When I was in first grade Miss Charlton (whom we called Charlie because of her mustache) marched us into the auditorium to learn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” She sat down at the piano and led us through the song word by word, playing the piano with one hand and directing us with the other. When we came to the phrase “Land where my father died,” I couldn't figure out how they all knew. At home my father’s death was this big secret. There wasn't even a photograph of him anywhere, as if a picture could suddenly whisper the truth. Since all the other kids had fathers I reasoned it must be my father who died on the land they were singing about.
He vanished without a trace of the ordinary clutter and details of a life, leaving not a shadow nor footprint. There were no letters or insurance papers or tax receipts to find. Not a watch or drivers’ license or birth certificate or deed to a house. No marriage license or diploma. No fading photograph that he had carried, maybe of me. Not a wedding portrait or snapshot at the beach. It was as if during the 29 years of his life on earth he was already a ghost.
I was two years old when my bootlegging father-- and innocent uncle who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time-- were murdered, and don’t remember him. But my older brother, Kenny, told me of his charm, violent temper and generosity. I found two pictures of him among my mother’s possessions after she died. In one, my father is a dark-eyed child on a tricycle. The other shows a muscular youth standing with his brother, Marvin, in front of a horse and delivery wagon from the family bakery. The picture is slightly out of focus, his grin blurred, but you can see his physical strength and his readiness to use it. In the other he stands serenely in a handsome tan suit looking for all the world like a gentleman of banking or the law. His lips are thick and sensual, his brown eyes deep set. He is a beautiful young man frozen in his youth by death, silence and myth. He is a stranger and a daddy who didn't love us enough to stay alive.