Let me set the scene. It is, oh, let's say 1955, and I am twelve. Our house, the house I grew up in, is on a pleasant tree-lined street in a small town in Western New York State. My mother is a part-time school teacher, my father works for a long distance trucking firm. I have an older sister and two younger brothers.
It must have been around this time, for adults were distant and almost mythic figures, and children a race apart; observing and analyzing the words and actions of their parents without really understanding them. It is only now, when everyone involved is either dead or aged beyond recognition, that I am moved to try to understand the story of Roberta Beeman.
It began with a phone call from a long distance operator. My father was away on one of his journeys across the American continent and it was my mother who answered the phone. I think I must have been nearby, for I remember how her face changed, and her voice became brittle and shrill, before she slammed the phone down in its cradle (it was the old bakelite model, built to take that kind of punishment). I am a little hazy about the details of what happened next, but from other times I suspect that what my mother did next was to phone up one of the three of her sisters who lived locally.
Someone had charged long distance calls to our number, someone named Roberta Beeman When my mother disavowed any knowledge of such a person, the operator reportedly said that perhaps someone else in the family, 'perhaps your husband', had received the calls without my mother knowing.
This much us kids knew, because later on our mother enlightened us. It was all a mistake of course, but wouldn't it be fun to tease Father about it when he came home? We had all suffered from family teasing; it was supposed to be a joke and you weren't allowed to let on that it hurt and embarrassed you, so of course being able to turn the tables on Father was irresistible.
We were excluded from the scene between our parents when Father returned from his trip, but after that we four children became for a short time the Chorus of the Eumenides; all in fun of course. My sister who was four years older led the pack, and I suppose she had a clearer knowledge of the issues at stake. 'Is Roberta Beeman your girlfriend? we chorused, ' Are you going to marry Roberta Beeman?' - just the way we had all been teased when we showed the slightest interest in the opposite sex. Well, the shoe was on the other foot now!
Father took it like a Man; which in the 50's meant he displayed a good-natured facade which showed that he could take a joke and it didn't bother him really. After a while we ran out of steam, because after all none of us actually believed in it. Father with a girlfriend? The very notion was absurd, he was married to Mother, he couldn't have a girlfriend!
Only now, when I am nearly the age he was when he died, is it possible to look back and speculate on the true story,
My father was a city boy, from a once-wealthy family who had fallen on hard times during the depression. He had quit Military Academy to come back and help out at home, which as children we thought was noble and heroic. We had no way of knowing that it left Father with no qualifications to earn a living. For a while he and his brother, my uncle, ran a small welding supply business, but then ww2 broke out. Father was exempt, but he enlisted anyhow, in spite of the fact that I was about to enter the world. I always had a sense, wordlessly unacknowledged, that I represented a last ditch attempt by Mother to keep him from going. It was my younger brother who was named after Father and had the Jr. after his name- I was just plain me.
The town where we lived was a place of rolling hills, woods, and farmland,and for me the country was a place of limitless horizons, where I could roam at will and have adventures. I never understood how much a prison it must have seemed to Father- the small town stuffiness and propriety, and having Mother's father for a landlord; Grandfather lived right next door and had made it possible for my parents to own their own home. I resented the fact that Grandfather treated me like a ready source of labor when something needed doing around the property, not realizing at the time that he treated Father the same way, as an indebted son-in-law.
Father's brother and mother and father lived in the City, and there were frequent visits back and forth. They seemed so alive to me as a child. There always seemed to be a party when they got together, and there was one uncle who had married into the family, a French Canadien who had been a commercial artist and a professional chef. Once, I remember, when he was visiting he insisted on making dinner, and discovered there was no wine in the house. Nothing would do but that I must be sent to the liquor Store on a Saturday to buy a bottle. Mother nearly had a stroke, worrying what people would say if they saw me carrying A Bottle Of Wine down the street.
For a while after the war Father worked at a series of dead-end jobs. My earliest memory is of him asleep in his chair after dinner; we used to joke about it. I don't suppose it occurred to any of us that the poor man was bored to death. Then came the opportunity to work for one of the long haul trucking companies as a driver. The money was better than he had been making, but the job necessitated long absences from home.
To us children it was an adventure, following Father's progress on a road map, being allowed to sit in the cab of his truck when he returned and blow the air horn, which sounded exactly like a train whistle. On local runs, down as far as Pennsylvania, we were allowed, my sister and I, to take turns coming along. What bliss, up there in the cab of that monster, looking down on all the other cars, the envy of all the other children who saw us. Again, it never occurred to us to wonder how Father felt about it, but looking back I suspect he endured as a man should who was mindful of his responsibilities.
What about the other trips, though? The journies over the length and breadth of the American continent, over mountain and plain, sleeping in truck stops or in hotels in strange cities, all on his own and alone for the most part. I suspect he was as happy as I would be later in my twenties and thirties escaping home life and ties, I am fairly sure that at least in that we were and are alike. And Roberta Beeman- who was she really?- for in those days such things were never talked about openly. I like to think that she was someone Father met, someone who perhaps found him a romantic wanderer, someone perhaps not overly bothered by the fact that he had a home and a wife and children far away, for in those days distances were greater, the American continent still as vast as it must have seemed to the first pioneers to cross it.
I like to think that, because if true it would constitute a bond between my father and me; somewhat after the fact, of course, but a bond nevertheless between two people who in their lives together never shared anything but a mutual incomprehension.