"The last time I saw Wes he was standing over your baby bed reciting something from--oh, I don't know--Shakespeare or the Old Testament. Then, he leaned down to kiss you instead of picking you up. He walked past me as I sat on the couch reading a newspaper and he briefly placed his hand on my shoulder--a thing unlike him to do. He was a reserved person, not particularly warm and affectionate. That was that. He walked out of the front door and down the road on foot, never to be seen or heard from again."
Paw-paw sat in the same cozy plot of the old green couch each evening buffing his cuticles and applying dollops of bleaching cream to his age spots. He liked to buff and ramble. I was his audience, listening with a sense of self-importance.
As he finished his memory of my father, a profound sense of loss invaded my heart. I could see it as it happened and the adult version of myself wanted to grab his arm and take him aside, perhaps talk some sense into him.
“Don’t you realize what you are about to do to your son by abandoning him? You think your wife—his mother—is sane enough not to damage him? If you think its rough for you, an adult, to live around her—how will it be for Terry?”
This fantasy conversation haunts me still. It didn’t happen and I am now who I became.
In 1972, I was 25 years old. I tracked him down to his home in Detroit, Michigan. I knocked on his door and he answered.
“Are you Wesley Walstrom?”
“I’m Terry Walstrom.”
“Oh? Yeah—I can see that. I can see that. You have the Walstrom chin like I do—come on in.”
As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.
My parents divorced in 1948.
Mom went back to work in a donut shop in Fort Worth leaving grandmother and grandfather with the task of nurturing her six-month-old baby. This came at a time in their marriage when a frosty curtain of indifference had permanently settled between them splitting into two worlds under a single roof. The rearing a grandchild brought newfound warmth and purpose. The marriage began to mend and for the first time in a long while, an effusion of hope found its way into their bond.
My grandmother, I called Maw-maw.
My grandfather was my Paw-paw. Southerners have a real knack for nicknames, don’t they?
I was called Bubba, Wookie, Little Pal, and Schmoo.
Each evening, my Mom brought home two dozen doughnuts from her job at the doughnut shop. After a month of this, my grandfather, who prided himself on a German sense of discipline and self control, spoke up to tell her:
“Don’t bring anymore doughnuts into this house. I’ve gained weight!”
This was the greatest sin imaginable for a fastidious man like my grandfather, becoming fat was for slugs, not a man who prided himself on radiant health.
Paw-paw was a fanatic about vitamins. He was a self-educated crackpot nutritionist. His view of health came down to taking 91 varied vitamins, minerals, oils, creams, blended drinks and health bars. He was fifty years ahead of his time.
He worked as a window-dresser in a departments store chain and he was responsible for signs and displays for 29 stores in a 30 mile radius. He was artistic, fussy and controlling, but he loved me more than anybody or anything else. I was more lucky than not. He and his wife spoiled me.
(In 1948, Al Capp, of Lil Abner fame, created a peculiar cartoon character he called Schmoo. It was shaped like a bowling pin. The creature gave of itself without condition. It served whatever purpose came into your head for it to fill.) To no one’ surprise, Maw-maw nick-named me her Little Schmoo. I brought back to life the nurturing spirit inside her and she took me with her every place she went. We rode together from the house on Baltimore Street on the Southside of the city to Downtown on the Evans Avenue West Loop bus.
This was the early 50’s before Civil Rights existed. The black people sat in the rear of the bus and Whites ruled the front. I liked to ride in the rear with my Maw-maw. She was more comfortable around “colored people” having grown up in Louisiana, in New Orleans. She had a black nanny from the time she was born.
The two of us, the Maw-maw and Little Schmoo, in the back of the city bus, were seen as white people chattering away with the marginalized people with dark skin. It obviously puzzled the hell out of people seated in the front of the bus! We’d hear comments, catcalls and feel the ‘hate-stare’ of offended folks. Maw-maw paid it no mind and I learned to do the same. Who could have imagined how things would change in the decades to come?
Paw-paw lavished his self-help ideas on me. I was offered a dollar if I completed a scheme. What kind of scheme? For instance, he’d give me a sheet of paper with information to memorize, and if I could recite it perfectly—I was instantly a dollar richer!
I completed these tasks without effort. I soon began to recognize I had an outsized capacity for memorization. In fact, I was a rare case of an autodidact with an eidetic memory. What does that mean? It means I could teach myself anything by memorizing it perfectly using a photographic memory.
I learned many useless things, but several far-reaching habits of great help later in life came my way as well. For example, I learned a technique for memorizing long chains of numbers by converting numbers into words. A phone number such as 903-401-755 became “possum road kill.” I ask you, which is the more memorable set of information? Each number corresponded to a letter sound. It was clever and I still use it.
I acquired skills, a love for trivia, and an enormous capacity for enjoying different kinds of music living in my grandparent’s house. What I didn’t learn was self-confidence or emotional security because Paw-paw had a tempestuous bad temper. He would explode without warning and throw a table across the room in rage. The rest of us—except for my mother—cringed in horror, waiting for the storm to pass. My Mom became confrontational and defiant—escalating Paw-paw’s rage to the breaking point of murderous violence.
One argument stands out too clearly in my memory. A baby picture of me was the source of discourse! It happened this way.
Maw-maw was arranging family photos in a scrapbook album and my Mom came along and interfered. She and Maw-maw were afflicted with enormous vanity. Any photo containing their image was subject to summary critical analysis. Only perfect photos would be allowed to exist. A picture of my Mom and an unattractive friend appeared, and my mother grabbed it and tore off the head of the ‘friend’ destroying Maw-maw’s selection for the album. You can see how this could be high-handed and provocative!
The next photo appeared with me as a fat baby. Maw-maw thought it was a beautiful photo, but my mother insisted in misrepresented her parenting skills as a mother. Somehow a fatal error of judgment dragged Paw-paw into the argument.
Inside of a minute, the fighting, screaming, and confrontation became an out-of-control showdown of heavenly versus hellish forces locked in Armageddon’s final battle!
Mom stood nose to nose with her father. He reached for his pistol and pointed the Smith & Wesson .38 at his daughter’s face. He ordered her to back down or he’d blown her “. . . god dam brains out on the wall.” I cowered on the other side of the room, terrified I would see the destruction of my mother before my eyes.
She did not blink or relent—instead she sneered and spoke firmly, “You haven’t done a thing but threaten until you’ve pulled that trigger.”
I held my breath the longest minute of infinite silence, and then Paw-paw seemed to fold up into an empty balloon of nobody and nothing. He dropped the gun and walked out of the room.
My mother’s face shown radiant victory in a way that disgusted me and I found myself running to the bathroom to vomit.
FROM THE HALLS OF MONTEZUMA
By the year 1950, my mother had remarried a fellow named Ray. He was a United States Marine. This was the first male figure in my life to assume the role of father—or should I say, ‘step-father?’
Ray Wilkerson had one solution ready at all times for every problem which arose. He’d scream an order and it must be obeyed. End of problem.
I crossed paths with him once too often and he beat the hell out of me. I still carry scars on my back from the application of a belt to my 3-year old flesh. Mom wasn’t around and didn’t know. He threatened me in a low growl. “If you ever tell your Mom—I’ll really do some damage—you understand me?” I did. Believe me—I did.
Mrs. Ray Wilkerson, my mother, pulled me away from my haven at the house of my grandparents and moved my world north of Ft.Worth to Wichita Falls, Texas. I felt my emotional stability scooped out of my insides like a Halloween pumpkin. I was terrified, sullen, struck mute with fear. I was a lost soul on permanent probation. I was just 4 years old and I wanted to crawl off under the house and die like a dog.
One afternoon Mom returned home early and caught her husband beating me; I saw a transformation come over her like no other I’ve witnessed before or since then. A cry of inhuman intensity came roaring out of her throat—the unsettling wail of a she-wolf. That woman hurled herself at the United States Marine Corp sergeant with astonishing ferocity and somehow the man found himself unprepared for the enemy assault.
She scratched, punched, pummeled and kicked from a thousand directions at the same instant. Uncharacteristically, Wilkerson was the one man in a hundred who had been raised to never hit a woman. He warded off her fusillade as best he could, then gave up his ground. He turned and fled to the bathroom locking himself inside like a little girl afraid of spiders and snakes!
I couldn’t process what my eyes had seen—my heart was pounding like an engine without oil, about to strip a gear! I scurried out the front screen door and ran as far as my legs could carry me and hid in the bushes panting for air and near fainting.
I must have blacked out.
A week later, Maw-maw and Paw-paw came up to Wichita Falls for a visit and saw what conditions I was living under; how distraught and withdrawn I’d become; how much weight I had lost—and I was already skinny as a soup bone.
When it came time for them to drive back to Ft.Worth, I began weeping uncontrollably. I begged them to take me with them in a heart-rending plea which must have shaken them both to their core.
I grabbed the handle to their car door and wouldn’t let go.
A whispering conference soon commenced. Maw-maw and my Mom, Paw-paw and Ray Wilkerson gestured and made faces, glancing again and again my way. Finally, my grandparents disappeared inside the Wilkerson’s clapboard house for five minutes and returned carrying two large bags.
When I spied my clothing, teddy bear and bow and arrows, my heart soared with joyous celebration! I was going back to Fort Worth to live with my Maw-maw and Paw-paw, and my mother would try and salvage her second marriage to the cowardly Marine sergeant.
AS FALLS WICHITA
Life can turn on a dime.
My life turned that afternoon in Wichita Falls. I’m convinced Ray Wilkerson would have killed me the first chance he got. He was like that. But, I escaped with my life ahead of me, for better or worse.
My step-dad divorced my mom in half a year. She began drinking and staying out late, then she moved back in with her parents. When she couldn’t get a babysitter, I’d be forced to go along to the beer joints and sit sipping Grapette for hours and hours while she turned on her invidious charms with the man-du-jour, drinking, laughing, and kissing in a sloppy display of a lost soul.
If my grandparents were at home, they’d gladly babysit. Then, at three in the morning, Mom and her new main squeeze would show up back at the house. A noisy, drunken, showy entrance would take place. I’d be awakened and shown off to the fellow who was her date.
“This is my beautiful little boy. Isn’t a fine looking boy? Do you have some money you’d like to give my boy? I would be most grateful.”
I was highly disturbed by her behavior and appalled that a strange man had been coerced into tossing a sweaty five-dollar bill on my pillow.
Many next-morning arguments ensued between my Maw-maw and my mother over these nightly incursions. The two women would square off and posture offensive threats at one another.
I, of course, had the ring-side seat to the ugliness and deplorable dysfunction of it all.
You know what most often passed through my mind in the midst of all this? I kept asking myself where my father was—why wasn’t he there to protect me? Could he not deal with Lillian Walstrom any better than the rest of us? Was it as simple as that?
In later life, after I had found him in Detroit. I cornered him one evening. I finally had reached the moment when a flesh-and-blood Dad stood in the same room with me and I could inquire the secret of the universe.
“Why did you leave me in my baby crib that night when you left me behind in Texas?”
“Your mother wanted to fight, to argue, to get her way no matter what I could say or do. I hated fighting. I didn’t have the heart for fighting. So, I left.”
“I wasn’t worth fighting for, that’s what you’re saying?”
He dropped his gaze and the expression on his face shown the agony of a crucified Jesus.
“Terry, I did the best I could and couldn’t live with the pain. What can I say? I’m a weak man.”
“What did you say to me when before your turned to leave?”
“What do you mean?”
“My grandfather said he heard you quoting either Shakespeare or the Old Testament to me before you left me. What did you say?”
His brow furrowed a long while. His eyes went up and over like a store clerk searching for an item filed away from view a long time. Then, his face brightened.
“I do remember. I said this to you. . .” He eyes began to water and so did mine.
He took a very deep breath and whispered to me his words and a stream of tears gushed from the corners of his blue eyes. After speaking, he grabbed and hugged me a long time. It was a very long time.
“Such as we are made of, such we be. We know what we are, but know now what we may be. To do a great right, do a little wrong.”
A DYING MAN’S LAST WORDS
The last letter I ever received—no, let me start again!
The only letter I ever received from my father, Wesley Walstrom, arrived in my mailbox over twenty years later. It was addressed to me in shaky handwriting as might come from a person too ill to write.
I gazed with surprise at the return address. It was my father’s name and the same address where I had stood in 1972 listening to my Dad quoting Shakespeare.
My wife Leslie stood nearby and asked aloud, “Aren’t you going to open it?”
I took a long slow deep breath. “No.”
I placed it on the mantle.
My father died within a year. My Aunt Shirley called me and told me. He had been suffering from a degenerative bone disease for a long time. He was now at peace, she said.
I thanked her, but didn’t mention the letter.
Why didn’t I want to open it? I asked myself that question again and again over the next weeks, months and years.
I’ve only ever come to one tiny conclusion. It is this. Nothing that man could ever say to me could mean more to me than the last words he had spoken before he hugged me.
Well. . . only two words: “I’m sorry.’
But somehow I knew those words would never reach my ears. . . or eyes. He wasn’t that sort of man.
He did what he thought best—how could he say he was sorry for doing his best? Those two words are words my father never spoke.