My Dad, the strong, silent type

Dad and me1My father is more than a title figure in my new book My Father’s Eyes. He plays an integral role in the story of the friendship I had with his younger brother Melrose.

My dad, whose name was Doug, was much like other Dads in the 1950s and 1960s. He was quiet and didn’t share his innermost feelings. He showed his love for his children by working very hard at his job, making sure we had our physical needs met and insisting that we go to college.

He was much like the father described by Tom Palaima in a Father’s Day essay that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. Like my dad, Palaima’s father grew up in the Depression and served in World War II.

“Our fathers worked hard at jobs we knew little about. They kept to themselves their fears, troubles, doubts and emotions, positive and negative. They rarely talked to us about their views on life, their hopes, dreams, successes and failures,” Palaima writes.

Striking similarities

I was amazed that Palaima’s parents, like mine, had a baby who died at birth and then never talked about the loss. Both he and I discovered the existence of a sibling when we visited the family burial plots.

I wonder how many other folks in the Baby Boom generation have siblings who died and were never mentioned again. I’m guessing there are a lot of them.

Our fathers were shaped and molded through the hardships they endured as children and later as soldiers. And in my dad’s case, he was also deeply affected by the fact that his brother Melrose was profoundly intellectually disabled.

Growing up before his time

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the brothers were growing up, there were almost no services or resources of any kind to help Dad’s family. And since my grandmother had five children, much of the caretaking of Melrose fell to my Dad, who was the oldest.

Dad helped Melrose eat and get dressed, he took his brother to get milkshakes on hot summer afternoons, he defended his brother from the neighborhood bullies and made sure he was included in all the vacant lot baseball games. Dad loved his brother so much and had such a strong sense of duty that he was devastated when his parents decided to send Melrose to live in an institution.

So my thanks to Tom Palaima for writing about his quiet, reserved, hard-working father and how his dad was shaped by the times he lived in. His column reminded me of Doug Allee, who was a good man and a hero who never got much recognition.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Hope you and Melrose are drinking milkshakes right now.

Silence doesn’t always mean secrecy

I have often pondered the secrecy that seemed to surround the existence of my Uncle Melrose, who had a profound intellectual disability. No one in my family ever talked about him – not my Dad or my other aunt and uncles or my grandfather.

As I have learned in the past few years, my family was not unique. The same veil of silence seemed to affect many other families who had a member with a disability in the early to mid-20th century.

Surely, I thought, a certain amount of shame was behind the attitude of my father and his relatives. And that was understandable, given that Uncle Melrose was born in an era when people like him were considered a menace to society. It was generally accepted that people with intellectual limitations were born of bad stock and would either be a societal leach, a criminal or a prostitute.

Out of sight, out of mind

It was widely believed that people with intellectual disabilities were a danger to society and vice versa. Steps must be taken to protect one group from the other. That’s why institutions were built in remote areas – to remove the disabled from the mainstream.

To keep the population of the “feebleminded” under control, there was widespread support for the eugenics movement. Sterilization laws were passed in many states and tens of thousands of people – most of them in institutions – were rendered incapable of reproducing.

Many people – including the highly educated – believed that if a person was born with an intellectual disability, it was retribution for some sin by the parents.  Perhaps the father was a womanizer or the mother had taken to drink.

No other options

When I consider these things, I think it’s a miracle that Dad’s family kept Uncle Melrose at home until he was 15 years old. It was only when the family couldn’t handle my uncle’s explosive outbursts of frustration any longer that they placed him in a state school in Texas.

That must have been unbelievably painful for all of them, including Melrose. I know it was for my dad, who expressed outrage to his parents for their decision.

Help from Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck

When you look at the whole story, it is easy to see why my uncle seemed to be a family secret. But there is one other factor that I had overlooked until I read The Child Who Never Grew, by Pearl Buck. When the book was published in 1950, Buck revealed that she had a daughter with an intellectual disability.

Her daughter Carol was someone she had not been able to acknowledge even though she had raised her for several years before placing her in an institution. When Buck’s  award-winning novel The Good Earth was published, the public was naturally curious about the author. But Mrs. Buck could not talk about Carol. The reason, she said, was “not shame at all but something private and sacred, as sorrow must be. I am sore to the touch there and I cannot endure even the touch of sympathy.

“Silence is best and far the easiest for me. I suppose this is because I am not resigned and never can be. I endure it because I must, but I am not resigned.”

Perhaps it was the same for my father.  Thoughts of his brother made him sore to the touch. He knew he must endure the pain, but he could never resign himself to his brother’s condition or to his institutionalization. And so, as it was for Pearl Buck, silence was the easiest thing for him.

The Kennedy legacy

When most people think about the Kennedy dynasty, they think of politics and power and wealth. How could you think otherwise when three of the Kennedy brothers became U.S. senators and one became president?  One might also think of tragedy and heartbreak – with the assassinations of John and Robert and the deaths of Joe Jr. on the World War II battlefield and Kathleen in a plane crash.

Of course, when I think of the Kennedy legacy, I think of all these things. But I also reflect on all the family has done to advance the standing of people with intellectual disabilities. As is so often the case among people who take up causes, the Kennedys had personal experience with disabilities. John’s oldest sister Rosemary had a disability of some kind – the family always said it was an intellectual limitation. There is some debate about that diagnosis; nevertheless, Rosemary was the impetus for the family’s activism in the field of disabilities.

The Kennedys as activists

Rosemary’s younger sister Eunice prevailed upon John, when he became president, to establish the first President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. During his administration, he was the first president in history to welcome a person with an intellectual disability into the White House.

Later, Eunice and her husband Sargent Shriver founded the Special Olympics, providing athletic competitions worldwide for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, millions of athletes participate in sporting events in 170 countries.

The Shrivers’ son Anthony Kennedy Shriver built on their legacy by founding and building Best Buddies, an organization dedicated to creating one-to-one relationships and employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. It is a volunteer organization, pairing college and high school students and adults with peers.

Best Buddies recognizes that people with intellectual disabilities are often excluded from society. By creating meaningful friendships, Best Buddies seeks to change public perceptions and to help people with intellectual disabilities live richer, more meaningful lives.

My dad was a Best Buddy

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, decades ago, long before the founding of Best Buddies, my dad filled a similar role for his younger brother. He tried to include his disabled brother in neighborhood baseball games and he protected him from tormenters. Later in life, I became my uncle’s Best Buddy, taking him out for hamburgers and for rides in the park.

As I’ve learned in writing about my uncle, people with intellectual disabilities want the same things as everyone else – love, belonging, and a sense of purpose. I’m grateful there are organizations like the ones the Kennedys founded to help people with special needs find a place in this world.

The sibling syndrome – revisited

After my last post about siblings of people with disabilities, my friend Rachel Simon (who wrote the very fine book Riding the Bus With my Sister) pointed out that there is an excellent organization that helps with sibling issues.

It’s called the Sibling Support Project, a nationwide support system for brothers and sisters of people with special health, developmental or mental health needs. The project trains service providers throughout the United States on how to implement the Sibshop program. This program helps siblings know they are not alone with their unique concerns.

Support for siblings of all ages

The project seeks to provide support not only to children but also to teens and adult siblings. An excellent video has been released about the sibling project. It features siblings of all ages talking about the joys and trials of having a family member with a disability.

I am so glad that our society is open enough to talk about such issues and to find ways to help families cope with disabilities. I only wish these services had been available when my Dad was growing up during the Depression.

His younger brother, my Uncle Melrose, had an intellectual disability and at the time, there were no services to help the family. My uncle couldn’t even go to school because there were no special education classes.

A childhood lost

As a result, my Dad — the oldest of five children — was called into service to take care of Melrose. My Uncle, who was nicknamed Pie, was anything but the saying “easy as pie.” He was often frustrated at his limitations and in response, he threw violent tantrums. He couldn’t dress himself and he needed help with almost everything. My Dad became his caretaker.

The situation robbed Dad of much of his childhood. I have often wondered how his life — and Uncle Melrose’s — would have been different if the world had been more open to them.

I’ve wondered what Pie might have learned if he had been able to go to school. And I’ve wondered if Dad could have been more emotionally open if he had been able to be around others who understood his situation.

The door that could not be ignored

“I bought the place because it had the door in the patio, the one I’ve painted so often.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of my favorite artists, and not just because I like her paintings. I admire her as a person. She lived in a time when women were expected to fulfill certain roles — as wives and mothers — and she charted her own path. She did marry, but she spent a good deal of time away from her husband, painting in her beloved New Mexico.

In the early 1930s, she discovered a house in remote Abiquiu, N.M., and was drawn to it because of its door. It took her more than ten years to buy the property from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, but she finally moved there in 1945. In the surrounding desert and mountains of New Mexico she painted some of her most famous landscapes.

My door

I like the image of the door that captivates. For me, there is a similar door, but it is a metaphorical one. It is a door that beckons me to pursue a story that must be told.

I opened that door three years ago when I began writing a memoir about my uncle, who had an intellectual disability. I didn’t know he existed until I was a teenager, and I didn’t meet him until I was in my 40’s.

He was a tiny man. I’m not sure how tall he was, because he was doubled over with scoliosis. But he weighed only 122 pounds. His head was misshapen because of microcephaly and his eyes were crossed. He could say only a few words — his favorite was “No!” — and he needed help with almost everything.

But he didn’t need help with friendship. He and I became buddies. We went for walks and drives and to get hamburgers. We sat next to each other on the porch and watched the cars go by. He had a profound impact on me and helped me find healing for some of my deepest personal wounds.

My father’s eyes

One of the most remarkable things about Uncle Melrose was that he had my father’s eyes. He and Dad were brothers, and when they were growing up in San Antonio, Dad took care of his younger sibling. The two of them didn’t really look much alike, but if you saw their eyes, you knew they were related.

I’ve never seen blue eyes like theirs in anyone else — they were like gleaming pale blue crystals. There was something honest and without pretense in them.

Originally, I intended to write Uncle Melrose’s biography. But there was so little information available about his life. Dad would never talk about him and most of his family had passed away. The state institution where he lived most of his life claimed his records no longer existed.

Eventually, it became clear that the story about Uncle Melrose was as much about me as it was about him. It has been hard to write this tale — it’s the hardest project I’ve ever undertaken. But it’s a door that beckoned me and would not let me walk away. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, I saw that door and knew I had to walk through it.