Until The Fur Comes Off

A-Until The Fur Come Off 04-30-13
Until The Fur Comes Off

The child knows—take Bear to bed
and you’ll know what to do with the dark,
you’ll be able to sleep
and dream the seed that
grown tall, will make a life.

And what do we do
those of us
who had no one
to believe in us but Bear
who with his eloquent dignity
welcomed us every time
until the fur came off
and then some.

He saw our hearts break
when no one else did.
He didn’t yell when we
made a mistake!
Paw in hand he went with us
on the journey
into a darkness
that was not only at night.

We all need someone
who can name us to ourselves—
it is after all
what it is about—
we need this naming
to make a beginning
where we do not have to grow
into the extremes of grief
that make daily wars
(some in foreign places
some in our own kitchens).

We step deeply into life
when a person can say aloud to us
what Bear could never speak
in sounds that make warm waves
in the blood of our heart—
we need to hear the words
as vital as air and dinner and sleep
“Ah, you are afraid, my love,
you are beautiful,
you are sad,
you are alive and belong with us,
it’s okay, my love
it’s okay,”
and wonder of wonders
we suddenly find our hand in theirs
and grow a little more shining and sturdy.

It doesn’t get rid of the dark
but the sound
of the naming
gives us the dignity
we gave Bear to hold for us
in hopes we would grow into it—
the dignity to know we matter.

Better late than never, my love.
Find someone kind to listen to you
and then return it and be kind back
until the guns of the war of broken hearts
grow quiet
and the blood in your heart
is alive with good sounds—
tears and laughter and wonder
your own and those of your beloveds:
friend, son, daughter, partner,
grocery clerk,

It isn’t only make believe,
it is real magic if you want it:
go tell somebody you see them
and bravely ask for them to see you
the whole grand round—
let it in and give it
until your fur comes off.

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photo by Kathleen Dunbar

If you’d like to hear a sweet song of welcoming, you can listen to “The Circle Returns to the Place where it Starts” from my first album, Finally Home, at www.kathleendunbarmusic.com or on Bandcamp.

Love to My Dad, XO

A-Love to My Dad 04/22/13Love to My Dad, XO

I am sitting with the power of the heart:
That a thing and its opposite can both be true.
The heart, metaphor, relationship:
unpacked by reflection,
and given back to the heart,
which is where magic happens—
that from valuing it all,
even what is hard and painful,
resting into it with kindness and curiosity,
out of that courageous and scary opening—
something new can arise.

I’ve put this on my altar on a black velvet cloth:
A photo of my Dad
in his WWII soldier’s uniform—
you can see the barrel of his rifle
sticking up over his shoulder.
Another photo,
of Mom in a wow-hat
as a young wife out at a club.
Underneath his picture
are my Dad’s dog tags
and his triangular black and yellow insignia patch
for the 83rd “Thunderbolt” Infantry Division
—I finally figured out
that the insignia says
“Ohio” in the shape of a gun’s sites.
Dad’s sergeant’s stripes are there of course.
A tiny clear bowl holds their engagement ring
with the small sparkling diamond
that he gave my Mom
(he sold a little boat he had to buy it)—
I was born out of the sacred circle of that ring,
fraught as it was with their loud and endless fights.
I also learned from both of them the strength to persist.
As people said of my Dad at work,
“He did it his way.” People, I am proud to admit,
say the same thing of me.
They built a house in Ohio in a beautiful woods,
argued constantly,
loved the woods and gardens,
seriously mistreated their kids
(to the point where we had suicidal bouts!)
and in some weird way they loved us.
And we lived there,
in Ohio, in the woods, in the house
that they built together with their own hands as young people
(fighting the entire time and also enjoying it, both being true).
And it is high time,
as my father wished for me in his last letter,
to “pluck a star from the sky.”

Hi Gawain,

I’m not sure exactly why I’m sending this to you—but probably because you have been so significant in helping my singing endeavors. Please say a prayer for my dad. I’m thinking of him for some family lineage healing work I am about to do. No doubt I will put this letter in a Blog once I have some day turned it into a piece of literature. “:-D

Right now I am just raw.

My dad, and our family, were really shaped by WWII. He was in the front center lines of five major battles, and one battle alone lasted from September through February. I can’t even imagine this. That was the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest—the men spent the winter huddled in bitter cold in foxholes in the midst of terrible fighting. My dad was a sergeant, and a Reconnaissance NCO, going into enemy territory and running between the advanced rifleman and the artillery. Some of the soldiers came from homes that had no running water, and they hadn’t even been to school. At first he taught the men under him to read if they couldn’t, but after a while he stopped because he was so sad if they got killed. I have a poem he wrote during the war, my tough dad, about giving a flower to a little girl—then there was shelling. She was too young to know to “hit the dirt” when there was incoming fire, and she was killed right in front of him. He was a really hard guy to have as a dad, yelled a lot, was threatening, and I just found a letter I saved from him when I was in Wales in college just before he died at age 64, and I was 21—in his letter I can see that he loves me and misses me—he was trying to communicate, he wanted me to finish college, he recognized and valued my ability to write and that I’d gone beyond him in that regard, and told me that he wanted me “to pluck a star from the sky.” He couldn’t ever say any of these things, just mostly holler. I read this and sobbed for three days. I am honored to work with a lot of men clients in my therapy practice and really appreciate the courage it takes in this world for a man to be vulnerable—the strength of that. I feel for my dad that he came from a time when that was not available to him. I put this photo of him (and mom) on my altar which is also in my office for clients. The human heart is so complex, and relationships so messy, and if we can just tolerate that, something eases. Love and prayers for all beings touched by war.

Dad rarely talked about his war experience with Mom and I, but on Thanksgivings he spoke of the Hürtgen Forest. A city boy, he always loved forests of every kind, and loved our house in the country. When he told this story of the long battle, he always said that the forest was very beautiful. He could hold that at the same time as being in hell. During that battle, a German artillery shell landed a few feet away from his foxhole and he would have been killed except for some reason the shell did not explode. I can only imagine him bracing in the frozen hole in the earth, hearing the shell whining in, too close . . . and then, nothing. He was still alive. He was fighting there during Thanksgiving, so now that I think about it that’s why he probably was talking about it on our Thanksgivings, and feeling thankful he was still here.

My father fought very bravely in WWII, and it changed his, and all our lives. Understandably, he was never the same afterwards. Treatment for PTSD in those days was allowing him to yell at work (he was a general foreman) because they understood he had to have an outlet as a vet. A new guy’s initiation into the factory was not complete until Dunbar had yelled at you! At home he wondered out loud, “How come I can boss 300 men and not you two women?” He was born in 1916 and held some pretty Victorian era views: he didn’t think women should vote or wear pants. Mom did both, and never told him who she voted for. My parents had me quite late in their lives, a “miracle”—I think I was holding out for some more reasonable social era to be born in to counterbalance my father’s antique views.

My dad’s WWII experience was piled on top of the horrifying battles of his growing up: his own father beat him and his mom and sisters—not just the era’s disciplinary hits to a kid—but beatings, bruises, terror of when the old man got drunk and used his fists. This went on for years, until at the age of sixteen my dad was physically strong enough to step in front of his mother to protect her. He faced down and stopped his father. Whatever helped him live through that must have helped him live through the war. He kept questioning how to find an expansive view of life—I know this not because of anything he told me, but through writing of his I found decades after his death, kept carefully by my mother in a desk. He yelled like a son of a bitch, but enough of his heart survived terror and grief that he never gave up. When I found some of his writing explorations, I had more tears—who was this man with an almost secret life? He had beautiful angular handwriting softened by loops and swirls. I pieced together from his outlines on yellowed paper and a few remembered comments, that he gave speeches in the Masons (the Toastmasters of the day). He actually wrote about being lonely as a boy, and having to find a way to reach past that, and later past the horrors of war, for meaning. I can honestly say he was a pretty dreadful writer, but I am deeply touched by his questioning and searching.

So, his father “went on the wagon” after my dad stood up to his violence. At sixteen, he was still a kid. I can only imagine the adrenalin, the love and hate and anger that pushed him to trust his young man’s muscles enough to think he could take on his father, a tall adult fueled by drink and rage. That pivotal day changed his family. His father never again beat anyone. He went to AA and stopped drinking. But he never forgave my father for confronting him. My dad went to see his father as he lay on his deathbed in the hospital, and his father cursed him. Somewhere inside my tough dad there was a son who wanted to be loved by his father. He remained as connected as he could to his father, and from what I know always took the high road with him. I can only guess what torments my grandfather felt as he faced death, and out of his fear and loss lashed out at his son in the most cutting way he could, with a curse.

Today I’m looking at my father in a different way. My dad didn’t get bitter, he didn’t turn to drink, he stayed married to my crazy mom because in their crazy way they loved one another. He found peace and beauty in our woods—he could whistle in a way that the birds followed him on his walks deep into the heart of the forest. In his later years my mom once found him asleep, curled up with the dog he professed to hate, resting his heart from the exertion it took to walk. He loved Westerns. He’d watch WWII combat shows and pop nitros when his heart got to beating too violently with the action. Every time we had people over for Sunday dinner he yelled at full pitch in the kitchen rather than admit he didn’t know how to properly carve a roast, yet he made banana bread and learned to cook after he retired. He was always active, swimming, going to the gym, punching a bag in the depths of the garage, or riding an ancient exercise bicycle that he set up in the yard. He—and my mom—were very physical people. He was never happier than when he was snow blowing, sawing up trees, or planting flowers. Bound to the house for a period of time after one of his heart attacks and looking for an outlet for his active nature, and ever the tough guy, he actually made a huge quilt embroidered with, what else—the American eagle! He proudly wore the trendy Cancer the Crab neckchain I gave him for a 1970s Christmas. And he liked red-headed nurses, always a joy to find one if you are in the hospital with another heart attack. And, did I mentioned, he and mom hollered?

When I was about six, too young to try to get them to stop fighting, he’d blown it big time and my mom piled all her clothes in the car and was going to take me to Florida and her mom’s house. I think this must have been when it “sorta” came out that he had an affair with a nurse at the plant where he worked nights. Somehow my mom could perform the feat of simultaneously knowing and not knowing of his affair in the same split second, a thing I still wonder at. The fight got bad this time, however, and she was leaving. To my great surprise I saw my father actually get down on his knees out on the stone walkway they’d built together, and while the birds called back and forth to one another in the summer evening, my father on his knees begged my mother to please not leave. This was so wildly unlike anything my father had done before (or since), and such a window into the strange intensity of their relationship, that I still don’t know what to make of it. I was I more shocked by this strange action than the fight. I’d stopped eating my plain wiener and watching Top Cat, pretty freaked out. Things went back to the Dunbar family’s kind of normal. Mom didn’t leave. She had lots of ideas about camping and traveling, per usual my dad pitched a fit, went anyway, and pretty soon he was serving coffee to an entire campground saying it was his idea, and somehow mom was happy. Go figure.

My dad married my mom when he was 26 and she had just turned 21. Soon after their honeymoon he went off to war. He entered in in D-Day Plus 12 (the next wave twelve days after the D-Day invasion). The ships were delayed from landing because of bad weather and they were “sitting ducks” out on the sea, the men not knowing if they’d be sunk in the cold water, helpless to do anything about it. His Division, the 83rd, were sent not only into the front of the battles, but into the front center, taking the brunt of fighting. They lived—my father lived—with the daily fact that a lot of them would die. When I was a child I wanted him to teach me how to tie knots. He sat next to me and sighed. It was one of the few times he ever apologized to me, “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t have the patience.” I was hurt when he left me alone, yet again. And he must have been hurting, too, his heart and thoughts still crowded with all the time he spent waiting for a death that after all, amazingly, didn’t come till much later.

If only he could have shown me his inner world! I was touched to tears by the effort I saw he made in the writings I found, which he shared with the men in the Masons, but not with his daughter. Digging deeper into the desk after my mother’s death, I found an ancient stack of paper—comments he’d saved that his fellow Masons made about one of his speeches. There were many comments about the power of his speaking, his dedication to his family, his search for what was moral. I was in tears—he died just as I was becoming old enough for him to feel comfortable expressing these things to me in his letters.

At the end of the war my father said that a lot of the German soldiers were just sixteen year old kids, but they had to fight anyway and kill them or be killed themselves—he got the impossible awfulness of the situation, and that moved me. Even as a child I saw his complexity, and longed for it to spill over into connection with me. Once in a blue moon it happened. He was an early bird to my night owl. But sometimes he woke not for the dawn, but for the horror of what he’d gone through in the war, from dreadful nightmares. He confided this to me once. He said it was terrible, but that his mom told him to get out of bed and look out the window, to know it was just a dream. I imagine it was not so much looking out the window that helped, but that his mother had listened to him, loved him, and was there in that complicated heart of his.

My father never missed seeing the Fourth of July fireworks, except the time when my mother’s brother showed up drunk. He was never forgiven for this by either of them. I think that night my dad managed to drive out into the countryside and pull off on a road to watch the lights and hear the dim explosions in the distance. I didn’t really understand until I went through some notes I’d taken from one of my mom’s annoyingly complex and histrionic stories—there had been a big offensive he fought in on July 4th and seeing the fireworks was his way to mark it. I had to figure a lot of this out myself from the few sentences he ever told me, or what my mom passed on. The 83rd’s actions also helped liberate one of the death camps. The soldiers were given the opportunity to go see it, but he refused to go—he had done his duty to help free the prisoners. He had enough terrible images of death and suffering crowding inside his heart. When he first came home he would jump on the ground, “hitting the dirt,” if he heard a car backfire, or if a neighborhood kid set off a firecracker, so deeply was his reflex for self-preservation a part of his muscle responses. But that wasn’t what you did in peacetime society, so he found a way to stop himself. No one went to a therapist back then—that was a big stigma that meant you were nuts. You held it in and went on with life. It helped him to spend time with other men who had been through the experience—now I understand more deeply the importance of him giving speeches to the Masons and bossing tough guys at the factory. He told me once about having dinner with a man who had been a prisoner of war. The man had been so hungry for so long that he couldn’t understand he’d never have to suffer that again. He started to furtively put dinner rolls in his pocket and people got embarrassed. My father simply looked at him and said in the tone of the tough and loyal sergeant to one of his men, “You don’t do that anymore,” and I got the idea that it eased something for this man.

My dad had heart problems but was not diagnosed properly. He had open heart surgery in the early days of bypass surgery, when he was 54 (I was ten years old). My coming of age coincided with his dying, and nobody talked about it. It sure was one major elephant in our house! He lived nine more years after the surgery and a number of heart attacks, and he died after mowing the lawn one spring day. His heart likely was a complex of problems: diphtheria and other childhood illnesses, plus he smoked three packs of Pall Malls a day, and he’d been around the impact of a lot of heavy artillery being fired during WWII. I found a birthday card I crayoned for him when I was a tiny girl—I am a little blue box running happily towards him—a big red box of Pall Mall cigarettes!

I wonder what he would have thought of me—beginning on my fourth CD in your studio! Before the war, my father almost went to Hollywood to try to become a famous actor. He was good looking and he had a beautiful voice. He was a singer in the Cleveland Chorus. The story goes that he had his suitcase packed—this word stressed by my mom in her protection of his dream, even though it would have meant he’d have left Cleveland and never been her husband. The packed suitcase lay upon his bed. His mother was in tears. She didn’t want her favorite child to leave, the son who had stopped her husband’s violence. She couldn’t let him go, and convinced her husband to get him a job in the factory, and that was that as far as Hollywood. In the family photo box there is an old black and white shot of him and his father at the plant. I wonder why he gave such a hurtful message to me that I couldn’t sing—was it that I didn’t sing in a way he related to, or that women he knew shouldn’t be singers, or was it some deep ache he didn’t even recognize was there from the dream he didn’t follow? I amaze myself that I never gave up singing under the weight of his negative messages. And I know somehow, if he’d lived long enough, that he would be proud of my accomplishments as a singer. And also as a kind, intelligent woman who among other things, loves working with guy clients, doing, god forbid, therapy.

For the lineage healing work I am preparing for around my family, I put together my family tree and all the traumas (a long list!) that everyone had. My mom’s side has their serious difficulties, but I find myself especially thinking of my dad. Ah! how life circles! That last letter that he ever wrote to me I received in Wales—I was twenty one, and Gawain you must have been about three years old!—trippy that you and I were in Wales at the same time! And most strange that the photo I put on my altar was also probably taken in Wales, where the 83rd trained before being deployed to France.

That last letter he wrote to me, wishing that I “pluck a star from the sky,” he began exactly thirty three years ago from the day I recently read it, on Good Friday. He finished writing the letter a few days later, the day after he and I had the last, and really wonderful, phone conversation. Earlier in the year we’d been fighting long distance, but on a fluke I called home, and he answered. Overseas calls cost a fortune in those days, but that one time neither of us cared. He was really happy to talk with me—open, joking, heartful—and I was happy to tell him my adventures. I think he must have known that he didn’t have long to live—some sixth sense that he shared with me (but that’s a story for another day). He mentions in the letter how much he enjoyed talking to me, and signed it “Love, Pops XO.” Pops was the sweet name we’d both come up with for him when I was a teen. Pops was the guy who was softening into knowing me as an adult, the guy who wrote me letters, the guy who, if he’d lived, I would have asked to look at me right from his heart.

In many ways his death really allowed me the freedom to come to San Francisco when I graduated college. And so hard to have been twenty one and not get to know him later when I was more adult. It had been so important for me to get away from them. I was still a kid, and I didn’t know the importance of writing back very much. I think he longed for more letters from me, and that breaks my heart. He wrote me a lot during all of those years before he died, after I’d left home. He tried to express his feelings about life in these letters, and one Valentine’s day drew a little cartoon of two fencers, one piercing the other’s heart with a foil. Fencing was something we shared. I’d taken it up at college, just as he had taken it up when he was a young man. But talking was sure not his strong suit, and our relationship was troubled even as we tried to love one another. His spoken words to me were so often angry, and he never told me what was in his heart. There was the daily bread of my parents’ arguments, as well as threats to hit me. He did beat my brother until he had welts, one time, shortly after the war. First he beat him for getting in a fight with a kid in the neighborhood, and then for losing the fight. My father had been a slender child, short for his age until he sprouted up later—he found protection by being in a local gang of boys, so it’s strange that he got upset by this. My brother says he doesn’t remember it happening, but my mother does. As the story goes, she told him if he ever did any hitting again, she would leave, period. I think he was, appropriately, horrified at his own behavior. He never again struck my brother, nor ever struck me. He never threatened to hit my mom. But he sure did threaten to hit me, and knowing what he did to my brother, I spent my growing up waiting for him to give me the welts that I knew he’d given to my brother. His threats were scary and did a lot of damage. I sometimes used to wish he would hit me, because at least I’d have had something real to point to instead of the endless waiting. I lived on the verge, in the crossfire of their emotional warfare and my mom’s craziness. I wonder, if he was so used to waiting for another blow from his father, or another round of shelling, that he didn’t understand the dreadful impact of his threats on his daughter. I ended up feeling weird, bad and lonely! In a classic phrase, probably passed down from his father, he’d yell at me, “I’ll hit you into the middle of next week.” As a young child, I actually thought if he did hit me, that I would fly through time!

Oh no, Dad. I never did want to get from Friday to Wednesday that fast, by the back of your hand, from the middle of that crowded hallway. Did you ever stop to think that what you were mad at was your little girl asking you to stop yelling, to stop shaking the floorboards, the windows, our hearts, with your rage? Would we have been able to talk about it, if you’d lived?

My dad told me he wanted a different kind of daughter. I had a lot of years of therapy for that one alone! Among many other studies, I did a two-year in-depth specialized training to become a therapist. One weekend found me in an exercise with eight people “taking over”—or matching—the amount of energy I normally expended to keep back my anger at my father, an habitual holding that lead to a lot of body aches. I was learning that my getting angry with him was a “missing experience”—something I’d never allowed myself. My friend stood behind me, playing my dad, telling me that I shouldn’t vote, I shouldn’t wear pants—worse, that I couldn’t sing. I began to spin, very slowly, taking the eight people with me until I faced him and reached my hand to rip out his heart . . . at last touching “his” chest, sobbing, my own heart breaking open.

My father, the man who “did it his way,” didn’t know how to relate to a girl, a daughter who was just as sensitive and strong willed as him. When I was sixteen, tired of his threats, I told him to go ahead and hit me, because I’d call the police. He knew I would, by the flat out way I said it and because he did recognize my strength. When I finally came out with those words and looked him right in the eye, I saw a kind of horror and sorrow in his face that I’d never seen before. He never said so, but I believe he put together, finally, his own struggle with his father at the same exact age, and at last he stopped his threats. It was about that time that we found him that sweet new name: Pops never threatened to hit me. Pops loved me and was just starting to have himself under control enough to begin wondering who this lovely young woman was who was living in his house . . .

Between my freshman and sophomore years at Tulane I found a job at Burger King. I took orders for burgers in a bright orange and yellow polyester uniform and hat, trying to understand the local patois. I also found a summer sublet and decided to stay in New Orleans—my first time apartment! After a year away from the fights, I just couldn’t bear to go home. I remember comparing college notes with a boyfriend I had a few years later. Both of us came from families who fought. We had the same bizarre experience—for the first three months at college we felt that some essential, “normal,” thing was missing. We both actually spent time wondering what it was that was missing, searching it out. It was good that “it” was missing . . . but what was “it”? Oh my god—it was the fighting that our parents did constantly. Quite simply, at college no one was yelling anymore. Unheard of, relieving, heartbreaking, freeing. So that first summer I made the decision, and I called home to say in the kindest way I could that I was staying in New Orleans. Dad answered the phone. I summoned up my courage and told him with the kind of sweetness that is my nature. His reply floored me, “If I was twenty years younger and you were a man in my factory I would break your neck with both my hands.” Instead of just saying, “Sweetheart, I’m dying, I miss you,” he said the very thing that insured I kept my distance, and handed the phone to my mother, who hung up on me. Later that night she called me back to tell me, “I want you to know, if my husband dies (what a weird way to put it) it’s your fault.” I found some of her writing too, after her death. In a cheap notebook from the Dollar Store she wrote that she and my father never once spoke of his death that they both knew was coming, what it meant to either of them, how to prepare.

I am sobbing now for all of it. A lot of my family life with my dad was hard—so few crumbs that it makes the hurt worse—the peeking through of love underlining the lack. But . . . here were these letters to me . . . my heart is breaking—it still hurts that he died. Ah, what to do with these letters? That’s when I decided to put him and mom on my altar, and I think we all found some peace.

When I cleaned out the house after my mom’s death, I carefully brought home the photos of him taken during the war. There were two really important ones—the one of him smiling, handsome, in his uniform with the barrel of his gun sticking over his shoulder. He’d inscribed it “To My Darling,” for my mom. I know from family stories that this one was taken before he saw combat action—and I can tell this, too, by his eyes, which are clear and smiling. The other photo is of him standing in a war torn street after they liberated Belgium, after the six-months’ battle. His eyes are haunted, his gun, now used so much, is in his hand, he’s gaunt with what he’s lived through. My mom kept this photo in her sewing room, to have near her as she did her sewing the real fact that her husband survived this and came home to her. That he lived. He brought home those sad eyes. They were the ones I knew.

Oddly, nothing in the entire house had mold on it but this photo of him on what remained of the Belgian street. When I opened the back it was crawling with green fuzz, which I’m really allergic to. I debated a long time, and left this photo of him in the house, which was soon cleaned and sold. Over a year has gone by since my mother’s death. I’ve arrived at this very potent juncture: mourning not so much my mother’s death, but finally deeply mourning the death of my father. I searched through the family box for his photos, and couldn’t find the Belgian one, until I remembered that I’d left it behind. At first I was really upset with myself, and then I realized something as I set the “To My Darling” photo on my altar. It is a remarkably startling photo of a beautiful young man whom I never knew—he is looking directly out of the photo, right into my mother’s eyes, and through the years out of their bond, crazy as it was—to his daughter, me. Thirty three years after he died I am finally able to look directly in his eyes.

While he was alive, my Dad never “showed me his eyes.” That’s how I thought about it as a young person. Now I know I meant that I longed for him to look directly at me from his heart. But he couldn’t afford to—he had to be a tough guy. It was too vulnerable to show his heart through his eyes—that would have meant him feeling and sharing the ache of all that had happened to him, of all that had come between us, of his wishes for something different that he couldn’t even begin to express. And, as I write this I realize I do have a vivid memory of him looking at me. He is standing next to my mother as I board the plane for Wales. He is looking right at me with his smile, and most importantly with his eyes—a beautiful, heartbreaking, messy, and dear mixture of the sadness of goodbye, of the deep love that he feels for me and cannot say, and his private knowledge that his failing physical heart will come between us seeing one another ever again. How is it that I’ve never realized until this moment as I write that this image of him has been coming through to me for a long time now—the final, and first, real look between us: his love for me that he is brave enough to show me in the moment before I get on the plane. I told the story of the two photos to one of my friends. I said, “I think he would not have wanted me to keep the one of him and his haunted eyes.” My tough guy friend replied, “You did the right thing. He would have wanted you to keep the one of him looking right at you.”

So now I have this photo of him on my altar. I’m thinking of my Dad, Wilson Fred Dunbar, a lot, and ask that you hold him in some special prayers. He was a Technical Sergeant and Reconnaissance NCO in the 83rd Infantry “Thunderbolt” Division (Company H, 330th Inf) in WWII, with an MKM Carbine rifle, for “2 years, 10 months, 9 days” (and thus a lifetime) in five major battles, and got the Bronze Star. Battles: Normandy (D-Day Plus 12), Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, Central Europe.

Hugs, Kathleen

Family Constellation work is a really fascinating way to work with family systems, started by Bert Hellinger after WWII for the children and grandchildren of death camp survivors, soldiers, and Nazis. However crazy families are, they have a kind of living loyalty, which can keep the energy tormented and the lives of the people snarled and bound. I tell my therapy clients that indigenous peoples believe that when we work to free ourselves, those long gone rest, and those unborn will have an easier time. Hellinger began as a Catholic priest in Africa, where he learned about working with ancestors from the tribal people there. He left the priesthood and returned to postwar Germany where he developed this astonishing, effective way to work with lineages, to help the descendants of the dreadful war.

How it works is this: you show up and there is a group of people and a facilitator who’s gone over with you your family tree and a list of specific questions about traumas and such. You assign people from the group to be the members of your family. The people who stand in for your family know nothingzip—of your family, only you and the facilitator are aware. They are simply given a part, like Grandma, Father, etc. Then the person whose family it is says aloud, “What I have always wanted that I never could have.” This is a statement of the longing for life beyond the limitations and wounds that have caught the family into a repeating system of hurt. The facilitator tells the “family:” “Let the space inform you,” and the people, amazingly, just go into the family’s energy and talk, act and respond just like the relative they are representing. It is remarkable. What is healing is that in this alchemical mix, secrets are at last spoken, hearts are unburdened, and relationships cleared through the expression of hurts and fears. This has proven over many years to be a really amazing way to clear family energy. I know it is a miracle—for even in the preparing for it I feel that my father knows that the war is over, that I know the war is over, and that it’s okay to show and to receive love, with our words and our eyes, as well as our actions. This, at last, is peace. © Kathleen Dunbar

A-Love to My Dad 04/23/13Photo “On My Altar” by Kathleen Dunbar
Photos within the Photo: Photo of my Dad by an unknown WWII army photographer, Photo of my Mom by the house photographer at Herman Pirchner’s Alpine Village—”Cleveland’s Theatre Restaurant”
Photo of Dad and Kathleen by Helen Dunbar

If you’d like to hear a sweet and trippy song, in a dreamy kind of way kind about being my father’s daughter in the beautiful woods, please listen to The Rainman’s Daughter from my first CD, “Finally Home.” I wrote this song when I was about 26, the same age my father was when he went off to WWII. You can hear it on Bandcamp or find it on my website www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

What Kind of Person Would Beat You With A Bible?

A-Red Cow 2 of 2 Red Bible Story

Yes, I am writing a Western, in my own fashion. Here is a glimpse into some of the beginnings of our hero, Nate.

What kind of person would beat you with a bible? Nate never really understood, he just somehow lived through the wretched and frequent ordeal.

The bible was one with a red cover that had started out as the hide of a cow that lived the life a cow lives, born of a mother like all creatures, growing in the dark from the egg of a black Corriente of venerable stock and the seed of a skinny but tough bull who mounted her the morning a storm was coming. The storm would bring a tornado with it and the bull would die caught up in a twist of wind that did not yield to his horns and hooves and scrubrange attitude. But the sky was yet blue while he eyed the cow in a clearing that afforded him a bit of running room for his approach. She had been chewing her cud in the shade of a rock that was weathered into the shape of a giant tit. Both felt the shift in the weather as an unease in the tough muscles beneath their hides, but this only served to hasten the bull’s purpose, as if he knew he had only one last chance to set more of his progeny to roaming upon the desert hardpan. The pre-storm morning was unusually still and clear, the charged air acting like a glass of magnifying power so that the distant range loomed large and close, the striations of the rock heaved up in ancient frozen waves as he met the cow with the spurting force of creation an hour before his demise. Above the trysting site a cactus bulged with thorn. A small hummingbird sat distinct on its bent and thorny arm and sent a fussy high pitched tip-tip in the direction of the amorous pair.

The bull and the cow were wild, that is untouched by men, and living out a plain life in a dry stretch of country not unlike that of their forebears on another continent who were plenty used by men, long ago gone for Spanish dinners and leatherwork. This cow and bull had been part of old Spanish-Mex stock whose hardscrabble owner had fallen on bad times: a lack of heirs and a wife who had gone off with a passing stranger. The stranger arrived asking for a drink of water in a coat of fancy stitching with two shining conchos to clasp it shut. He had handsome legs, a large mustache, and a big red horse with room on its back for a second rider. Both he and the horse were flashy enough to promise a bit of excitement and both sturdy enough to bear away the plump and bored wife. She left her husband late that night. He felt her move in the bed and reached out to pat her rump which she deftly moved away from his hand. Her last words to him were that she had to use the privy, and farted on him as she slid from the covers as if to prove it. The next day he was alone in the house fingering the brim of the hat he had worn since they’d been married. The spell that had held him to that place was broken. He was gone by afternoon, riding away in a different direction from the tracks of his wife and her new lover, and his puny herd were left to a freedom which perhaps they didn’t perceive in their beeve-brains. They bred and ate and roamed wild along the years till the parents of the bible-destined cow met on the morning of the tornado. The two creatures had paired and parted, and the impregnated cow stood in the lee of the tit-rock and watched across the range as the bull spun into a gray funnel of wind and was gone.

The calf came in the spring, and when grown was rounded up with her mother by a man whose brand was a sideways S and a bar with a hatch. He favored a Mexican saddle with a high cantle because his lower back was apt to hurt—the cantle offered some ease to an injury he’d sustained in a bar brawl landing backwards hard against the knee of a whore who later that night gave him balm for his trouble in the form of cheap whiskey and a free screw.

The man felt fortunate to increase his herd with some wild stock. Later he seared his brand into the flesh of the young calf, who screamed her bovine misery, stood, and scrambled back to her mother. At the end of the season, along with the rest of the herd she had joined, she was shipped on a rattling train bound for Chicago. There she became dinner for a loud young newspaperman and his fiancée at a stylish restaurant. Her hide, which lasted much longer than her flesh, was sold to a bookbinder. He dyed the leather red and fashioned it into the cover of a bible which he placed temptingly in his shop window. There it caught the eye of one Adabelle Cornelia Pettypool.

Adabelle had read a bible her whole life, and the meanings she made out of it and out of life took the shine off her natural prettiness, and invested her with a flat low grade fury. What she never fully allowed herself to comprehend was that the fury she felt was towards her own father. Lonely for his wife who had died of a sudden heart complaint, he turned to his daughter to supply his need. There was a way her mind had split so that she could know that thing and not know it in the same moment, and it left her looking for evil in everyone but him, whom she idealized. To make matters more confusing for her, her father was a minister, mixed up thoroughly in a Methodist sect bound to rescue people out of a darkness that meanwhile he created at his whim in his own home.

Whatever illusions Adabelle may have had about comforting her father, as he put it, ended when she found herself pregnant. Desperate, she rid herself of the child with the help of a doctor she’d met accompanying her father on his ministrations to the local brothel. There were complications, and poor Ada nearly died. Her father gave out that she’d had a bad case of the grippe, but the working ladies at Alviva’s Parlor House dropped a few words to some patrons they had in common with the minister, though their ministrations were of a different order. Word spread and the parishioners soon knew the truth and stopped coming to Sunday service. Her father told Adabelle to pack their belongings.

On the day of their departure she rose early and opened her father’s collection box as it stood among suitcases and bundles on a table with the remains of their last Chicago breakfast. She looked him in the eye and said, “I am doing this one thing for myself.” He looked out the window and began to hum loudly Elvina Hall’s popular new hymn, Jesus Paid It All. Adabelle took only the money she needed and left briskly for the bookseller with the red bible in his window display. It was a thing she’d been yearning after for weeks, and which she had fixed upon during her terrible illness. Her reasons for buying it were not clear to her, except that it was something of her own, which she could hold in her hand and that was not tainted with her family. At the time that seemed enough. The red bible was one of Adabelle’s choice possessions, and she kept it close to her own person on the long journey south, until it landed with all the power her arm could give upon a small boy’s body.

Her father’s public excuse for their move, which he shared with any person who would listen to him on trains, stages, and in cheap hotel restaurants, was that he had been called in a vision to save Whites, Mexicans, Indians, cowboys, gunslingers, fallen women and other numerous recreants in the wild cattle town of Abilene, Kansas. With a knowing look he’d lean in towards his audience at this point, saying in a deep voice that the word “Abilene” had appeared to him in a dream upon a burning map. In his private moments he was relieved to have gotten out of Chicago before things turned ugly. He happened to see the name of the Kansas cowtown in a newspaper close on the heels of some threats from a burly former-parishioner who’d just come around the corner from Alviva’s Parlor House. He prayed that he might ride the current tide of do-gooding into heaven. Whether he arrived at that final destination or was held to account for what he’d done to his daughter and shown the door to the lower quarters, no one could say for sure. His preaching frenzy did not bring in many sheep. He was not a popular man in a town given to excess of every sort and soon took a perhaps-not-so-stray bullet from a bar fight that had spilled over onto the street. He lived long enough to look down with wonder as the stuff of his life leaked out of him, reddening his hands. He was dead before the doctor and his daughter arrived along with curious onlookers. Among the crowd was Nate’s father, in Abilene from his ranch in Texas on a cattle drive. He cast his eye upon Adabelle, perhaps in much the same way the bull had spotted the cow, wanting to set more of his progeny walking on the Texas range. Ada appeared likely. Nate’s father seemed to collect pretty women in need of help, scooping them up and depositing them in his big ranch home, then disappearing for months at a time on business. His first three wives had died and he missed them all in a distant and romantic sort of way. And so he met and rescued Adabelle from the debris of the minister’s life and made her his fourth wife with the blessing of a Baptist preacher in a church that stood handily on the way out of town.

Nate’s father was charming; an older man but fit and active and his ranch business provided a good income. Adabelle was hopeful for the first time in her life. His sons by his first and second wives were grown and gone, and Nate, the child of his third, and Indian wife, was young; in need, he said, of more brothers and sisters. Nate’s father, in his bull way, wanted a big family like the one he’d grown up in and Adabelle aimed to make a family different than her own. But it turned out that the sad fiasco with her father had injured her, and she could not bear a child. This sapped the juices from her prettiness and left her dry and brittle of temperament, turning to the red bible more than ever. Nate’s father was at home less and less, and Nate and the ranch hands came to know Adabelle as the dour and vindictive woman who had no Christian spirit—at least nothing in the last part of the red book she bought in Chicago had Christ laying into a small child for simply having the brown face of his mother and his tribe (Christ probably being pretty brown himself), although the first part of the story had the old desert god laying into plenty of people with apparent satisfaction. And so it was that Nate’s stepmother felt a deep release in beating the boy, leaving welts on his back and a scar on his cheek where the small diamond of the ring her faraway husband gave her cut the boy in the fury she unleashed because she could have no child of her own and must raise this one, product of her husband and his dead tribal woman. Where she might have found a larger life, she could not see it because no kind soul had ever shown her how to have a bigger perspective. She dried up in the smallest of possible worlds—inside a broken, shrunk, unloved and unloving heart. Being of an active nature, she was given to expressing the terrible electric current of her feelings, rather than wasting quietly away. The bible—the object itself, not the philosophy therein—was her weapon against more grief than she could inwardly bear: she took to beating Nate.

And so the cow, dead and taken into parts, had become the unwitting cover that bound together the words of a deity Nate never got to have a feeling for. Adabelle’s blows rained down hard upon his small boy’s body, unrelenting, and with a venom increasing as did her stepson’s unwillingness to bend to her or to her religion. Such was Nate’s life when his father was away from home, which was most of the time. Bruised and lonely, he thought longingly of his own brown-faced mother who had died while he was a babe. And his feelings towards the red bible were, “What a waste of a good cow.”
© Kathleen Dunbar

Here’s a poem set to music, another western-with-a-twist, on my new CD The Storm in Our Head. It’s called “Snake Charmer.” Find it on Bandcamp or on my website, www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

A-Red Cow 1 of 2 Red Bible Story

How I Staged “Ivan the Terrible” for my Sixth Grade Class

1.A-Russian Hat 54 - Version 2There were two rival theater companies in my elementary school. Jill Rausch’s company put on what I considered sappy stories of heartache and love gone wrong. None of that for me, thank you. The plays I put on were always action affairs—girls blown off course by hurricanes and left to survive by their wits on wild islands, Klondike Joe’s adventures in the Yukon north, the clashes of the Greek gods. Jill and I obviously had different family dynamics going on at home.

In the sixth grade we both took it up a notch. Jill’s crew put on A Love Story, which was all the rage at the time. She had attracted the interest of the high school drama teacher and they were doing a full blown production on the stage in the gymnasium. The drama teacher thought of herself as avant garde and a cutting edge purveyor of the arts. Jill convinced the teacher to lobby the powers that be and got permission for the boy playing the lead to smoke an actual cigarette on stage to lend reality.

Now something had happened sixteen years before I showed up in the sixth grade wanting to put on a play. Some personality glitch between my brother and the drama teacher had set them at odds. At the age of eleven it was astonishing to me that anyone could remember anybody as far back as sixteen years ago. But teachers did. Along came another Dunbar kid to school. The drama teacher said, “I remember your brother,” and turned her nose up at me. The old Greeks no doubt would be speaking of the machinations of Fate at work here—I had washed up in a country where the citizens had formed opinions of me long before my birth.

Sixteen years is a long time, but I was not a “surprise” late in my parents’ marriage. They actually wanted more kids. The reason for such a hefty lag time between my brother and me was my father’s poor quality semen, weakened by his childhood diphtheria, WWII and who knows what. The doctors said another child was unlikely, though not impossible. Along I came, a “miracle.” I have always figured I arrived so late because I was holding out for more progressive times to be born into. It was helpful for me to have the backdrop of the sixties’ and seventies’ social consciousness to help balance my dad’s “women shouldn’t vote or wear pants” attitude. I never worried like some kids that I was adopted or my mom stepped out because I had both the Nelson’s lanky body and a definite resemblance to the Dunbar face. For better or worse I was in my tribe from hell.

So there were only two kids in my family, and I showed up ages later at school and the teachers still remembered my brother, Chuck, or Charley as my mother and I called him. Mostly favorably. One elderly lady gave me an A just because I was Chuck’s sister. Others wrote me off, including the drama teacher. This was all very mystifying to me; more so because I could do nothing about it. I only knew my brother by his infrequent visits home. He was a kind of far away hero for me. I thought that he loved me simply because of the fact that he didn’t yell at me. It was many years before I realized that not being yelled at by someone doesn’t necessarily equate with being loved by them. It just means that the person doesn’t yell at you. But it was pretty refreshing to not be hollered at in a house where every stick of furniture had an argument around it. I longed for someone to see me, hear my expression, and recognize my stories. Underneath, what was too painful even to consciously recognize was that I just wanted somebody to notice me, to love me and to tell me that I belonged. In truth I just wasn’t much on my brother’s radar, as he was having his own serious fallout from having been raised in the Dunbar household.

So, love stories held no appeal for young Kathleen. I opted for the grit. For my sixth grade production I wrote a script telling the story of Ivan the Terrible. Typical of a Russian tale, there were so many characters that I needed the entire class to fill the roles. There were only a few kids too shy to perform left over to watch the grand production. We needed an audience. I was persona non grata with the drama teacher, so no gym stage. I got permission from Mr. Wilson, our teacher, to stage the play for the sixth grade class next door in front of their chalk board.

Now, Jill may have had a real cigarette in her production, but I also had the real deal: I had the thrill of being able to cast an actual Russian boy as Ivan. I knew Michael was Russian because he had confided to me that his last name was not really Fedor, but Fedorovich. His dad felt that the patronymic smacked too much of the old country and changed their last name to fit in. His American-born boy would be registered at school with the kind of name that he hoped hinted at baseball and apple pie rather than piroshkis and the gulag.

However, I knew the inside story. Michael had the magic –ovich at the end of his real name, which spoke to me of troikas, Russian wolfhounds, and Baba Yaga. All things Russian seemed very exotic to me. I later went on as a young adult to read practically every Russian author I could get my hands on. (I drew the line at reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, however—I found out that she was overcome by sorrow and offed herself in the end and I didn’t need any encouragement that way). Anyway, I’d take a real Russian over a real cigarette in my play any time. My dad smoked three packs of Pall Malls a day, and smokes didn’t hold any romance for me, just a nose full of stink.

With all this old time Russian heavy winter and far north cold going on, I felt that to lend further reality to the play, we needed someone to wear some fur, some real fur. I had just the thing. I had an actual seal skin that my brother had brought me back from Alaska where he was stationed during the Viet Nam War. One of the cold war worries still around was that the Ruskies might invade us over the Bering Strait, thus a lot of young men were stationed up there in cold so intense that if you threw a boiling hot cup of coffee out into the dark night it would freeze before it hit the ground. My brother told me he had actually done this. The first Christmas that he came home with this story he gave me the seal skin. I was enthralled. Mom called the seal skin smelly, and kept trying to hide it, which of course made me prize it more highly. I took a good look around and found it up in the attic behind Dad’s old WWII GI winter coat. This coat was lined with some kind of pelt as well, but it was too smelly even for me, and in no way Russian. The seal skin was just the right prop. I thought perhaps the seal had swum over from Siberia to the Alaskan shores. Many years later I realized that the poor creature was probably a young seal clubbed to death by someone trying to make a buck off the American soldiers. The skinned remains of my seal ended draped around the shoulders of a Midwestern girl with glasses playing a Czarina. Later in the year this girl changed her allegiance, joining forces with Shelley. Shelley was the girl whom I’d cast as the beautiful young Russian princess and who gave blondes a bad name for me by hatching a plot to make Kathleen a tormented scapegoat. But the winds of Fate hadn’t blown me that particular storm yet.

The play was cumbersome to rehearse with so many actors, but we managed. I was too busy being director to play a part, but that was okay. I was in my element, putting my creation out to the world. The day arrived and we pulled it off. For those of you who don’t know the history of Ivan the Terrible, one of the ignominious highlights of his reign is that in a drunken fury Ivan murders his own son after a feast. Looking back I wonder about my interest in this sad and true Russian story of a father and son. The undercurrent that I didn’t get as a sixth grader, interestingly, was the huge and vitriolic rift between my own brother and dad. Out of the mouths of babes, kind of thing. I was just telling what I knew without realizing it. In fact, the seal skin might have materialized as a way for my brother to annoy my dad, in a cold war that played out with young Kathleen as unwitting pawn.

I was director, so I could cast whomever I wanted. I gave the part of Ivan’s son to a boy named Jeff who wore hightop white basketball shoes. I had a hopeless crush on him and he totally did not know I was alive. (I began to understand at the age of eleven how some people get parts in Hollywood). My history book said that Ivan killed his son by a blow to the head, but this didn’t have the emotional impact I wanted to convey, so I wrote my own version where Ivan killed his son by stabbing him in heart. For the murder scene I directed the boys to use a move with a cardboard knife I had made. Michael practiced executing—so to speak—the death blow, so that the knife landed craftily between Jeff’s arm and off-stage side, looking, hopefully, from the audiences’ point of view like a real stab in the chest.

The day arrived. We gave the play with all its delightful Russian darkness and spirit. In the culminating scene, after a Russian feast with plenty of faux vodka-drinking, Ivan and his son get into a heated argument. I watched from my director’s place, stage right, thoroughly satisfied. Years later I would read lots of Dostoevsky whose characters are constantly jumping up from sofas and chairs and exclaiming things. Next time you read Dostoevsky keep an eye out for this. I was always going to keep tabs on the number of times the jumping-up-to-exclaim happened in his stories. In the sixth grade I’d instinctively picked a real Russian and he admirably jumped up from his chair and exclaimed “I will kill you!” overturning the dinner table with a lot of noise and grabbing his son by the front of the shirt. The Czarina gasped and lost hold of the seal skin as the class stood up from their desks to get a better view of the actual wrestling match between Ivan and his son on the floor beneath the chalk board. The moment arrived, and Ivan plunged the highheld dagger into his son’s heart. His son gave a satisfyingly pitiful death howl—“Arghhhhhhh,” and Ivan, eyes cast up to the exotic gold painted god of the Russians, exclaimed with plenty of drama, “What have I done!”

I never learned how this went over with Michael’s dad, if he was proud or concerned or unaware of his son’s portrayal of their cultural history. I went home with my armful of props and nobody said anything. I don’t remember, but it would be a good bet that there was an argument that night, in the hallway per usual, and I went to bed in the lonely dark. As a singer-songwriter-performer now I know about the blues that hit after a show is over, the high is gone, and another show’s not on the books yet. But back then I just went home and disappeared into the background of the fighting and the blues that were our daily bread. Those fights were real, there were real cigarettes, and yelling with the real intension to hurt. Maybe in Jill’s house her parents never had a last act of redeemed love, and so Jill put it in her plays to have some crumb of it.

There’s a lot of ways to get stabbed in the heart that usually don’t involve blood but which are just as deadly. What gets murdered is invisible, is the spirit, and nobody stops to ask, “What have I done.” I naturally honed in on these words as the exclamation point of my play. They’d stood out for eleven-year-old me when I learned of the history of Ivan; I read that witnesses at that crazy royal family dinner reported that’s what he’d actually said. And even if those weren’t the exact words, all the witnesses came from families, just like I did, just like Jill and Michael did, and it certainly is something that somebody might have said.

A couple of years later I knew without having to read the book the inner ache that compels Tolstoy’s Anna to bend her neck before the oncoming train. I knew about pain and blues so crazy bad that stopping the whole production makes sense. But I didn’t. I wrote and I sang and I travelled and I had sex with boys who didn’t care about me, I learned Russian, and I sang and I wrote some more and not only did I keep my body alive, I kept my spirit going too.

Somewhere along the way I became a psychotherapist, which among other things is being a person who sits in a chair and knows how to wholeheartedly hold the ache of people coming from real families. It’s the clients who do the work really. I’m privileged to remind them of their courage to recognize the pain of “What have I done”—what they did to us, what we did to ourselves in accepting as truth the messages that we are unworthy, and what we in turn do to others as we blindly play out our human drama. And I tell ya, this being with, this courageous ability to tolerate asking, “What have I done,” takes the darkness and the frozen cold of surviving and allows it to transform into thriving, opening, and a life fully lived.

After my day job is done, I get behind the microphone and sing every sweet and bloody and tender story I can think of that we humans are capable of. I don’t know where Michael is now, but I think I’ll dedicate a song to him at my next gig, maybe Better The Devil You Know, a song I wrote about some people who didn’t ask “What have I done?” until it was too late, preferring instead the comfort of nightmare, because it was what they knew, after all, coming from a real family. © by Kathleen Dunbar

You can listen to my song Better the Devil You Know by clicking Bandcamp.
You can also find all my music on my website: www.kathleendunbarmusic.com 

 Photos of Kathleen in Some Russian Hats by Kathleen Dunbar

1.A-Russian Hat 55-edit FAV - Version 3

A-Russian Hat 19-b

The First Time I Saw “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”

A-Cowgirl in Red  I remember the first time I saw The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. My mom had gone down to FLA for my grandfather’s funeral. Me and Dad were left to duel it out in the house (I was a teenager and my Dad a general foreman at a factory that made truck axles. His refrain, “How come I can boss around 300 men and not you two women!”) Dad had sometime stints of wandering around in his underwear, an off-white ensemble of not-so-tightie-whities and what he called an “undershirt” and that I later learned people are wont to call “wifebeaters”—skinny straps and kind of ribbed cloth. So with this outfit of course he cranked the heat up to keep him warm with Ohio snows outside.

But mom was gone and he was alone with his teenager daughter—time to let her know who was Boss. He turned the thermostat down, put on a lot of layers and gave me a tough-guy stare to let me know, “This town is only big enough for one of us.” I should say that he used to practice making scary faces in the bathroom mirror to intimidate the men under him at the factory, but I’d one time caught him practicing. I was about six, and peered through the partly open door to find him standing puff-chested, trying out different glowers and frowns in the mirror to polish them up. As he would make a face I’d mirror him, screwing up my fresh young brow into a scowl until he caught me: He scowled, I scowled. “Little girls don’t do that. Stop it.” To which I replied with the child’s perennially sageful question, “Why?” “Because I said so”—that four-word recipe for your kid to start losing respect in you.

After many years of “Because I said so’s” Mom was in Florida and with the furnace on low pretty soon the winter ice tried to push in through the windows and sit down on the couch. This was crazy! Of course I cranked the heat back up. He stomped into the hallway and turned it down. I long-leggedly drifted by and notched it up. He announced that he was the Father and cranked it down. I announced that I was the Daughter and was freezing. Up and down it went. And of course he hollered and of course I dug in. And the whole fight mighta gone south (that’s a story for another day) except for the family truce device:

A movie was coming on, a Western for chrisakes, that we’d found in the TV Guide. There was only one color TV in the house, thus enforced proximity. Now, watching a Western was the only time that my family actually sat down together and had a good time, be it movie or weekly series, often accompanied by a tin roof sundae with walnuts or Spanish redskin peanuts, and I got to stay up late to see the end if it ran long. I’m not really sure why this was, but it, well, was—any together-time-port in a storm kind of thing. Tonight, however, instead of the usual John Wayne hard jaw, thank you m’am, you’re either on one side or t’other, for ‘em or agin ‘em, an entirely different kind of movie came on in the back bedroom where teenage Kathleen and her Pop had truced it up with a Western and a sundae, a movie that changed my life:

A blonde stranger in a black hat chewed a little cigar, took aim and shot clean through the hangin’ noose rope setting free a hardened little rat of a man (Tuco means rat) whom you could not help but like. The stranger kept the reward he’d collected for this Wanted Man all for himself—he didn’t split it with Tuco per their usual scam, but he didn’t let Tuco hang either. He made him walk through the desert and Tuco eventually evens things up and the pale stranger must make his own sunburned walk….But Tuco turns out to be more honest than his pious cowardly priest brother, and Blondie is strangely and refreshingly (for a Western in that era) three-dimensional, which means a stiff drink of plenty of badassness and a generous helping of self serving along with the occasional good impulse. The Bad Guy by his through-and-through evil is a foil for The Good and The Ugly’s complexity. I was captured for life.

But, I was in Ohio with a sometimes only-underwear-wearing WWII veteran dad who told me he was King (he actually said this). Oh take me to that great western desert……

Leone’s story unfolds, of course, in the wonderfully hellish heats of a Landscape without which this movie would not happen. Now in certain kinds of stories, the land itself is a character in the story. In the Western this is often the case. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was shot in Italy, yeah, but the archetype of the land speaks beyond the borders of countries. The landscape of the Western is heroic—and by heroic I mean that beautiful, deadly, otherworldly territory through which Everyman must pass on a Quest, in this case the Desert:
the sky so wide it can hold two storms at once
blue sky between them because it can
and endless stretches of
no rain, no water, only sand
dead bone dry
no whiskey left dry
aching heart dry
greedy white man dry
and poured into this extreme landscape the age-old collection of forces that each and every one of us has inside, no exception, doesn’t matter if they dress like a Cowboy, a Native, or a New Yorker. In all compelling stories we meet ourselves, all of ourselves, whether we like it or not: Hero, Maiden, Whore, Fool, Seeker, Prophet, Greedy Bastard, Wise Man, Healer, Bad Guy. For the story to be interesting and worth something the characters are complex and mixed in is a dose of humor and a good musical score. That teenager that I was didn’t know that many years later I’d walk down a nighttime San Francisco street singing out loud “Oo-ee-oo-ee-ooo…” and immediately get the iconic response to the call from a darkened doorway, “…Wah-waah-wah.” Nor did I know that I’d sit in the Castro Theater for the long-awaited rescreening of the movie complete with never-before-seen Italian version scenes, the house sold out by hardcore fans!

My dad died pretty young, 64 (which seems younger the older I get) when I was in Wales on my junior year abroad. We’d been fighting long distance but for some odd reason I called home, he answered and neither of us worried for once about the long-distance bill (which would be hefty) and we had an incredibly and unusually good connecting conversation a couple weeks before he died: After mowing the lawn he sat down on the back porch and his heart gave out.

I can say in truth that my dad was a real bastard. He actually told me he’d rather have a different daughter, and I’ve spent a ton of money in my life on therapy; and I’ve had the kind of pain one has in choosing not the greatest boyfriends cuz I had an oddball template from my old man. He told me women shouldn’t vote or wear pants! He meant it! However, I went on to do both things in my own Heroine’s Quest which I set out upon from the hardscrabble territory of Dad- and Mom-land. My Dad, a compli-fuckin-cated guy coming from that kind of gray area which makes life so damnably, uncomfortably, tormentingly…interesting! (At least if you can make it through the desert, which I did, though not without second thoughts—also a story for another day).

I went on to find my own unique strength and learned to do things my own way—that is a short way of saying how I made sense of a lot of craziness growing up. What I’ll leave you with is a tale of the old West that I’ve written from my own woman’s-view of the Western: a song I call Red Bird on my new CD, The Storm in Our Head (hear it for free in the link you’ll find at the end of this paragraph). Here’s a big nod to Sergio Leone, Clint, Eli and the gang for doing their thing differently than the previous gang, and for showing up in a refreshingly compelling story in a snowbound Ohio house where me and my Dad forged some kind of bond—not the kind where a father gives his daughter confidence in herself, and so small as to highlight the grief that there wasn’t more, but a little something human, complicated, heartbreaking. To be continued… © Kathleen Dunbar 2013

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Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

Easiest way to listen quick to Red Bird is via Bandcamp
Via My Webpage (it’s track 15, towards the bottom) 
Via Itunes (it’s track 15, towards the bottom)
Via CDBaby (it’s track 15, towards the bottom)

A-White Mnts via Dutch Pete's Ranch