My Father: James Patrick Courtney

On Saturday morning I called England for some company. I didn’t get through to my high school friend David, who has turned into the biggest fan of my blog, despite his ruined eyesight that leaves him only able to read two sentences at a time. I have taken to reading my stuff out loud to him. He gives me great feedback and it gives us a chance to talk.

So I turned to a source of instant companionship, my mother. I had spent quite some time figuring out good calling options to England, eventually finding one that would only charge me one cent a minute, because when you start to talk to M-J, you will be talking for a long time. I made the mistake recently of calling her directly on my cell phone, and racked up a $72 charge.

We talked of inconsequential things–her doings with her Quaker friends (an association she came to late in life, but of which I heartily approve), her vacation plans in the Isle of Wight, and the status of the food in her refrigerator. Along the way she started to talk about my stepfather Jim, but I interrupted her, saying that I did not want to hear about him.

My relationship with Jim was more than strained. I have no idea what it was like when I was a young child, but I remember first meeting him. I didn’t realise at the time how nervous he was. At 28 he was suddenly about to be a father of two boys from my mother’s previous marriage, and his relationship with us would surely make or break his relationship with our mother.

He was desperate to find some way to earn our approval. Eventually he settled on playing with a model aircraft he had built out of a kit, a World War II Lancaster bomber. I did not know what to make of this stranger, but he seemed well meaning. Enough to impress a memory on the mind of a three year old.

The next memory I have of him is from when I disturbed my mother and him by walking into their bedroom unannounced. To be honest I had no idea that they were doing anything in particular in bed together, but they jumped, and told me I should not have entered without knocking.

Shortly afterwards, Jim came to me in my bedroom. He told me very seriously that he had to have a talk with me. Apparently sometimes grownups need some private time together, something about how babies are made. They know it is time to make babies when the man’s penis becomes stiff. I was left with the impression that this could happen at any time — the man could notice his penis was stiff, and tell the woman that it was time for some private time.

This was before their wedding, of which I have no memory. It had to wait a while, since they had trouble locating my mother’s first husband, my father, who had deserted us. They even had to hire a detective to burst into a room with him and his mistress, and demand he sign divorce papers admitting adultery or be photographed next time. The laws were different in those days.

They managed to get married before my sister, Helen, was born. Jim even converted to Church of England so they could have a church wedding.

I have only vague memories of him after that time until my brother’s death. I do recollect him being incredulous when I said I found school work boring, I didn’t need to be taught the alphabet when I knew how to read. He angrily held up a copy of the Daily Mirror, the working class tabloid that he adored for the comics, and demanded that I read it. To my mother’s approval (for she had taught me), I read the headlines and the lead story, stumbling only over words that I did not know with the limited vocabulary of a four year old. This was perhaps the start of his problems with me. My mother said in later years that he was threatened by my intellectual accomplishments.

I don’t really remember how my brother and I interacted with him. I remember my mother tolerating us two tearaways, and largely leaving us to our own devices. But our sister, his daughter Helen, was always clearly the apple of his eye.

He did formally adopt us. I have the certificate even now. My mother’s occupation is listed as housewife and his as farm labourer. I do not recall any farms near Crayford, but in later years he worked a succession of working class jobs. My mother once opened up to me that he always started well, but eventually became disillusioned with each job for lack of promotion, often just as he was on the verge of promotion. She had definitely married down. Her father was an engineer and factory owner, and she was the product of an exclusive education until she dropped out of art school to have me.

In his own way he sought to be a father to Jeremy and me. I remember becoming a Cub Scout, and him eventually becoming a Scout Leader, teaching other boys about knots and lashings. I was pretty much a failure as a scout,. My shoes were never shined unless new, and I rarely had a clean handkerchief when inspected. My attention wandered during the Scout’s Oath, and I was never promoted to Sixer.

But we got along by and by, I think largely by his leaving the two of us alone to our devices, and to the inadequate supervision of my mother. Until my brother died.

It was actually my mother who pointed out recently how the relationship had changed when my brother died. This was a revelation to me. It correlated with my memories, but I had never made the connection. I will never know now whether he blamed me or himself for my brother’s death, or whether he felt that he could not treat me with benign neglect any more. Or whether it was a reaction to my anger. I do not recall being angry at anyone in particular, I was angry at any figure of authority, how could this have been allowed to happen? I have written about my brother’s death. Did I blame him? No more than I blamed the social workers, who even before my brother’s death, I wished would take us away again from this toxic family, the perpetual fights between my mother and Jim.

Jim was his name. I do not protect him with a pseudonym, now that he is dead and cannot be hurt any more. James Patrick Courtney. By family tradition, the eldest son of the eldest son, stretching back to when his ancestor was a belted earl of England, rooked out of his inheritance as the Earl of Devon in the Wars of the Roses. In fact, even though his son by adoption rather than by blood, the letters patent for the earldom of Devon are for “heirs”, not “heirs of the body”. I am the rightful Earl of Devon. But Powderham Castle is occupied by someone else, and besides which I have forsworn all foreign titles, as a proud American citizen.

But my mother’s insight is keen. His oversight became increasingly critical. My withdrawal into books was if anything approved by my mother, spending afternoons and evenings at the library before coming home. I would avoid the arguments of my parents by disappearing into a book, in front of them or by withdrawing to my cold room, huddled under my duvet with nose and eyes peeking out at August Derleth, E.E. Cummings, or of course the adventures of Biggles on the Western Front.

Our father-son relationship was full of hostility. He could never afford a new car, and always bought old wrecks to continually work on them. I spent many hours handing him a spanner (wrench), being shouted at for being slow or handing him the closed ended ¾” when he clearly needed an open ended one. But I was never privileged to do anything more than hand him tools, no apprenticeship this. What little I learned of car engines I taught myself from books.

But that is what he didn’t do. It’s hard to talk about what he did do. In an earlier draft of this piece I sat down to write at 2 in the morning about him, full of emotions and whiskey. I felt I had unburdened myself, after so many years of therapy being unable to talk about my formative experiences. Then my sister read it, and I realized that I had not.

She talked of how sorry she felt about how he had treated me. I felt her survivor guilt, and reached out to her over three thousand miles on Google Hangouts to reassure her, it was not her fault, it was never her fault.

It was emotional and psychological. There was never a thing that I could do or say that did not provoke his criticism. But I can hardly remember the details. I have buried so much so deep.

I was going to write that he never physically abused me, that my mother stood up for me on the one time that he tried, implicitly threatening to cut off his money supply if he went down that path.

But my sister says not so. She remembers Jim holding me upside down by the heels in rage, and how scared scared she was at six of his rage. I have no memory of this. All I remember was the constant hostility and criticism. And, of course, him stealing money given to us by our grandfather.

I do remember when he attacked me when I was sixteen. I came home from my night job at the factory after his night job delivering newspapers, and not feeling tired I decided to listen to music on headphones. But I forgot to plug the headphones in, and for a second music blared out loudly. He stormed downstairs, swearing at me, and as I froze in terror, he started hitting out at me.

Before he landed a blow, and he was nearly a foot taller than me, I remembered a lesson from judo. The teacher had demonstrated how difficult it was to attack a defender who was on their back on the ground, who swiveled to keep his feet and legs toward the attacker. I may have lacked an attack, but I certainly had a defense. I lay down.

Eventually Jim gave up, accusing me of fighting like a girl. Over the course of minutes, I became a man.

So on Saturday, when I talked to my mother and she started to talk of Jim, who she had divorced thirty years before, I told her that I was not interested in news of Jim.

I went to see “We the Animals” at the Angelika, an art movie house in Manhattan. I thought it was a gay coming of age movie, but when it started, it became a movie about me and Jim. I walked out, consoling myself over coffee in the cafe before heading home.

And got a message from my sister on the subway: Jim had died. Right around the time that I had walked out of the movie.

I am going to his funeral. I went to a bar to get drunk on his favorite whiskey. After some debate, the consensus of the bar of strangers was that I should go. And yes, I should go. And my mother should not go, who knows how that would affect his current wife, who had nursed him for many years after his stroke.

But after his funeral, I am going to pursue my newfound passion as a writer. I am headed to Paris, where I will retrace the steps of Hemingway in Montparnasse. I will have a martini in the Ritz. I will seek out the site of Gertrude Stein’s flat. I will write in my notebook over a cafe creme at La Closerie des Lilas, just like Hemingway.

And release myself from my anger.


Network engineer by day, activist by night, and I try my best to have some fun along the way.

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