When toddlers attack

Monday, June 21, 2010

A belated Father's Day

"It's Fathers Day," my mom told me on Sunday.

"I don't have a father," I said, ever the curmudgeon. But I'm not, not really. Of course I have a father... it's just, well, that he's dead.

We've never been a family to mince words. While other people say "he passed" in hushed tones, we've always said DEAD. D-E-A-D. A coworker of mine in Sacramento once asked offhandedly if my parents were coming up from L.A. for Christmas. "Well, my mom is," I said. "I suppose she could bring my dad... I mean, he doesn't take up much space in the little urn and all. I suppose we could put some holly around him and use him as a centerpiece."

"Oh god, I'm sorry, I didn't..."

He was so genuinely embarrassed that it was my turn to feel bad. But my dad would have guffawed.

Jokes aside, I miss my dad a lot. He died of lung cancer in January, 2000. I was working in Vermont at the time, and attended a reporting seminar in Florida a week or two after his diagnosis in April of 1999. Happy Fathers Day, Dad. I'm sorry you never got to meet the wonderful man I share my life with. I'm sorry you'll never meet your grandkids.

I wrote this as part of the seminar.

Looking for Marion

I stand in the Hilton's lobby, pen in hand, and dial Los Angeles.


"Hi, Mom."

My voice ricochets off the cold marble.

"Hi. Sweetheart."

"How's Dad?"

For two weeks, it's been the question preoccupying both my mother and me.

"Oh, he's fine, I guess... he's having toast and a poached egg."

My mother can't say he's fine without a catch in her voice. "Would you like to talk to him?"


I hear her fumbling with the phone, then my dad picks up.

"Hi, Jase."

"Hi, Dad. How you doing?"

The question sounds casual, but it's not.

"Oh shit, I feel all right," he says.

Sixty years on the West Coast and an actor's vocal training still haven't smoothed over the last traces of his hardscrabble, Down East accent.

He's quick to change the subject.

"How's your class going?"

"It's great," I say. "Listen, I'm figuring as long as I'm here, I'll try to talk to Marion."

Marion Fogg and my dad have never met. In fact, she's barely aware he exists. In most families, you would probably call her my dad's stepmother. Not in mine.

"Really? That's great. I don't think she wants to talk to us, though"

He tells me that's why he didn't keep her address and phone number, but tells me she lives in a place called Sun City.

I'd seen it on maps before, during the two years I lived in Florida -- a semi-circular blip between Tampa and Sarasota, just off 1-75. I always imagined a grand trailer park, something ala the movie Cocoon, perhaps.

"Call me tonight," my dad says. "Let me know how it goes."

My mom comes back on. "When you talk to Marion," she says quietly, no longer within earshot of my dad, I sense, "tell her he's dying."

I head my rented car over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, touching down in Manatee County. From there, the road heads east, through orange groves and palmetto scrub, finally joining up with 1-75.

Someone gave my dad Marion's name online. He was looking for anything on his father, Cassius William Fogg. My dad thinks she's his fourth wife, though his father was still on his third when they parted ways. It wasn't amicable.

"Last time I saw the f---er, I beat the shit out of him," he'd told me. He doesn't like to talk about it.

My dad spent his childhood moving from his mother, to foster homes, to his paternal grandmother, back to foster homes. When his father did make an appearance, often as not it was to deliver a beating. My dad returned the favor at age 18, then legally changed his name to his mother's maiden name.

That was in 1939. My dad doesn't know where his family is buried. He doesn't know who his family was in life, for that matter. Doctors say he has six months to find the answers.

My dad has inoperable lung cancer.

Green highway signs point out the way to Sun City.

Sun City has its own exit.

Sun City has its own boulevard, stretching off to the flat horizon in palm-lined magnificence.

My dad told me Marion works in the clubhouse, so I look for the glorified trailer I'd imagined, possibly surrounded by shuffleboard courts and crones in blue or pink stretch pants.

Instead I see what looks more like a pink stucco palace, complete with Corinthian columns and its own guardhouse. I park and head up a path toward a door marked "Sun City Information." The air smells of cedar chips and geraniums.

I ask the two 20-something receptionists if they've heard of Marion Fogg. "Um... no? Does she work at Northfield Clubhouse?"

"There's more than one?" I ask.

It turns out Sun City has no fewer than three clubhouses. The pink palace served geriatric blue bloods. Pebble Beach North and South were for the plebeians.

I get directions and join the flow of champagne and pearl-colored Cadillacs and Town Cars on Sun City Boulevard. The street is lined with offces of orthopedic surgeons and hairdressers.

I head north on Pebble Beach Boulevard, past other streets named for golf courses, past tanned and fit looking septuagenarians in golf carts, and come to a low stucco clubhouse.

A plump woman in a pantsuit is walking out of the building. I park quickly, and run across the street, catching up with her, expecting to be arrested at any minute.

"Excuse me.. could you tell me where to find Marion Fogg?"

"Yes," she says, "but not after 2."

I check my watch. 4:15.

"But she works here?" I ask.

"Oh sure. She handles all the contractors for the development here. She's very highly regarded. Are you a contractor?"

How much do I tell her?

"No," I start to fumble, "I guess you could call her my dad's stepmother, but I don't think she knows it."

He had tried to call her once before. He explained who he was, that he knew she was the widow of Cassius Fogg. She told him her husband had no children. And hung up.

"Oh," pantsuit lady says. "Well, you can check in there, but I'm almost positive she's gone home. She's listed, though."

I thank her and head inside.

Marion's name is on an offfice door, but it's locked.

An old phone hangs on the wall. It's vintage 1975, one of those gimmicky things with huge pushbuttons, like something you'd find in the Brady house. A phone book hangs underneath.

Marion is listed.

I dial, my heart in my throat, though I'm not sure why.

It rings.

It rings again.

There's a click, then a machine picks up. Damn.

"Hello, this is Marion."

Her Yankee accent makes my dad sound like a Valley Girl. It's thicker than winter ice on the Androscoggin.

"I'm not home right now, but please leave a message. I'll call you back as soon as I can."

Sure she will.

What do I say now?

"Uh... Mrs. Fogg. My name is Jason."

Without my little reporter's badge to hide behind, this isn't easy. This is personal.

"I think you spoke with my dad before," I continue. "I'm in St. Petersburg for a seminar, and found myself in the Sun City area, so I figured I'd try to get hold of you."

What a load of shit.

"My dad told me he spoke with you before, and he says he's sorry if he scared you. But we think your husband was my dad's father. I know this is probably a shock to you, and you may not believe any of this, but I'd sure appreciate it if you could give me a call."

I leave my phone number, and decide I'll try her in person. The phone book lists her address as 1301 New Bedford Avenue.

I have no idea where that is and head out blindly. I head south on Pebble Beach, past Sun City Boulevard, and head smack into a neighborhood full of streets named for New England ports. New Bedford is the second cross street.

I count down addresses, starting at 1400.

I see the little sign reading "Fogg" from a block away.

Marion lives in a pale blue stucco duplex. There's a lawn, but little greenery other than a few sunburnt azaleas gasping for life near the front door. Two plastic chairs sit on the small porch. The blinds are tightly drawn against the bright sun.

I knock on the door, my heart pounding. I wait. The neighborhood is absolutely quiet. I imagine old ladies peeking out through curtains across the street. I imagine a cruiser pulling up any minute. I ring the doorbell.


I walk back to the car, still looking around nervously for flashing blue lights.

I make another half-hearted attempt a half-hour later. She's still not home.

I reluctantly head back onto Sun City Boulevard to the interstate, and follow the signs to Tampa.

I'll call her tonight, I tell myself.

Maybe my dad can still get his story.

Copyright © The Poynter Institute, 801 Third Street S., St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

Well, he never did get his story. When I finally did get her on the phone, she said "my husband had no children!" and hung up on me. "Send her some photos," my mom suggested, so we did -- me, my dad, and one of Cassius. That got me a call from her attorney, saying he'd get a restraining order if I contacted her again.

Ah, family.

Actually, I'm grateful I didn't have to grow up a little gay boy with the last name of "Fogg." Things were bad enough.

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