My father’s phone call came too late. I will always wonder if he knew he was dying, right then, and called to make things right between us. That I may have been the last person he spoke to before dying from complications following triple by-pass heart surgery has allowed me to believe that he meant to call me to say he was sorry and that he loved me.
He had much for which to be sorry.
Mercifully, we were both saved by WWII. It took us away from each other and provided a stage upon which he could strut. He was a born soldier and he and the US Army were made for each other. Military service turned a steel mill scarfer into an infantryman, then an officer and then an officer in the Intel Division. He was an international traveler and an adept linguist, fluent in both German and Italian. Just after the war, his job was returning home German troops who’d gotten trapped in Italy when the fighting stopped.
But before the Army got him, he was a skilled skier, swimmer, photographer and pilot. He read broadly and wrote well. The range and depth of his talents would be unusual in anyone, but that he could do so much so well as an African American man in pre-Civil Rights America is remarkable. Despite segregated pools and tennis courts and limited access to so many other things, he thrived. And, he had the nerve to be handsome, charming and charismatic. So, naturally, in the time not used for self-improvement and general fun, he was a renowned Lothario.
What William Merle Dandridge was not was a good husband, father and son. It was in spite of him – literally for my mother and me – that his loyal father, my mother, sister and I all survived him. My grandfather just kept quiet when my father “acted ugly,” and kept a roof over our heads and supported us all when my father didn’t – or wouldn’t. My mother went to secretarial college, got a job and divorced him – and created a new, better life for herself and for my sister and me. In a masterful twist of odd logic, my father made it clear that he didn’t want to be married to my mother, but he also didn’t want her to be a successful, single woman. He came to our safe and snug little apartment and angrily and loudly berated her for making a better life without him.
Because my sister and I never talk about our father – or much else – I don’t know the quality or level of her survival, but I’ve always felt that the nearly seven years difference in our ages made a huge difference. She had more of him than I did and I suspect she loved him deeply and missed him terribly when he left us in 1943. I was only three and have no clear memory of ever living with him. But I do have a lifetime of encounters that nearly always had bad outcomes for me and, as I got older and stronger and became an adept fighter, for us both.
He was smart, combative and competitive and could be joyfully mean-spirited when he felt like it. No one was spared, not even me – or perhaps especially not me. Once in a while, my sister says, “You’re like Daddy,” or “You remind me of Daddy.” I’ve never known quite how to interpret her intention when she says that, but I don’t think she means to flatter me – and I know it’s true. I’ve sometimes wondered if I was one of his worthier adversaries.
Part of aging is, I believe, coming to terms with those things that will never be clear to you. It can also be an opportunity to give up old grudges and harbored anger. I have no memory of when my heart stopped aching for the love of a father who seemed more interested in besting me than in loving me. Or when I stopped – in a mirror image of him – getting pleasure from winning a round against his assaults. Long before he died I’d walked away from our war. I’d matured enough to realize I’d never know what he felt about me and that it didn’t matter anymore.
Outgrowing my anger and disappointment made room for me to admire what was good about him. What matters now is that, for all his faults and shortcomings, he left me many genetic gifts and I am grateful to him for them and, while it was certainly not his intention, I’m grateful to him for teaching me not to be passive when I’m treated badly. That, perhaps, is his greatest legacy to me.
It is rare that I think about that last call when he spoke in a tremulous, tired-sounding, old man’s voice. He wasn’t able to organize his thoughts and I didn’t try to help him. Because I’d perfected my guardedness, it never crossed my mind until later that he might have wanted to make deathbed amends. I had long lost hope for anything good flowing from him to me, so I was polite and thanked him for letting me know he’d come through the surgery. I wished him a good recovery.
And so ended one of a human being’s most important relationships – with the quiet click of a telephone being returned to its cradle.
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