My Single Father. My Broken Hero.
JAMES FRANK STARR, the man in the photo above, was the single most stable and consistent influence in my early life. Here you see him as a young man of about 25, married with two small children. Only a few years later, and almost two decades before the film Kramer vs. Kramer would make the single father a modern character type, he would play that role. Not that he had a choice.
And perhaps my mother had no choice but to leave him. That’s what she told me when, at the age he is here, I sat on her couch in Cleveland, Ohio, and she tried to explain what happened. The soap-opera chronology is admittedly confusing, so I’ll itemize it here in…
A Brief History of My Own Personal Big Bang
1. Joan Marie Starr, after repeated battery from her husband, Jim, moves out of the house and gets her own apartment near downtown East Liverpool, Ohio.
2. Pursuing her dream as a singer, she meets Bus Cartwright in a local nightclub. Unbeknownst to her, Cartwright keeps the books for several businesses controlled by the mob.
3. Cartwright woos Joan. She subsequently divorces Jim and marries Bus, only a year or so later to become disenchanted with the older man’s questionable activities.
4. When Jim decides to pack it in, escape the Rust Belt, and join his younger brother in Dallas, Texas, the idea of a fresh start inspires Joan to rejoin Jim and their children.
5. Within two weeks of their settling into a small rent house in a Dallas suburb, she gets a call from a stranger who threatens her and her children with bodily harm if she doesn’t return.
6. She goes back to Cartwright who eventually dies of natural causes, and eventually marrying for the third time, is finally reunited with her children 12 years after they were separated.
Throughout all this, my mother came and went, but my father was always there.
History vs Mythology
Of course, my dad was no angel. For one thing, his violence toward my mother may have been infrequent, but it was still inexcusable. And long before she first moved out, I remember a day on a swimming beach when I watched him being led away in handcuffs, apparently for threatening my mother and taking a swing at a policeman.
But you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that, away from the provocations of their relationship, I found him to be the most gentle and honorable man I have ever known. That’s the way he was to me right up until he died in his early fifties.
What We Know vs What We Don’t
So, do any of us really know our parents? Can we? Or will we simply have to come to terms with their humanity, accept the inconsistencies, and reconcile it all in the choices we make for ourselves? I think this is the case, but in order to accomplish that, I believe we must first embrace them as the gods and heroes each of us has made them out to be in our own personal mythologies.
Here’s what I mean:
I see how, in the same way that I portray my father as a hero despite his vices, I also portray my mother as a villain despite her virtues. But I think this is what I must do in order to learn everything I can from the way they lived their lives.
It does not mean that I don’t love them for who they were, only that before I can really do that, I must first accept their primary role as the most important teachers in my life. And they teach me as much from what they did wrong as from what they did right.
There is a change going on within me now, even as I write. I have long felt more accepting of my father than I was of my mother. But in fully embracing and accepting the mythical and melodramatic character she was to me, I am for the first time in my life able to see who she really was.
Ironically, in that way she goes on teaching me. And by doing so becomes the best mother to me that it was in her power to be.
You’ve just read part 4 of this personal account. To read the fifth installment, click here.