This is a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.
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Before Jack left Georgia to pick me up in Tennessee, my mom had briefed him on the phone. She wanted to prepare him for the situation and offer a suggestion or two. Jack had let her know, though, that he didn’t know anyone to do the exorcism. He told her that in an extreme circumstance, he’d look into it; but only if circumstances were extreme. I was very careful not to say anything unflattering about Herschel Walker, so we dodged a bullet there.
Uncle Jack showed up to claim me, and we talked all the way to Adairsville, about a two-hour drive from my aunt’s house. I soon understood that Jack had prior knowledge about Dad.
He had met my dad’s little sister Melissa at a trade school, and they married shortly thereafter. They had two girls, Julie and Rhonda, that I’d adored as playmates as a kid. They’d come visit us or we’d go see them, but Melissa was always somewhat on the absent side when my dad was around. Hmmm . . . Anyway, I adored all of them.
The first emotional breakthrough for me came on the way down I-75 toward my new temporary home when Jack asked how my dad viewed something or other about me and I said, “Dad views that as weakness.”
The veins in Jack’s forehead swelled and visibly throbbed, and he said through an angry, tight jaw, “Well, Buddy, he’s got plenty of weaknesses himself.”
It was very unlike Jack to show anger; he is the calm, sweet soul everyone likes to have around. So it really woke me up that maybe Dad had issues. I had always viewed Dad as strong and sane and maybe overly stern, but I really thought I was the entire problem. I wondered if maybe I’d better step back and look at this, but my young mind couldn’t get my arms around the thought that maybe I wasn’t totally to blame for my entire family’s woes.
I noticed something different about the way Jack communicated with his kids and me; he’d ask a lot of questions and then listen and thoughtfully provide feedback. I still remember many of those conversations. It was the first time I had seen up close a parent-child relationship without a lot of conflict. Back in Maryland, everyone was either at war or else very detached.
When we arrived, Melissa met us at the door and she warmly hugged me. I felt something that I had never felt at home.
She and I were immediate pals. We had both struggled relationally with Dad, both from a subordinate position; she was his much younger little sister and I was his youngest child. Further, and maybe far more significantly for Melissa, she struggled horribly with her mom, the grandmother that I’d been living with in North Carolina; and now I had a rocky relationship with her as a grandson. Melissa and Grandmother had really had gone at it when Melissa was a kid, and guess what — as a teenager, Melissa had run away to live with an aunt. Go figure.
As I discussed earlier (and I don’t want to get hung up too much on the “dysfunctional parent” thing), Dad could be pretty rough on a person’s self-esteem. He simply didn’t nurture well or build self worth; to the contrary, he chastised and criticized and seemingly always had to be right. Apparently his mother took a similar stance towards Melissa, as I was now learning.
Remember I mentioned my grandfather being caught between me and Grandmother in conflict? Well, for Grandfather it was déjà vu. He had been there before with his wife and daughter, and that situation was even worse. Melissa and my grandmother were at blood-curdling war from very early on, and Granddad was caught in the crossfire. And my dad was an irritant; he was the older brother and the achiever and was so often held up as the example that any younger kid would grow resentful.
Melissa and I connected immediately and strongly. I was approaching adulthood and we had something big in common; we had both struggled with my dad and her mom. We both felt better talking to each other about it. I was looking for answers, and she seemed to be trying to help me; but looking back now, I can see she was desperately wanting answers herself.
I don’t think anyone other than us could’ve understood each other the way we did. Maybe only Julie, Melissa’s oldest daughter and my cousin, as she and Melissa went at it pretty hard, too. Isn’t this just quite the little ball of dysfunction to roll around in? None the less, during the time I stayed with them, we all got pretty close since we could all relate to each other’s pain.
There was another part of Melissa that I saw, but couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing. She asked me a lot of strange questions about whether I had been depressed and if I had ever contemplated suicide and things along those lines. It was a little disconcerting, and I didn’t quite know why she was inquiring. I did know I finally could talk about literally anything. I just looked at it selfishly; I loved my time with her. I loved my time with all of them.
My cousin Julie was dating a guy named Kendall, who drank heavily. This convinced me — surely I belonged in the south. I’d discovered Atlanta and her airport cheeseburgers and stewardesses and now my cousin was dating a drunk like me. It had to be destiny.
For a few days, Julie was jealous, as I was dating Kendall more than she was. It was a great romance. Kendall had a lightning-fast, restored white Chevelle that could get us to the county line liquor store faster than a bottle rocket. He was the only guy in the county as colorful as I was, and my cousin was sharing him (albeit not completely voluntarily) with me. What a beautiful thing.
The first time he and I went out drinking, he pulled into a drive-thru liquor store, the first I’d ever seen. I could hardly believe it. I made up my mind right then and there; Georgia would own my heart, and while I may have to leave her again, I’d be back.
After getting far too amorous with some of Julie’s friends, I managed to get back underway without further damage. I had also gotten much closer to all of them, and my connection with Melissa would both serve me and haunt me going forward. I still feel indebted to all of them to this day, as they first opened the idea that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t completely at fault for all of my family’s pain.
And another idea that was a further stretch: Maybe I could even amount to something . . . Nah . . . but it was a nice thought.
Next: Anchors Aweigh
Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901
Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.