THE FAMILY ALBUM: My birthfather, Danny Jolliff

“A small, blonde-headed tyke curls up on his father’s lap, attentively listening to the melodic velvety voice reading from a history book. The boy has a tiny index finger on top of the long, slender finger as it runs across the lines of words. The little tyke follows the lines to absorb the spoken sounds to match them into making sense; he is eager to read at three years old. Occasionally, the little tyke will raise his other hand to pause his father’s reading, pointing to a word that appears interesting and the young patient father stops, repeats the word, waits for his son to pronounce the word, and explains its meaning in three-year-old lay terms. The little boy nods and the reading continues.”

That was me as a little blonde tyke.

The young, twenty-seven-year-old man was my birth father, Danny Lee Jolliff, who was born at his parents’ home in Elwood, Indiana, on March 22, 1942; he would have turned 79 years old, today.

By the time I turned ten, the tender father-son scenario was radically altered by the ravaging effects of alcoholism. My father was still tender toward me and now, my two younger siblings who were eight and ten years younger, but his intoxicating rage was mentally and physically directed at our mother, creating distress and hesitation in us wanting to be near him.

Many of my father’s classmates at Elwood’s Wendell L. Willkie High School still recall a tall, handsome, pleasant, jovial teenager with an enchanting sense of humor. I agree with their assessment as I clearly remember it, myself before the alcohol began masking the terrific human with an unfortunate, unfamiliar one that was quite nasty and ugly.

Alcoholism crept through three of my paternal family’s preceding generations and I observed it, once again, in line with my own generation. I pray the cycle is now broken, no longer cursing my nieces and nephews.

My sister has asked questions about what I remember and sadly, my memories are so disconnected from what she and my brother knew. I find it terribly sad that neither of my younger siblings knew our father as I had known him.

Despite the horrors Mother endured, I never once heard her degrade him. She even loved his family and oft commented, “I stopped loving Danny but never stopped loving his family.” And, throughout her final illness and at her funeral, Danny’s family mirrored their love for her with profound affection.

Grandma Donna and Grandpa Leroy, Mother’s parents, were careful to never make disparaging comments about my father and by the time my sister arrived when I was going on nine, I was still uncertain they knew what was happening on the hill at 825 Main Street.

One night, while sitting around round dining room table following dinner, my father, after a number of beers, was quietly chatting with Grandma Donna. In unsteady wording, I heard him reassuringly say to Grandma, “I want you to believe me that I never hurt Diana and would never harm her.”

I had witnessed too many scenes of his domestic violence to not become distantly engaged in this conversation. My eavesdropping skills had matured early in life and I remained focused on my ever-present note-writing pad in front of me.

Grandma Donna was seated forward in her chair, balancing her elbows on the wooden walnut table, staring down at her folded hands. She said nothing. My father asked, “You believe me, don’t you?”

Grandma Donna maintained absolute control of the moment. Without looking up into his pleading eyes, she quietly said, “I would truly love to believe you.”

Then, she raised her eyes to his, still keeping her familiar warm smile. He backed away from further conversation.

Across the table sat Grandpa Leroy; his arms folded, his jaw set, and a smoldering glare targeting my father.

They knew. I figured they suspected but I was never sure since they never discussed anything within my hearing.

My father never regained the footing of what I knew as a young child. He had stepped onto that proverbial slippery slope. The angle of his decline was far too steep and he did not possess the personal traction to climb back up the slope. The early descriptions from his high school friends still ring true but it was an obvious struggle for him to pretend. Fortunately, his desire to keep others laughing never weakened. It was his gift. It was his way of preventing the world around him from sagging into unhappiness. That was a true gift.

Looking back, nearly forty years later, my sister and I have wondered what our father would be like had he lived. Would he have been a part of our lives? We think so. Would he have been interested in being a grandfather to our children? Again, we think so. Naturally, it is hopeful speculation but we are entitled to those hopes.

My father’s death occurred two days following Mother’s marriage to Coach Haas. His choice allowed us to be released from the hell we had known. In some ways, it was another gift, a selfless one. It afforded us freedom from the past, a new start.

Six months later, Madison County’s magistrate, Judge Carroll, banged the gavel three separate times: Destin Lang Haas… Dena Linn Haas… Darin Lee Jolliffe-Haas. Our family story and personal stories and journeys were drastically changed.

Some folks were ruffled by the name change for which I will never apologize. It was much like Jean Valjean’s “Soliloquy” in the musical, LES MISERABLES,

“I’ll escape now from that world,
From the world of Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean is nothing now;
Another story must begin.”

I loved recounting with Mother of our Labor Day parties in the large house atop the huge hill at the corner of Main and 9th Streets, his love for gourmet cooking, their mutual passion for music that was more my gene-blessing rather than inspired, and especially, our family vacations that were enormously entertaining and historically enriched. My love and passion for United States history and architecture are prominent traits instilled in me and I now recognize my earnest desire to keep others laughing is not so much me being a clown as it is to keep the joy flowing in and through others.

One of my favorite stories she shared was about sitting up at the dining room table, late one August night to work on a project. It was nearing 3:00 AM; my siblings were asleep and I was a new freshman at Ball State University. There was a tap at the patio’s screen door. It was my father. Mother was somewhat hesitant but invited him in.

They sat at the dining room table for several hours, chatting pleasantly, reminiscing, and discussing us kids. He expressed how he appreciated what she had done on her own as a parent, a compliment that touched Mother greatly, still making her eyes glisten a bit as we discussed it the summer prior to her August passing. From the first time Mother shared this account to the last, she always maintained a fond appreciation of that night.

Later, Mother learned that the police officers on 3rd shift always made a wellness check past our house. That night, they saw my father’s car parked at the side on 9th Street and parked with the lights out to observe our dining room. When they were convinced all was well, they left, but continued to make frequent passes near our house.

The last birthday card I received from my father was on my 18th, nearly 40 years ago. In it he penned, “Only my love for you exceeds my pride in you. Never ever reach for the stars; always be one. Love, Dad.”

We’ll never know Danny Jolliff’s entire story. Many of us hold pieces to his human puzzle but there will always be too many undiscovered pieces to complete the full portrait. The pieces we do have are probably enough. He was a good guy; a kind-hearted man who battled dragons much larger than him and far more powerful. I am confident he tried. The dragons were just too fierce.

Happy birthday, Dad. Know you are loved…

About Wright Flyer Guy

Darin is a single adoptive father, a teacher, playwright, and musical theatre director from Kettering, Ohio.
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