CHAPTER 1: “Asshole’s Garage”
Like most good stories, mine starts with a beautiful lady. “April Dancer” they called her because in the 70’s when they would go out to see rock bands, she would out-dance everybody. Flowy tops were all the fashion which was good when she got pregnant. She danced right next to the speakers until the ninth month, with few even noticing the big belly. She was watching the Dick Clark–New Year’s Eve Special in 1972 when her water broke. She waited to go to the hospital until after the ball dropped and Three Dog Night finished their performance. At 11:22 on 1/1, I joined the party. My Mom had just turned 21.
She met both my father and later, my step-father on the dance floor. My birth father’s claim to fame was that he sat in on drums once for Grand Funk Railroad –before they were famous– but they both stopped taking her out dancing after they got married. She knew my real father for just over two weeks when they got hitched and moved to Morocco where he was stationed for the next two years. She said she married him to get away from my grandmother, a raging alcoholic with an absentee husband, my grandfather. The trucking company my grandfather worked for had to track him down by CB to tell him his daughter was getting married, that he needed to come home to give her away.
Despite his flaws, my father is one of those people you can’t help but like. “We were always either laughing together or screaming at each other,” my Mom would say. “He messed around on me but I loved him.” Brutally honest to a fault, hilarious enough to be the main character on a tv show, and forever blue collar. “He’s an asshole and a bigot and a chauvinist but at least he’s honest about it” she would say.
Like most men in the suburbs north of Detroit, he worked for GM. He parked his motorcycle in the living room and I learned how to walk by hanging onto the ass end of his St Bernard, Brandy while she dragged me like a water skier across the living room. I don’t remember that consciously but he still cries when he talks about Brandy more than forty years later and I still have an unexplained love for big dogs. My Mom said she wanted a divorce after she found a random guy in the bathroom of our subsidized apartment shooting up heroin with me, around 2 or 3 years old, asleep in the room next door. She said they started fighting and I toddled out of my room crying.
“Look at what you did!” she yelled, “Now you made your daughter cry!”
It was normal for them to scream at each other almost every day she said. The difference this time was that he kicked her to the ground and in the head a few times as she tried to use the couch to get back up, with me wailing in the hallway. She had to wear a neck brace for a while afterward. I don’t remember that consciously either. He was mostly absent for about ten years of my childhood with an occasional Christmas card and minimal child support payments.
In later years after we all reconciled, I would hang out with him in his one car garage behind the house in Pontiac, Michigan, handing tools and beers to him under the car, the smell of grease and motor oil and posters of Bud girls on muscle cars with long legs and boobs hanging out from under short white tees. There was a metal street sign above the garage that read “Asshole’s Garage” and there was always a cigarette burning in the ashtray, just like at my grandma and grandpa’s house. I referred to him as “my dad” to other people but I never called him “Dad” to his face. He was my father, not my dad. He had a German Shepherd named Harley who never quite got to know me well enough to not bark like a demon when I came over. Someone always had to come to the door to let me in, usually one of his two little blonde daughters with his blonde second wife, Maxie.
Maxie didn’t like that he had an ex-wife and daughter and it was obvious. He later told me that one day while he was at work, Maxie threw away an 8x10 school photo of me, frame and all. I was eleven or twelve. I didn’t understand what I did to make her not like me.
Sometime in my teens, he went to D.C. for a march to see the Vietnam Wall for the first time. It was huge for him. He cried “like a school girl,” he said. When he got home, she’d cleaned him out — took everything. “I had to shit real bad after that long drive and that fucking bitch even took the shit paper!” he said. During the divorce proceedings she claimed he hit her which led to a bitter custody battle for years with my half-sisters. He said she lied, except for one time. He said he was about to go pick me up on his motorcycle and when he told her where he was going, she said, “You mean that little bitch?” He said he then “slapped her in the mouth, and that little flap under her tongue ripped.” My half-sister Amy and I got close in later years and she told me what she witnessed that day as a little girl, that she watched him “shove toilet paper down her throat.”
When I was 19, he apologized profusely for not having been around much, cried and everything. We sat in blue lawn chairs in the driveway on a warm summer day in Michigan. His burgundy ’79 Grand Prix up on jacks beside us; the breeze blowing the smell of lilacs and fresh cut grass and motor oil from the garage. He blamed his absence on Maxie. I told him it was ok, that I understood. He took Maxie back one more time after that. He said it was because it was the only way she’d “let him see his girls.” I told him I wouldn’t be coming around if she were there so I didn’t see him for two years.
When I was a kid, he took me on his motorcycle at 120 mph once, just for a second. It was a clear road and I trusted him completely. He became an ultra-light instructor later (my grandfather was a pilot too) and took me up in his plane. Both were amazing moments in my life. He did crash-em-up, figure eight racing as well. During one race he punctured his lung and broke two ribs but finished the race anyway. My sister and I have figured out not to call him late in the day because he’s usually drunk by that point and his brashness goes from biting and funny to cruel and unpredictable. Once he got drunk and confused me with one of my sisters, screaming at me because I called him by his first name, John instead of “Dad.” Now he makes a point to sign all his cards, “Love, Dad.”
After Maxie, he got married once more to another blonde that “took him for all he was worth” before marrying his current loving wife, Mary, a red-headed bonafide Italian catholic woman who cooks every meal, does all the housework and stays stoned most of the time “to put up with your Dad” she says. She is an angel, a true godsend. They’ve been married almost twenty years now and he cries when he talks about her sometimes. His mother, also named Mary and also a redhead, my grandmother, couldn’t have been more different. I didn’t know her well but recall at Christmas when I was 16 she gave me a card that said, “Since you never come to visit me, here’s what you get — 0.” The zero was huge and had a fat line across it to indicate it was a number not a letter. Then she took it away from me, ripped it up, and said, “I changed my mind” and handed me a five dollar bill.
She beat the living tar out of my father while he was growing up, I’ve been told. “He got the worst of it” my uncle Jeff said once. At her funeral, my father and uncle said it was a struggle to come up with something nice to say about her for the eulogy.
My father taught me much about forgiveness and how to see through people’s pain to the love underneath. He’s dying now. Like a figure eight, dirt track, crash-em-up derby, he rode his body hard. My sister and I have tried on occasion to get him to quit drinking and smoking. At this point though, we just let him do what he wants.
Despite not having been raised by him, we are more alike than I often care to admit. I have a dangerous streak and passion for speed, a great sense of rhythm, a gnarly temper, strong features and strong opinions that I have a hard time keeping in. We are real people and we can talk to anybody — no pretentiousness, no bullshit, honest to the core with big messy strong hearts on our sleeves, and we can make you laugh until you pee your pants. I’ve still never called him Dad to his face and he can still bring me to screaming tears with one biting comment but I love him fiercely and would protect him the way a German Shepherd protects a house.
“I’ve had a great life,” he says, “Did everything I wanted to do.”
That’s all we can ask for from anyone we love.
©Shanna Gillette 2019–2020
Update: My father, John Gillette, left this world late summer 2020.
COPD from a lifetime of smoking had left him on oxygen with 25% lung capacity, among many other almost debilitating physical limitations. His quality of life was poor and he made no secret of his wish to move on. I spoke with him two weeks prior. When I asked him how he was holding up, he grumbled, “Not so good, kid, not so good” and in true JG fashion added, “I’m tryin to get the Covid!” through a round of laughter and coughing. His wife Mary walked by just then and yelled from the background, “I don’t know where he’s gonna get the covid - We hardly ever get out and nobody around here’s got it anyway!” I had to laugh. This was my father’s humor at it’s finest. Painfully honest right up until the end.
My sister Amy and I and her young son wore Pink Floyd shirts to the funeral and the VFW hall in Pontiac was packed with people who loved him dearly. He will be missed by many. ❤