There are days in our lives that are profoundly and indelibly imprinted in our minds. We miss some of the details but vividly recall others that play over and over in our heads even as decades pass. May 31, 1957, was such a day. What should have been a glorious reunion with my aunts and uncles and cousins at Clear Lake became instead an unimaginable horror that continues to feel unreal even decades later.
My mother had spent all of the previous day preparing for the Memorial Day celebration that would mark a summer of joyful times with the people we loved. She made one of her famous chocolate cakes with buttercream frosting and let us run our fingers through the bowl to retrieve the icing that stuck to the sides so that we might get a taste of the delightful topping. She boiled potatoes and chopped onions and celery to make potato salad. She mixed her “secret” ingredients to prepare the barbecue sauce that Daddy would use to grill hamburgers. She chilled soft drinks in the refrigerator and made baked beans. Our house was abuzz as my father worked downtown at his new job to finish a project before the holiday. There was joy in the air once again.
My brothers and I went to bed before our father arrived home. My head was filled with so much anticipation that I struggled to fall asleep, but soon I was snoozing away. I awoke to the sound of my mother’s voice. She was in the hallway talking on the phone that back then was tethered to the wall with a cord. Her voice sounded funny as she appeared to be answering questions. It seemed odd for her to be having a conversation at such an early hour, but I was too excited about the promise of the day to stay in bed, so I went from my room to the kitchen in search of something to eat or drink. She seemed not to notice that I passed through the opposite end of the hall. She was intently occupied with her puzzling commentary.
I began to worry that something was amiss when I found my Aunt Valeria puttering away in the kitchen. She looked nervous as she sweetly asked if I wanted her to prepare some breakfast for me. I must have looked like I was thinking that she had grown three heads because she was suddenly stuttering as if confused about what to say next. She walked across the room and told me to sit down at the table with her. Then as we got settled she had the look of someone fishing for words as she finally managed to utter, “God called your father home to heaven last night.”
Somehow I instantly understood what she was trying to tell me, but I needed confirmation of my fears so I acted confused. Then she sweetly, but matter of factly, explained that Daddy had been in a car accident and had died. At that moment my head seemed to explode. I don’t know if I responded or not. The next many hours I felt as though I was watching everything that happened from a faraway removed position. I was there, but I wasn’t. I wanted to talk about it, but I did not. I simply moved in slow motion unable or maybe even unwilling to believe that my father was gone, deceased, passed away, dead.
I saw little of Mama that day. Our house was soon filled with friends and family talking quietly in our living room while Mama lay prostrate in her bedroom. My aunts told me and my brothers to go outside to play with our cousins. I suppose there were games taking place and I may have even participated in them, but my only thoughts were that I was still asleep and encased in a nightmare that kept playing over and over. I worried about my mother and my brothers and so I found ways to sneak back into the house to spy on the adult conversations. I needed more information, more explanations that would never satisfy my need to know how this had possibly happened.
I learned that Daddy had worked late, at least that was the story they were telling each other. It was a hot and steamy night so after he got home he was unable to sleep, He decided to go for a ride to get cool. He evidently drove toward Galveston on what we called the Gulf Freeway, later Interstate 45. The highway was in its infancy, still very much under construction. In the dark of night it was difficult to tell the difference between the freeway and the feeder road. According the the story my father was barreling down the feeder when it ended in a big ditch. There were no warning signs, no lights, nothing to alert him to the danger. When the car crashed forward his chest slammed into the steering wheel crushing his heart. With no seatbelts or collapsable steering or air bags he felt the cruel impact of steel and glass, dying immediately upon impact.
Houston was not the metropolis that it is now. The story became front page news with journalists making asking questions and hinting that somehow Daddy died because he was careless while others demanded to know why there was no warning, no illumination to warn him that he was in danger. The tale of a thirty three year old man with a beautiful widow and three young children surviving him was the headline for the holiday. For me it felt like the cruelest blow possible, as though my own heart had been torn from my chest and stomped into a million pieces.
That day one of the children in the neighborhood asked me if I even cared that my father was dead. She remarked that I looked as though I had no feelings for him. She expected me to be crying, but instead I was frozen in a state of stoic shock and disbelief. I kept myself from falling apart by believing that nothing was real. I watched over my brothers, Michael and Patrick, as though I had become their eight year old mom. I felt that Daddy would expect me to protect everyone. Happy, lighthearted me went deep inside and serious, sad me emerged. That me would use the tools that my father had taught me to survive until I was one day able to feel joy again.
It was my Uncle William, my mother’s oldest brother, who would sweetly show me the compassion that I needed on that day. As I stood like a tin soldier guarding my brothers he came outside to see how we were doing. He noticed that my brother, Pat, who was two years old was wandering among the other children with baggy pants. He tenderly took Pat in his arms and looked at me saying, “Oh, honey, Pat is all wet. Can you show me where his clean clothes are?”
Together we took my little brother inside to clean and change him. Then Uncle Wille carried Pat while we searched for Michael. He loaded the three of us in his car and took us to an ice cream parlor. I ordered butter pecan because I knew it was the flavor that my father most loved. We sat quietly licking our cones while Uncle Willie promised that he was going to take care of us and that we would be alright. Then he drove us home and gave each of us a fifty cent piece to use the next time we went to the store. He asked me to keep our treasure in a safe place and told me that I was the oldest like he was. I assured me that I would know how to always be certain that my brothers were safe. Even as a small child I understood that Uncle Willie was our family’s angel just as Aunt Valeria had been that morning. Their show of love would sustain me in my unbounded grief.
When night fell and all but one of my aunts had gone home I finally crept into my mother’s bedroom to be with her. I lay next to her on the bed and she hugged me as we both cried. Neither of us said a word. I felt safe with her and understood how much we both loved and already missed Daddy. Somehow we would find a way to carry on.