Nick and I stepped off the plane in Boise at 12:20 Saturday morning. The airport, stylish and clean, is a model of airport efficiency. We soon found our car rental company and walked out the door into a GMC Acadia, likely the largest car I’ll drive this year.
We were content as we sailed off into a weekend with family in the Far West outpost in the shadow of the Boise Mountains. My uncle Steve, one of my mom’s seven brothers, died of a heart attack while scuba diving in Mexico last summer. His wife and kids planned a memorial on Steve’s birthday, July 29. It was to be a weekend of conversation and remembrance.
I was nervous about dealing with the family, as I’m my father’s son, and my father has always behaved badly. At family gatherings, he was often boorish and loud, his personality expanding the more he drank, often dominating the room and driving people away. Around the women of the family, he was known to get tipsy and corner sisters and sisters-in-law, one by one, and make suggestive comments and start conversations with troubling double entendre. He also got handsy and became known as the family groper.
From the time I was quite young, I have been known as Bill Dobson’s son. Some people in the family have had difficulty separating my father and his behavior from me. I was marked. No one took me seriously. Many steered clear of me and I was treated as if I was cast of the same mold.
His sexually aggressive behavior created some of the most deeply embarrassing moments of my life. He once pushed an aunt onto a counter-top in a kitchen and said that he’d like to take her right there. At a family reunion, he cornered my wife on a balcony above a sandy beach and told him of moments of his life when contact with women—a handshake, a frank conversation about praying the rosary, oddly enough—gave him erections. He once felt up my niece at a family gathering.
When he was confronted or when people talked of these events, it caused scenes. I was ashamed. I felt guilt over his drunken antics, like his inappropriate conduct was my fault.
I had trouble establishing relationships with family members. It was only through my efforts in my 30s that I was able to establish connections with people like Steve. I came to understand that some in the family had a great deal of empathy and pity for me and my siblings. Unlike those who never separated me from my father, I found in people like Steve and his kids that they always knew I was different. I wasn’t just my father’s son.
My father now is much diminished from the lion of a man I knew growing up. He cannot command the room any longer. Dementia and the indignities of aging have shrunken his once towering physique to that of a bent old man one might read about in a fairy tale. His voice isn’t as loud as it used to be. He is a weak, dottering creature who’s mostly lost in the world, though he doesn’t realize that.
All day Saturday, we sat around my aunt’s house talking and getting to know each other. Steve had friends far and wide. He and his wife came from Kansas City, and her Kansas City relatives had made the trek to Idaho. Close friends also sat around the tables and lingered on the back porch.
I was surprised and taken aback to find the welcome I did when I arrived. The feeling of acceptance grew greater the more I understood that I was just another member of the family, no one more special than anyone else but someone who people actually looked forward to seeing. Nick’s presence also bolstered me. Everyone was intrigued to see and talk to him. He’s got a kind of special love from the family, being born of my sister but the son of Virginia and me. Many people hadn’t met him before but heard of him. Those who had met him hadn’t seen him since he was a small child.
When my mom and dad arrived, I didn’t feel anxious. In a way, I looked forward to seeing them. Nick used to have a close relationship with them and I wanted them to continue that. But when they came onto the back patio, my mom had to remind my dad who we were. Even then, I’m not sure that he really understood that I was his son and Nick was his grandson. No one dwelled on it and conversation went on.
The rest of the day was really great. I was getting to know my cousins and their spouses and kids more, learning about Steve’s friends, and talking in greater detail with my aunt. I was able to talk for a long time with my uncle Bill Bauer, who’s been something of a father figure to me. Nick was getting to know his cousins, who are around his age, and started interacting with them. He left my side and took off on his own. It was fabulous.
The next day, Sunday, we gathered at my aunt’s for the memorial. Again, before people began to arrive for the “services,” it was family and close friends. Bill Dobson was drinking. But I thought that in his diminished state, this weekend was going to be all right.
But I wasn’t surprised when things changed shortly before the event began.
“It’s time for Bill Dobson to leave,” cousin said to me. “If he doesn’t get out of here, there’s going to be an incident. My mom doesn’t need that right now.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll deal with it.”
She explained that in the space of a couple of minutes, my dad had yelled at my cousin’s 12-year-old son. My dad had his dog with him. The dog did what dogs do. My dad told this kid to pick up the dog’s poop. When he demurred, Bill Dobson launched into him with a fury I could very well imagine. While my cousin was dealing with a hurt child, my dad groped one of the guests, a good friend of my aunt.
My cousin then left things to me. I knew what to do, I said, “because I’ve been dealing with this my whole life.” I went off to find my mom, as you don’t get one without the other. I told her what had happened. She wanted to know immediately who the person was who leveled the groping charge.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told her. “It’s happened and he has to go.”
“Well, how am I supposed to get him out of here?”
“You’re not feeling well and want to go back to the hotel,” I said. “You approach it that way and there won’t be a scene.”
Within a few minutes, they were out the door and on the way to the car. I stood on the front lawn. My mom, I could tell, was mortally embarrassed. She has been dealing with this, denying it, for as long as their 56-year marriage. This time, she couldn’t shake it off. The behavior was out in the open and there was no denying it.
As my dad was slowly getting into the passenger seat, my mom looked over at me from the driver’s side of the car.
“The thing is, we were going to come over tomorrow,” she said. “My brother’s going to be here and I want to see him.”
I shook my head. “It isn’t going to happen.”
I felt sorry for my mom. She had so wanted to connect with the people who knew Steve, her brother. She wanted to see her other brothers and spend time talking to them, people she rarely gets to visit. Her pain must have been immense. And, now, she had to deal with dad, who more than likely wouldn’t remember what he did.
As they drove away, I realized I felt no shame or embarrassment. I was finally free of the old man.