“He looks so old!” was my first thought as the hospital elevator doors parted, revealing my dad. I was aghast at the vision before me. He appeared to have aged twenty years since I’d seen him the year before. His skin was weathered and tanned, his clean-shaven face was wrinkled and worn, and his neatly combed hair was wispy and sparse. Despite the grin on Dad’s face, his faded blue eyes disclosed the harsh life he’d been leading. If I hadn’t known his age (41), I would’ve guessed he was at least 70 years old. Seeing him like that broke my heart.
My son, Bill, had been born two days before (Sept. 6, 1967), and Dad had come to see his first grandchild. Since our last meeting had been at home in Northern California, I considered it miraculous that my father had found his way to this San Antonio hospital.
Exiting the elevator, Dad jittered over to us, babbling as he approached me, but managed to calm down enough to allow me to carefully place Bill in his arms. As he gazed down in wonderment at my son, I could see the same delight in his eyes that I’d seen whenever he was around us kids. It was obvious that he was totally taken with this fragile bundle. It is a memory I cherish. Too soon, the nurse admonished me to take the baby back and say goodbye to my dad. The parting was quick and quiet, and I never saw my father again. Five months later he was found lying unconscious beside railroad tracks in Mexico, dying just four days before his 42nd birthday.
I am not a Beat scholar. I am not even a fan of the Beat lifestyle, philosophy, or writing. But I am intimately involved with the Beats… I am the daughter of Neal Cassady. My special connection to the icon that is “NEAL CASSADY” is unique and meaningful to me, and I’ve cringed over the years as I’ve witnessed the various incarnations he has acquired via the media: from Saint to Satan. I cannot reconcile the foul-mouthed, sex-crazed druggy about whom I read with the man I knew. I never even heard him swear. At home, he was our loving Dad.
Fond memories of Dad include:
- Playing Red Rover and tag in the front yard with my siblings, friends, and Dad
- Watching sports on TV with Dad: Favorites were Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, and Stirling Moss
- Playing chess with Dad, or watching Dad play chess against himself
- The forbidden case of Wrigley’s chewing gum that was kept on the top shelf in Dad’s closet from which he’d offer us gum for a special treat
- The long, hot baths Dad would take as he read the racing forms in the S.F. Chronicle
- Listening to the jazz greats accompanied by Dad’s feeble attempts at playing the sax
- Being enthralled by Dad’s tricks. He’d make quarters disappear and emerge from our ears, flip a coin through his knuckles with lightning speed, hold on to one ankle and jump over that leg with the other leg, etc.
- Spending Sunday mornings meditating, discussing Edgar Cayce’s teachings, and learning the tenets of Eastern philosophies
- Having Dad lead us in the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime, and saying Grace at mealtimes
- Sitting on Dad’s lap behind the wheel as he gleefully provided driving instructions to us while careening down the hill to town
Dad’s delight in us was evident, and we all felt his love.
Dad’s playful nature was also reflected in his writing. He had a passion for words. His letters to us invariably contained definitions of words or recommendations to “look it up.” He would offer suggestions for how to use words, or have fun with alliteration and write jokes based on language use. I remember writing a “book” when I was about eight years old. Dad took it seriously, and spent time giving me specific suggestions about my story line, writing style, etc. I was grateful and happy to get his approval.
How many one-year-olds receive T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” for his/her birthday? Dad’s cherished inscription to me:
“To my wonderful child, Cathleen Jo Anne, on her first birthday anniversary. From her daddy Neal who thinks of her with fondest love.”
Of course, I share many of Dad’s traits. We both have adventurous spirits, insatiable curiosity, and a never-ending love of learning. (I know he would have been proud of me for earning my graduate degree.) He was on an eternal quest seeking answers, as am I. Dad would have exploded with joy if the pocket-sized encyclopedia we call a cell phone was available to him.
Here is a poem I wrote expressing our shared yearning for all things NEW:
I abhor it
Again and again,
I deplore it
Intriguing Novelty saves the day
But will it last?
Who can say?
Me and my dad in a nutshell.
Wonderful read, dear Cathy!
I have always felt the way about Neal as you write, the depth of his sweet character and his longing for a respectful life with his family. I was pen pals with your mother for a few years after meeting her at a reading in the south of Sweden in 2000.
From one adventurous soul to another, thank you Cathy!