I have only a small child's handful of memories of life with my father. At home after my tap dancing debut at four; a heated argument between him and my mother around the same time; and mostly and most vividly, the trips to visit him once he was serving time in Greenhaven State Penitentiary in Stormville, NY.
Courtney Reid-Eaton today Photo: Luis Velasco
I remember the long ride to get there. Along the way was an Indian gift shop with a teepee outside. We stopped there once, on our way home, to look at moccasins and coin purses. When we arrived at the prison, there was a series of electronic gates to pass through (humm, clang), papers to show. My mother was fingerprinted; they looked through her purse and patted her body down. We didn't talk while this went on. I was good at reading signals. This was serious stuff. I felt hot and sad.
The visiting room was a big, bright white and steel institutional space. Guards sat at a desk, at one end of the room, taking in the exchanges between inmates and guests. We chose seats on opposite sides of a giant stainless steel counter, accessible to him from the inside, through a barred electronic door (humm, clang). From counter surface to floor was solid wall, from counter to ceiling a chain link fence with one-inch square openings, large enough to fit your fingers through, for a touch, or your pursed lips, for a kiss. We talked in low murmured tones on our visits, for privacy. Sometimes the room would be full and there'd be a buzz like a hive. We tried not to sit close to anyone else. He wore greenish-gray pants and a matching shirt with buttons. He always smiled and sauntered over. He was so handsome and fit and tall. I don't remember what we talked about, or how often I went to see him. The visits were a chance to make contact - to hear his voice, to see the color of his skin, his smile, the shape of his fingernails. To imprint his stride on my memory. To notice things I probably wouldn't if I saw him every day. There was a showcase outside the visiting room, with crafts made by inmates. Souvenirs. Once I got a seal, made of leather, about the size of a finger puppet; I loved its leathery smell.
My parents had high standards. They were smart, I was "gifted," an articulate early reader with an outgoing personality. While we lived in Manhattan, I went to public school on the upper West Side (not in our Harlem neighborhood), with the sons and daughters of ambassadors and intellectuals and working class folks with ambitions for their children. I was enrolled in after-school enrichment programs, went to summer camps and dancing school. I visited my father's family for three weeks every summer, flying alone for the first time at five. We never talked about him.
Courtney at age four, dressed for the last dance recital her father would see. Shortly after this day, he was sent to prison.
My father was kept abreast of my achievements and transgressions, commenting on things in the letters he'd sometimes send in his beautiful cursive hand. Once he sent a birthday card, especially made for me by one of his fellow inmates. My name and pet name were part of the text, though the hand-painted girl on the front was white with blonde hair.
When I was eight, my mother and I moved to the Bronx. Away from the neighborhood where she grew up, away from her parents and aunts who'd helped her, as a single parent, care for her school-aged child. Away from people who knew anything about my father's life. I don't know what she told new friends and colleagues about her husband. Where he was, what he was doing there. It was 1967; shame was still a viable emotion. That year in school, we were asked to write an essay about our father's jobs. I said he was in the Air Force. No one told me I should lie, but I knew it was the right thing to do. We went to church every Sunday. We loved our family. We had good friends. I didn't want people to think the wrong things about us, just because of where my father lived. I was good at reading signals. It was important to my mother that people knew that we were good. If I misbehaved, punishments were severe. It was important to be good.
My parents divorced when I was nine. When I visited my father, I passed through the gates alone (humm, clang). It was me who was fingerprinted. My pockets were checked. My body was scanned. My purse was emptied. And there were more secrets to keep. My mother was re-married, to an old friend, a good man with a good job at an established company with a worldwide reputation. We moved to the suburbs, to a nice house with a nice yard in a good neighborhood. It was certainly not appropriate to talk about my father now. Nor was it appropriate to tell him much about my new life. No criticisms of my mother's parenting, no discussions of her pregnancy, or what it was like to be in a "real" family. Just the facts: school was good, I was good.
The back of the photo of Courtney at four, stamped by penitentiary staff. Courtney's mother mailed the photo to her father in prison.
Thanksgiving, 1969, my father had been released and was coming to my grandparents' apartment to pick me up and take me out. I was eleven, elated and terrified. I didn't actually know him; we'd only had those visits a few times a year in that big, bright room. There'd been so many secrets to keep. How would we negotiate a visit of more than an hour? When the doorbell rang, my family became stiff and formal. Boundaries were being drawn.
He gave me a pair of silver bangles, snakes. I loved them. I still have them. He took me to an epic film, Cromwell. It was beautiful, lush, costumed, and British. Magic. How could he know me? How could he know I would love those things? My mother, who I'd lived with every day, couldn't connect with those things about me. But she was present. Loving me fiercely and painfully through every moment. Creating a structure in which I should move. Working in my best interest. Pushing me. He might know my heart, but I couldn't trust him to be present for me. If I let him in, he might evaporate again at any time. I wouldn't. I resisted him. I locked him out. Humm, clang.
Our visits on the outside were infrequent and tense. The spring after the first visit he drove up to my family's house in a cream colored Mercedes to take me to the city. There was a woman in the back seat, a friend he later married - briefly. My grandmother, his mother, was in town and wanted to see me. I realized during that visit that I'd never been with them all simultaneously before - my grandmother, aunts, uncle, father. They watched me closely, as though adolescent, self-conscious me was somehow holding them together. My ex-con father not only had a fabulous car, but a motorcycle he wanted me to ride with him on. Verboten! My mother was an ICU nurse and had come home in tears more than once, with stories of motorcycle accidents. I refused to get on. He was furious - "When you were little you would do whatever I wanted!" I wasn't his little "PG", (Pretty Girl) anymore. We got lost on the drive back to Westchester. He spent a lot of time being angry that day and I spent a lot of time afraid. Afraid of disappointing him and making him angry, afraid of doing something my mother would disapprove of, afraid of having to choose between them.
I never asked why my father was in prison. It seemed it would have hurt my mother if I'd asked. Obviously it hurt both of them too much to tell me. One day he was laughing after my dance recital, and then he was just gone. I didn't learn until I was twenty-one what he'd done to be separated from us. Hearing the nature of his crime did not move me. By then his history seemed as unconnected to me as he was.
I didn't see him again until I was twenty-four - eleven years after the Christmas gifts, nine years after I'd been adopted by my stepfather and changed my name, eight years after the letter (in his beautiful cursive hand) where he told me he would understand if I didn't want to be in touch with him anymore, six years after his fight on the phone with my mother when she wouldn't let him talk to me, one year and two months after I was married (he wasn't invited). I ran into him at a craft fair at Lincoln Center. I heard someone calling my name and turned around to see a tall, slender, handsome man in a navy blazer and khakis; very yacht club. We hugged and I calmly introduced him to my friend as "my father," though I hadn't thought of him that way for quite some time.
I contacted him shortly after my thirtieth birthday. We met for drinks. He told me he didn't regret anything he'd done in his life and returned an album of family pictures he'd had while he was in prison. I asked him if he'd like to meet my husband and son sometime and he said sure but we never made it happen. I saw him again at my grandmother's funeral four years later. My mother flew out with me to pay her respects to a woman who was "always good to [her]." It was the first time my parents had seen each other in twenty years. It's the only time I've seen them embrace. They did it for my benefit - he hates her, she fears him.
I consider myself fortunate. My basic needs were always met, my intellect stimulated. I felt loved. My mother made that possible. My family made that possible. They sacrificed for me and insulated me. They overpowered me. They cherished me. I know that my mother's insistence on the good in me, in our life, was in direct correlation to the judgements that had been made against my father. My "bad," oppositional behavior was beaten down when it would rear its head. It was not a perfect life. But today, I have options. I have access. I choose to be a constructive (though sometimes confrontational), contributing member of society, a fully endowed citizen of my country. I am free.
Courtney Reid-Eaton is Exhibitions Director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.