© 1990 Barbara Grace Lake
Years ago, in an almost storybook “once upon a time,” my father, mother brother and I lived in a tiny, Depression-era house in Los Angeles.
With the innocence of a 5-year-old, I didn’t know what my father did for a living, if he was good at what he did, what kind of struggles he had, or even if he was a good man.
I knew one very important thing: My father loved me.
I remember Saturdays as special and wonderful. For one thing, we had our “walking game.” To play this game, we often set out for the park, with its swings and sandbox. But sometimes, with no destination at all, we just started walking.
We began sedately at first — my tiny fist engulfed in his huge paw — until we were out of sight of the house. Gradually we began to walk faster, faster and faster, until we were racing, trying to catch something — or keep from being caught. We would end up running so fast I nearly pitched forward over my own feet.
Then my father would swoop me up in his arms, and we laughed till the tears came. I never once fell. Daddy was always there to catch me.
One day my father came home early. He had lost his job. He didn’t seem able to get another. Always, since I could remember anything, there had been serious adult talk about “the Depression,” but the whispers about my father were that he was a dreamer. He was shiftless and lazy. He lacked moral character.
I wasn’t supposed to hear the gossip, but children of the ’30s sat quietly around adults, overhearing a lot never intended for them.
Suddenly, there were no more Saturday games with my father. Then he wasn’t there at all. He never came back.
Layton Abbott Pierce was big and gentle, but without the quiet strength one usually associates with such a man. He skidded with the Depression, falling into every trap, drinking, gambling, always looking for an easy way out that never came. He wished and dreamed while the harsh reality of the Depression pressed in around him. In the end, he abandoned the crushing reality and all responsibility that went with it — including his family.
I was too young to now recall much about the next few years. I remember a terrible bewilderment when told, “Daddy isn’t here anymore.” My fervent “why?” went unanswered.
As the years passed, the whys became less urgent, then forgotten completely. When I reached my teens I listed my father as “deceased” on required school forms. It was much easier to believe he was dead than the other — that he left because he didn’t love me.
I grew up. I graduated from high school, did a stint in the WACs, married and started raising a family. From my teens on, I rarely thought about my father.
One morning, shortly after the birth of my second child, he called. Through the years he had kept in touch with one of my aunts, and she gave him my number when his ship came into San Pedro Harbor.
My father said he wanted very much to see us. I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to see him. For 19 years I had believed him dead. Could I accept him now as a living, breathing father — one who abandoned me? My husband intervened, and Layton came to spend the weekend with us. He stayed a month.
That month was hell. Dad drank himself sloppy, until I hated the sight — or the smell — of him. One day, he passed out on the kitchen table and our entire dinner crashed to the floor in a mixture of spaghetti sauce, broken glass and china.
I cried in the bedroom until I could barely see out of puffed and reddened eyes. When I came out, I took some bills from the grocery money and paid dad’s cab fare back to his seaman’s hotel in San Pedro, 70-odd miles from our home in Chatsworth.
After that my father began phoning collect for money, and the calls kept coming until we had nothing left to give. He finally shipped out without a word.
The bitterness was strangling. This time, instead of asking a human being why things weren’t right, I cried out against God. Why? Why? Hadn’t that man hurt me enough already? How could a loving God let someone like that live if just to inflict more suffering?
My answer arrived in the mail a year later. When I opened an envelope postmarked Seattle, a small white card fell out. One side contained the “Serenity Prayer.” On the other my father had written, “I’m helping others find their way back as I have. Forgive me if you can and God bless you.”
In that instant a big fist reached back to a Saturday of long ago and tightly held the hand of a frightened little girl so she wouldn’t fall.
Layton Abbott Pierce died at the age of 85 in Seattle on September 29, 1988. He left my house in Chatsworth in November of 1957. But what of the years between? Some still say Dad’s life was without value, that he was quintessentially “worthless” as a human being. Yet in Seattle, he not only found his way to Alcoholics Anonymous and achieved sobriety himself, he helped dozens of fellow alcoholics on the road to recovery. Only a higher power can judge the ultimate worth of those last 31 years of my father’s life. I don’t have the measure.
I do know that I’ll never again doubt the wisdom and mercy of Almighty God, for my answer to that last wretched “why?” was that my father had been given a chance to redeem himself.