The Ghost of Mike Brady

The negative space in my family

ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, under the shadow of “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Nuclear families were the norm: mother, father, two or more children. When “The Brady Bunch” premiered in 1969, it was hailed as a brave depiction of a blended family (there was a possibility that Carol was a divorcee, which was still scandalous).

Imagine if Mike Brady had died shortly after he and Carol married, leaving Carol with five children ranging from three to sixteen. Remember the iconic photo of Mike and Carol and the six kids lined up on the funky chunky flight of stairs? Envision a white space where Mike should be. That was my family, except we lived in a big dark Victorian.

My father’s absence was a negative space that the family grew around. His death had repercussions that shaped our personalities and lives.

The eldest three of the children in our blended family came from my dad Len’s first marriage (Tim, Mary and Albie). My mother Sadie brought one child from her first marriage, Katie; the second child from that marriage had died a couple of years earlier of juvenile leukemia. I was the only child from Len and Sadie’s marriage, a much-wanted child whose gestation followed three miscarriages and required six months of bed rest. Len died six years into their marriage. Tim, Mary and Albie ranged from thirteen to sixteen when Dad died, Katie was nine and I was three.

As my mom told me the story, Len had a weekly poker game with his fellow attorneys. It was a friendly, low-stakes game where the real prize was a bottle of Scotch to the evening’s overall winner.

“I heard the ambulance go by and I knew it was him,” she always said. He had suddenly crumpled over his cards, instantly dead of a brain aneurysm. “The guys told me that if it was any consolation, he had a great hand.”

Now imagine Carol Brady as a drunk. She starts drinking at noon, and keeps a glass of bourbon hidden under the sofa all afternoon. By dinner she is soused. By seven she’s asleep.

My mother wasn’t a drunk at first. I remember three or four years after Dad died when she was sober and present. She had a support network of friends who would stop by for coffee and a chat. Someone would take me and Katie for a few hours or a day so she could get a break. The three teenagers went off to college and then married. Mary went to live in Florida with her husband. Albie and his family lived nearby and visited often. Tim was sent to Vietnam; his wife and dog lived with us while he was gone.

My mom disapproved of Albie’s eventual divorce and he became more distant. On Tim’s return from Vietnam, he enrolled in law school and he and his wife moved away. The big Victorian became quieter and quieter. Friends stopped visiting. I think that’s when Mom’s drinking flew out of control, when there were fewer children needing her care, fewer people around to check on her, and less activity to distract her from her grief, her loss and her loneliness.

She was an angry drunk, bitter that her beloved had left her alone and she had to stick around to raise two more children. She was just killing time, and slowly killing herself, waiting to join Len in heaven. By the time Merv Griffin came on in the late afternoon, you’d want to stay out of her way. That’s when she would start yelling and throwing things. She never failed to make dinner for me and Katie, but she wouldn’t eat. Meals were tense stand-offs: Katie and me on one side of the table, trying to steer conversation to safe waters to keep Mom’s temper from exploding; Sadie on the other side with a lowball of bourbon, watching us chew our meat and potatoes, begrudging us the work she’d done to prepare them.

Forests have given their lives to describe the struggles of an alcoholic’s children, so I won’t belabor the point here. Katie and I took care of each other and left the house as soon as possible. Mom wouldn’t fly or highway drive, so we both chose colleges a day’s drive away. We worked all summer at camps, coming home to do laundry. When we graduated, we stayed near our college towns. Two years after I graduated, Mom died, having raised her last two children. She left to join Len, and we were free.

Another term for negative space is white space, which is especially apt here. Dad’s eldest children, all three of them, are casual white supremacists. To call them racist doesn’t dig deeply enough: they believe that white people are inherently better. They do not want people of other races in their environment. It’s easy to say, oh it was the Fifties, oh, they were raised with segregation, oh, they didn’t grow up with any people of other races; all of which are true but no excuse. Humans are capable of learning and changing. They have done neither.

Mary, now in her seventies, has long wanted to live someplace where there are no people of color. The biggest fight we’ve had in our decades of sisterhood followed her asking me “Is it so bad that I just want to live with people who look like me?” She has made my friends choke at dinner when she has calmly said, apropos of nothing, “I don’t like black people.”

My mother, on the other hand, was the youngest child of second generation Irish immigrants who had seen the damage of anti-Irish prejudice. She was raised to not be racist, and she raised her two children to not be racist, too. She regularly exposed us to other cultures and races and ensured that we treated everyone with respect.

So the lessons of racism and white supremacy had to come from my father. His eldest children have clung to their racism like an antique treasure they inherited in Len’s will, like every time they’re rude to a black person they’re honoring his legacy. I inherited the grandfather clock, they got the bigotry. And they cherish that bigotry as much as I cherish that clock.

Over the long haul, it seems unlikely that Sadie would have remained so wildly in love with a man who raised his children to belittle and sneer at those who don’t look like them. And there’s a possibility that he had some misgivings, too. “You know what Dad told me once?” Mary asked me last year. “ ‘I should never have left your mother.’ ”

When I was young, I was convinced Len’s spirit loomed at the base of my bed at night, a large translucent presence watching me sleep. He has literally been nothing to me but a ghost. I have no memories of him, just photographs and his antique furniture collection.

For those who knew him, however, his death left an enormous cavity that they were never able to fill. To this day Mary blames everything wrong in her life to her parents’ divorce and Len’s demise. My mother chose death over remarriage. It’s hard to imagine, being so loved that your loss is a black hole that pulls in those around you. It’s almost admirable.

But I don’t think it’s a legacy any parent or spouse wants to leave behind. Maybe Len’s ghost really did visit me while I slept, to whisper into my ear not to be so dependent on one person that I can’t survive successfully on my own.

Names have been changed to protect the living.

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