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Going to Alabama to find a father

 John W. Fountaas boy with his sister Gloria.

John W. Fountain as a boy with his sister Gloria.

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Updated: August 3, 2011 9:46PM

Driving into Evergreen, Ala., was like driving through a cloud of smoke into the past. The roads looked strangely familiar in a sense, as did the police station uptown where Mama, my stepfather, my sister Net and I had gone that January in 1979 to get a copy of the police report from my father’s accident.

Soon we rounded the corner on Highway 31 South, where my father had been shot like a missile through the windshield of his car when it was hit by the truck. We traveled north a piece until I spotted the narrow driveway where my father’s car had rolled just a few feet onto the highway into harm’s way before the awful wreck happened.

Then we drove up the driveway toward the little red-brick, single-story house where my father had spent his last hours here on Earth, stupefying his mind and soul, and where his mother still lived. I knocked on the door. She emerged, a frail, thin woman with butterscotch skin and big glasses. I hugged her, and we went inside to talk.

Our conversation was filled with questions that rolled slowly, painfully from my lips. Questions about who my father’s father was, about why my father never came to see me, questions about my father and his family’s medical history.

“I don’t know why he didn’t come and see you,” Mrs. Jackson said, speaking plain and honest. “We all knew about you and your sister. But you know, Gwen,” she said referring to my mother, “that girl could be so mean.”

I was sitting there thinking that she had some nerve saying anything about my mama. But I allowed her to continue uninterrupted.

“I don’t know,” she continued. “You know, your daddy had a drinking problem. I just could never get him to leave that stuff alone … ”

Mrs. Jackson went on to say how my father was forced to live with her mother because his stepfather did not want him living there with his siblings and mother. She spoke of other relatives who had drinking problems, about the one who was killed in an automobile accident, about another whose legs were amputated because of drinking and diabetes — one tragedy after another. The more she talked, the more the anger and pain of a lifetime seemed to fall off me as if I were a snake shedding skin.

And I began to wonder what might have happened if my troubled father, so vexed by demons, had been in my life.

All that time I had thought myself deprived by not having known my natural father. But sitting in the living room where his mother’s only picture of him hung in an oval frame, for the first time in my life I understood that I was better for having not known him. I actually thanked God for not having known the man and for having given me the good sense to latch onto the best that was in the men who were in my life.

In letting go of my anger as I sat talking with my father’s mother, as it seeped from my pores like sweat and spilled from my heart and soul 16 years after his death, I was also filled with sympathy and sorrow for my father, whom I was beginning to see as a troubled boy who grew up to be a troubled man whose troubles eventually swallowed him up whole.

At the cemetery the next day, my father’s younger brother led me to the gravesite and, after a while, narrowed my father’s resting place to one of several nameless white slates covered by weeds and grass.

“I think it’s this one,” he said, looking puzzled. “But I can’t say for sure.”

I stood above the grave, teary-eyed. Then I squatted and I forgave my father and made my peace.

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