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An excerpt from "The McGovern Girls"

I saw my father for the last time this weekend. He's dying, slowly, and I won't see him again, and since I realize that though I've been flippant about him, I should paint a more detailed picture of who he is and what he meant to me.

 So here is an excerpt from the memoir I've written, and it tells a few stories about my dad when I was young.

I already miss his voice.


An excerpt from Chapter 2 of "The McGovern Girls":

We moved to the San Fernando Valley, and there were no coyotes, chickens or horses, but there were orange trees, a swimming pool and the bedroom I wanted. I got my own room, while the other three had to share, and I got a pink armchair for reading, and a canopy double bed all to myself. 

We thought we’d see my father a lot more, now that we closer to his work. 

My mother made sure there were martini glasses in the freezer, so she'd have a cold drink for him when he came home, and washed glass ashtrays and put them out for him.

But the fights got bigger, and he was home less.

 She’d start in on him as soon as he got home.

“I let you spend $3,000 for a pool table so you could practice here and stay out of the bars, and you’re still never here, dammit!”

“The pool table at the place down the street has a better lay,” he said, with a grin in voice. “Isn’t it funny how it works out that way sometimes?”

Katie and I started to figure out how to fit in, and what to read, from Tiger Beat to the Enquirer.  I loved the Enquirer. It was trash, and I knew it, but it was fun. Stories about Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields and Farrah Fawcett, and  Katie loved The Dukes of Hazzard and BJ and the Bear, so we searched for articles about our favorites. Katie liked  Leif Garret, too, and the girls from the movie "Little Foxes," and we read about Brooke Shields and wished we had hair like that.

At one point, laying on the pool table, I read an article in the Enquirer about how the shot to put dogs down actually suffocated them -- if you went to your vet to put your animal to sleep, the animal would suffer a long and torturous death while you watched – they would look peaceful, but would suffer for ages in pain.

Hansi was older than I was — at least twelve. There was NO way this was going to happen to my dog. None.

I knew my father would have an answer.

"Honey, there's no way that will happen to Hansi. When the time comes for Hansi to go, when she gets very old, we'll give her a big steak dinner, we'll say goodbye to her, and I'll take her outside, and you can tell her stories about rabbits and living on the ranch, and make her happy, and when she’s full and asleep, I’ll shoot her. I promise you I'd never let Hansi suffer."

I knew he'd do this for me. The thought of him shooting Hansi was terrifying and thrilling at the same time. It might be awful to have him shoot my dog, but she wouldn't suffer.  And I knew he'd do it --  Daddy might lie to my mother, but he wouldn't lie to his children. 

When I was six, in a house we'd lived in way before the ranch, at the very beginnings of my memory, we'd had chickens. There was one mean rooster who terrorized us and we were as afraid of him as any monster that'd ever lived.

My father loved to get rid of monsters.

He had fixed up a vampire concoction of garlic and onion to put on my windows, and smeared it in the shape of a cross on my windows.

A rooster was no challenge for him.

We went to the toolshed, together, and I held the nails and saw while he rigged up a large stick with a bell on one end and some tin cans that rattled on the other.

“There. Take this and go — kids have gathered eggs for centuries and no one has ever been killed by a rooster.”

We would go off with our stick, shaking the bell on the end of it, huddled together in a group, almost paralyzed by how big the rooster was, but at the same time aware that it was just a stupid chicken. 

His talons were sharp, though, and he was out to protect those hens.  Katie and I were sharp enough to watch out for him, and we were faster than he was. But Morgain was a toddler, probably not even two, and she got too close and didn't run fast enough. The pretty little blonde baby toddled out of the pen with a huge gash in the side of her face where the bird had tried to take out her eye. 

My father stopped laughing. “You want to see what happens to anyone who messes with my girls? Let me at that fucking chicken. Maureen, get out your soup pot and start the wanter boiling.”

In awe we watched the body flop around the yard for minutes after its head was gone. The head flopped, the body danced around the brick pavement, the beak opening and shutting, and we all looked at my father with new respect. He might not be around much, but he could slay demons.

My mother gamely attempted chicken and dumplings out of the rooster, to give my father a poetic trophy after his day of carnage. The meal was disgusting, but the message was sent: No one messes with my girls. When the time came, my dad would be there to take care of Hansi.  

But my father came home less and less, and when he did, my parents fought over things that made my stomach hurt.

My sister Katie was eight that year, and my constant companion, and also my nemesis.  The boys in the neighborhood loved her blonde hair, how she'd race them on her bike and would rather come home with a broken leg than come home a loser, and they begged to be honored with a game of poker. 

But she took no prisoners, and more than once we had a mother at the front door, demanding that Katie give back her son's $52 that she'd won, all in nickels and quarters.

And when she turned her fury on a boy who didn't play by her rules, the entire neighborhood knew about it.

She was pretty and she played hard, but after you had to climb the highest branch of the tallest tree on the street to get your jacket back, just because you teased her a little -- well, you'd remember it. Katie played HARD. 

The best part about Katie, though, is that she wasn't scared of anything.

Not my mother and her fury, not my father and his scornful comments about how she was a "bad seed," and not the dark.

 So we played flashlight tag, climbed the fence into a neighbor's yard and played on their boat, snuck into the garage to look at Birch and Steve's Playboy magazines and went swimming in the middle of the night – because no one wanted to hear Katie call them a chicken. 

A lot of the time Katie rounded up the two little ones for her projects and scoured the neighborhood for worshipers. 

And there were plenty – Katie's hair was the kind that stopped strangers dead in their tracks. It was long enough to reach the center of her back, so thick it snarled and matted if not brushed all the way through every day, and so blonde it reflected sunlight. There was so much of it that you could see the weight of a braid, thick and heavy and glittering. We'd go to get haircuts and the women would gather to discuss how best to cut it to show it off. Layered, like Farrah's, or long and straight?

Katie's hair was her trademark and her weapon. 

I had to have my hair cut short.  I wouldn't spend time on it, and it wasn't blonde. It was a dirty blonde, with a hint of red. I called it strawberry blonde, though I wished it were "Titian" like Nancy Drew's. It was flat and didn't do much without fussing with it. And I knew that smart girls didn't fuss with their hair. Girls who had to rely on their looks, like Katie, silly girls who like pink spandex pants and roller derby -- they fussed with their hair. So I let my mom have it cut short. 

"It's a pixie cut," Mom said. "It'll be so cute. Like the lady who played Peter Pan."

As if having thick glasses and being clumsy weren't enough.

 I had a pixie cut, and I bore it grudgingly. Katie had a crowning glory, and she reveled in it. She knew how to use a curling iron and a round brush to get her hair just like Farrah's. I could barely brush mine. 

Occasionally she'd offer to fix mine for me. After a couple of curling iron burns and a lot of fights, we mostly gave up. People stopped my mother everywhere we went to ask if Katie had an agent yet. And they asked me if I were a good big brother. 

Stupid fucking pixie cut.

Katie embraced being female and being sexy in a way that mystified me and thrilled me by the sheer bravado of it.

She had crushes on boys. She flirted and played spin the bottle. She kissed boys in the bedroom closet during spin the bottle, and she never backed down or ran away -- I did, every time, as she scornfully reminded me the few times I wanted to join in.

She wore cute clothes, and made me be the minister in a marriage ceremony with Geoff, a boy who lived down the street.

Somehow, we made it through a school year, I finished fifth grade, and summer was upon us. We were happy at home, playing with kittens, swimming and following Katie around the neighborhood, but my mother and father were going through some sort of bad patch, and they decided that what we all needed was a long car trip together.

So in July, we headed east: My mother, father and all four girls, in an old station wagon.

I should have known how it would end when after an hour, Nora was car sick and my dad got out to throw up next to her. 

We did the absolute essential car trip: Mesa Verde, Four Corners, diners for every meal, lots of singing.

I knew this might be my last chance for a while to get my dad's attention, and I used every chance I could to show him that I was smart and Katie was shallow, so I could get him to pay attention to me.

It worked – by the time we got to Mesa Verde, I was his pet and as we hiked through the ruins, he stopped carefully to explain everything to me. Katie had no interest in competing and spent the time in the car playing solitaire or picking on Morgain.

As we traveled further east, while the little ones slept and Katie ignored the adults, I listened to my parents talk about New York and what they were going back to.  I had, of course, never even thought about the fact that my parents existed before I did. Or that they had family or a life before kids.

And yet now it’s easy to see how much must have been caught up in this trip for them.

My mother had parents in New York, and my father had who knows what.

I'd never met any of my father's family – never even heard of them, except for a weird guy who showed up once when I was six, got drunk and got thrown out by my father.

I had been all excited to meet my Uncle Terry, and then when he was gone, I was told that my father wanted nothing to do his family – they were trash anyway. 

I knew Aunt Maggie and Aunt Nora, of course, my mom's sisters, since they lived in California near us, and Aunt Nora was favorite person on the planet. She was 29, six feet tall, gorgeous and she took me roller skating and on trips. She'd taken me on an airplane twice, once to Florida and once to San Francisco, and none of my sisters had come. I reveled in the greedy joy of being the oldest.

But my mother had a brother, too, named Bernie, and I had cousins in New York my age. All I knew about Bernie, really, was that my mom adored him and that he was six feet, six inches tall. My mother talked about Bernie as if her were perfect. She said he was the only man she'd ever trust, and my father laughed and said, "You got that right."

So my parents came from New York.

I had no idea how long they'd been in California, or why they'd left, or what family meant. But I knew they were different, not like other moms and dads. For one thing, my sisters and I had been bridesmaids in their wedding. Nora was a baby, six weeks old, Morgain a toddler, and Katie and I were four and six. My mother told me not to tell anyone in school about their wedding – they might not understand.

"We got married at a justice of the peace a long time ago," she said. "And now that all four of you are here, it's time to have a big ceremony."

At the wedding, Nora was six weeks old. It must have been quite a year for my mother; Morgain and Nora are sixteen months apart, which means that when my mother got pregnant with Nora, she had girls ages five, three, and seven months.

They had a wedding on the beach in Los Angeles in the summer of 1975.

One of my father's acting friends let them use a house on the beach for a reception, and all four of us were bridesmaids in the wedding.

Everyone was stumbling drunk out of the reception, and someone was drinking champagne out of shoe, which I thought was the grossest possible thing to do ever, even if it was a pretty high heel.

My father had taken me aside before the wedding.

“I have a secret mission for you,” he said. “I want you to read a poem at the wedding, but you can’t tell anyone what the poem is. When the time comes, I’ll have you stand up and recite it. Make sure you practice, but don’t tell your mother!”

If I could make my father proud, and I was happy to do it.

My mother made her own dress – she was sewing right up until the day of the wedding. Four children under six, a newborn, and sewing her own wedding dress. 

She taught me to use the sewing machine, too, that week she was getting ready, and I was honored to help her sew the dress, which was a simple white shift. And the cake was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen – a white rectangle with colored flowers on it.

My mother wore a floral wreath made from roses and gardenias – her favorite -- in her hair, and Katie and I wore matching long dresses.

My mother was beaming, and underneath the wreath of flowers, with her dark hair and blue eyes, she looked like an earth goddess. I had no idea how long she'd been waiting to marry him, or why.  I just knew that she was more beautiful than I’d ever seen her, gorgeous, and she was smiling and singing the entire day. 

My mother's two sisters, Maggie and Nora, were there, and the ceremony was on a balcony overlooking the sea. 

Morgain was a year old and sat in my mother's lap, and Nora was there somewhere, with a housekeeper nearby to help. 

Things started to get loud, and cheerful, and once the crowd was good and drunk, my father said it was time.

I climbed up on a table, ready to do my father proud, and recite the poem to all of his friends, while the women were out of the room:

"Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean.

And so, between the two of them, 

they licked the platter clean."

 Now, of course, I am stricken by the cruelty of this, both to me and to my mother. 

My mother was heavy, and later her weight would come to define her. 

But I see pictures from the wedding and she was buxom, not grotesque. And she had a baby six weeks before!

And the underlying cynicism of a man who would recite heart-meltingly tender marriage vows and ten minutes later ask his clueless daughter to mock his new wife  -- but I was proud that I’d remembered the words, and I was happy that my father’s friends had laughed at the end. 

But on that drive to New York, we talked about their past and my mother told stories of Catholic school nuns and sagas of Bernie coming home late with the care in 1958, it still felt as if the center was solid. 

As if there was a family there in the car. An odd family, and different than my friends, but a mom and dad and four kids, and we would stay that way forever.

When my dad was home, he was in bed, reading, or outside, working on projects. He was either in full work mode or not available, so when I got his attention, I treasured it.

I adored him. 

I loved his voice, his smell, the way he knew he was the smartest and the best-looking man in the room, and the way he expected me to be honored just to be in the same room with him in public.

And I was. The few times he came to a school event or took me to dinner, I was stunned by his power to command attention. This, then was the power of an actor, of a trained voice, of the ability to use your body to project an image. 

When we went to dinner, which wasn't often with six of us, he prepped us. We were supposed to know what spoon to use, in which order to use the forks, and how to use the napkin. He warned us of the desperate consequences if we slurped through a straw – though, as he pointed out, if we were going to a decent restaurant, they wouldn't HAVE straws. 

He'd be "on" as soon as we got the restaurant, voice booming, commanding everyone to look at him, groomed perfectly. 

He was classic in his grooming and in his looks – I think he fancied his character to be a cross between Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman, with a touch of Dennis Hopper thrown in for good measure.

He'd known all of them at some point, and even thought he'd achieve the same success. It was always right there in front of him, just beyond the next role. If only he didn't have to work, to raise four kids, if he could go on more auditions, it would all be different.

I knew he'd done acting in New York, in the "real" theater, as he called it. I had to do a paper about Shakespeare, and he recited ten pages of Hamlet from memory. And made me listen to the entire thing twice, while checking it from my copy to make sure he didn't miss any lines.

The closer we got to New York, the more I heard about the old days. My mother and he ran a bar for a while, he said – the Marketplace. They had an apartment in the village.

It sounded so romantic, so different than our life in Los Angeles. I memorized the names of the places and the people he knew. Alan Ginsberg. The Lion's Head. The 55. The Village.

Black turtlenecks, beatniks and poetry. That's what I wanted to hear about. 

My mother told a few stories about her apartment on Jane Street and the parties she had there, and about her writing for Women's Wear Daily. She threw out names of people I'd never heard of, insisting that they were famous and that she'd interviewed them.

 I couldn't wait to see New York City.  This was shaping up to be one of the best summers ever. Before we went to New York, though, we stopped in the mountains, at a small hotel, somewhere in upstate New York. My mother's family was from the Adirondacks, and she'd spend her summers there as a child. 

It was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. Trees everywhere, water at every turn. Back in LA, there was a drought. Trees were in short supply. And here, it looked like a landscape from my fairy tales: Oak trees and acorns and birch trees and canoes and lakes and streams and trout – and fireflies!

That afternoon, at the hotel, my dad asked me to go for a walk with him. This was an unheard-of honor. I must have really impressed him on this trip.

As we started walking, he said he wanted to tell me a secret. I was hooked right away – secrets were great. Another way to prove that I was special. That I needed his attention. I could keep a secret!

A long time ago, he said, before I was born, before he'd met my mother, he had another wife. 



How was that possible? My mother WAS his wife. 

The only one. How could you have two? How could he have had a wife? And how could he not have told me before?

I felt the world under me shifting a bit. My perspective started to skew as he kept talking.

“She still lives in New York,” he said.  “And we had a little boy, about five years older than you are.”



I have a brother? 

That's impossible. I'm the oldest. I'm the OLDEST. That's who I AM. 

And you have a son? And you don't talk to him? And I've never met him?

The ground under my feet shifted some more.

“His name is Donald McGovern, junior, but we call him Donny. He’s a teenager now. I’m going to New York tonight, to visit him.

I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that I had a brother. That my father had someone else to love. And that I had to keep this secret!

My mother knew, he said. But I mustn't tell Katie. Or Morgain or Nora or anyone in school.

They wouldn't understand. And he was leaving the hotel this afternoon, to go visit his old wife and son, without us.

I went back to the hotel room, locked myself in the bathroom, and sat on the toilet. 

I had my first moment where I doubted all reality – I kept hearing the voices of my parents and sisters in the next room and wondered if it was really them. Maybe I wasn't really there. Maybe they were aliens. 

Maybe I was alone and making up being there. Maybe I made the whole thing up and I was still the oldest.

And then, suddenly, my father was gone, and so was the whole reason for the trip. He’d be back in a week or so, and in the meantime, I was alone with my mother and three sisters in the middle of upstate New York, and I wanted to go home.

My mother’s family was from the Adirondacks, and her grandparents had started as miners. By the time we visited, in 1979, the mines were closed and my mother's grandparents were gone. 

But the houses were still there, and so was Mineville, so we went to see where my mother played with cousins and picked berries and took baths in a tub, and it was not nearly so impressive as it sounded – a tiny row of houses, painted red, run-down, on a road that was barely paved.

But she lit up when we were there, and she loved to tell the stories, and she was happy when she talked about it.

And my mom was fun when she was happy. She'd buy ice cream, and stop at the store for treats, and she had patience. So we listened and were glad she was happy.

We went for awful hot dogs that she called "Michigan Hots," which were just plain hot dogs with sweet chili and onions on them that were disgusting. But she said they were a treat when she was kid, so we ate them.

We went to Lake George, and we played at the lake and did arcade games and ate pizza.

And after that, I have no idea what happened. I don't remember any of the rest of the trip. Or any of the ride back to California. Or anything really, for another month or so.

Because my father called my mother and told her he wasn't coming back with us.

That he'd flown home to California alone after he visited his first wife and his son. My brother. The older one.

Because he needed a break from my mother and kids. 

I know that a friend came out to New York and drove home with us, to share the driving. I know that as a fact, but not a memory.

I knew, though, that somehow, everything would be all right when we got back to Los Angeles. My father would come home, I would be the oldest again, my bedroom would be my safe place, under the canopy bed, with my doll named My Friend Mandy, and everything would be back to normal.

Except, of course, that it wasn't.

Reader Comments (1)

Beautifully and skillfully written Meagan. Can't wait to read more.

September 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

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