns to kids and life in Indiana, he politely excuses himself, this time shuffling to his bedroom. I notice he’s moving much slower than the last time I saw him, in 1993, at my father’s funeral. He returns with a small plastic sandwich bag of photographs. There are about a dozen photos — but I know those photos, and he’s been carrying that bag around for 70 years. He brings them out – there he is, standing in his World War II uniform; holding a medal as a track star in high school; crossing the street with a girlfriend in the mid-1930s. He tells the story, again, of the Great Depression, and that his family was wealthy during that time — a time when there were two cars parked in the parking lot at Central High: the principal’s car and his.
He had always been so embarrassed by that, and he seemed to spend the rest of his life evening the score. So many moments of my childhood were spent watching him from the passenger seat of our truck, making a sudden left into local neighborhoods to drop off eggs from our farm, corn from our garden, even sometimes handing folks a few bucks pulled from his own pockets. We didn’t have much ourselves, so that struck me. I also noticed he never told my mother – or anybody, for that matter – of these trips.
He helped big, strong men wearing overalls and standing by their tractors. He helped small Mexican ladies whose migrant sons worked the local farms. Once, he fixed up an old bike he found in our barn and we pulled up to a yard with about 10 dirty kids running through the yard, dangling from tree branches, skipping rope, even a couple of them fist-fighting by the tree. We both watched the chaos for a minute before he got out of the truck to deliver the bike. When he climbed back into the truck, he shook his head. “He’s a good man, Jeffy. Needs to work a little more and screw a little less, but he’s a good man,” and he broke into laughter.
My eyes bugged. I was only eight, and I was still trying to learn about this man who walked into the family almost the very day my father walked out. He had one of those huge laughs — a laugh that once it was unleashed, it was a bit of a runaway freight train. “At least we’ve found the one thing he’s good at!” and more laughter.
I just nodded. Eyes still bugged, looking back out the window as we pulled away.
On a random Saturday morning in 2008, our home phone rang. I was 41 now, watching Saturday morning cartoons with my three sons, 2,000 miles away from Oregon. It was my stepfather, and it was odd that he would call from Oregon – not once had he ever called me; not a single time. Not when I lived down the road in Corvallis during college, not when I lived in Los Angeles — not Indiana, not Ohio, not Illinois. Not ever. I’d call home, and we’d be off and running — kids, baseball, dogs, fatherhood, jobs — but he’d eventually cut the conversation short by deciding a) I couldn’t afford the long-distance call and b) he could no longer bear the angry stares of my mother sitting nearby. So it was on to Mom and the weather.
It was also very early his time, before dawn. We make our small talk but he seems uneasy, distracted a bit. Finally, a conversation about the perils of old age — he’s 89 now — and the Dodgers’ bullpen rolls into “Jeffy …”
He only ever used that moniker – whether I was 11 or 41 – when he had a point to make. Like when she’d leave the house, and he’d use that opportunity to plead with me to stop standing up to her. “Jeffy, you just gotta be quiet, go about your business, ignore her,” he’d beg. And I’d argue even louder with him. “NO!” I’d yell. “It’s WRONG. Just because you want to pretend doesn’t mean I want to pretend. I’m tired of this shit. I’m DONE with her. I’m done!” And I was checked out by age 14, just doing my best to bide my time until I was finally able to move out. And I did. At 17.
“I should have done more,” he continues.
I’d only ever seen the man cry once, and that was when I was 10, watching him scoop our German shepherd from the highway that ran in front of our farm north of town and carry him gently toward the pickup. He set Hobo in the truck and then reached for the red handkerchief he always kept in his breast pocket, next to his reading glasses and cigarettes.
Yosemite Sam fires recklessly into the air as I press the phone closer to my ear. I can hear his voice crack at the other end of the line.
“Dad, what’s going on?” I had only ever called him Dad.
“I should have done more,” he answers. “I should have stood up more for you, you kids. She was, I don’t know …”
More silence. I wipe away tears with my shirtsleeve.
“She just, I don’t know why she was so angry all the time. The drinking. She had her reasons, I guess. You just got it so bad, so much worse. I don’t know why.”
My 7-year-old walks over, looks at me, crawls up onto my lap and turns back toward the TV, leaning back onto my chest as Wile E. Coyote fumbles with some dynamite.
“I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know that anybody got it worse than anybody else. It was misery for all of us.”
“Yeah, maybe so, I don’t know. Sure seemed like it though,” he says. “I thought I was doing the right thing but I don’t know. I mean, I wasn’t. Jeffy, I’m sorry.
I’d been waiting about 30 years for that moment.
Anything – anything that told me Yes. Okay. You’re Right. No More Denials. No More Excuses.
I grew up in a family that walked into, through, and out of the rubble of dysfunctional houses pretending nothing had happened. We got up off floors, dusted ourselves off, and moved on in life.
Or did we?
Because for all the arguments and anguish and therapy and, finally, just walking away from her at 33, it still burned deep within. But now, holding a phone to my ear, the flame seemed to flicker a little.
“Okay, well, I’ve jabbered on enough,” he says, and we both chuckle.
“Thank you, Dad,” still wiping tears, still trying to find my voice. “That means to the world to me. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Jeffy.”
A few weeks later, the phone rang. It was his daughter.
John Martin Werline passed away April 24, 2008.
God forbid anybody in that family pick up a phone and tell me he’s sick.
But all the screaming into pillows and pounding beds isn’t going to change anything. Besides, that’s how it’s always been, so I couldn’t very well expect it to be any different this time. He didn’t care much for doctors and was a deeply private man — so humble to his very core, never wanting to bother others with his troubles.
So when his kidneys began to fail, he reached for telephones, not dialysis machines.
“You were the first one he called, Jeffy,” she said. “I remember trying to help him find your number.”
So for all the drama of hopping on planes and dashing out for final goodbyes, I realized we’d already had that goodbye. He knew he was dying when he’d picked up that phone. The apology I’d waited 35 years to hear was at the other end.
That day taught me to never say never on life. Ever. Life moves along on its own itinerary, its own speed.
Especially when we’re sitting in cars, engines idling, wondering if we should go knock on the door.
After a couple hours of that visit in 2004, I asked if we could take a quick photo before we left. After all, I have only a couple of pictures of him — the day I held our family’s first college degree in my hands, then another, on Jackson Street, seventh grade, him crouched beside the grill, alternating between flipping steaks and cranking an old-fashioned ice cream maker on one of those glorious Oregon summer days — and after having thrown the ball with me in the alley. “Rock and fire, Jeffy! Rock and fire!”
So hey, we gotta run, but before we leave, how about a picture of the two of us?
Let’s go outside though. Better lighting.
How about over there?
Under the tree, by the curb.
“That your car?” he says.
Yeah, that’s our car.