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Part 90: Dream On

A few nights ago, I watched a film that my client recommended, Lynne Sachs’s documentary “Film About a Father Who.”I hope this link works HERE.

The documentary uses footage from 1984 to 2019 to tell a story focusing on the filmmaker's father, his elusive lifestyle, the children he fathered with several different women. The film is experimental, which adds to the confusion, the confusion his children must've felt. What happened to this man? The father in this documentary lived through a strange childhood, the most dramatic event is a part of the film, (no spoilers) but as viewers, we are left wondering, what was the rest of his childhood like? How did he become this severely compartmentalized person?

The documentary must've tossed my subconscious, because that same night, a strange dream about Riley invaded my brain. In the dream, Riley was alive, but elderly–– living in a house I didn't recognize. A dream house, because by the time he was that frail in real life, he was in a nursing home. In the dream, we were in this house... I asked him questions about his mother's father, much like the questions Lynne Sachs had for her dad in the film. In the dream, Riley had a burst of energy, suddenly back to being himself–– humorous, light in his eyes, ready to tell a story...right after the burst, when I thought he was about to tell me something profound, he leaned over to brace himself on his unmade bed. Hunched over, weak, the color draining from his face, he said, "I'm having a heart attack." I called 911 but no one answered. I woke up in a panic.

I wasn't with my father when he died in 2009. He was in California, I was in Seattle. I found out when a nurse from the skilled nursing home called me. She was sobbing. I think because she was crying so hard and I wanted to make her feel better, I didn't cry. Not then. I was worried about the nurse. But also, Riley had been borrowing money from me for years. There was a sense of relief, which made me feel terrible.

Anyway. The dream allowed my brain a re-do; to be with my father when he died, thanks to the strange film about the mysterious Mr. Sachs.


My mother took this photograph of my friend Diana Buelna, a friend from high school.

My junior year I was sitting alone outside at lunch break, when two girls approached me. Diana with her flaming ginger hair flowing down her back, and her younger sister, Lucy, blonde and blue-eyed, with a nose that looked like she'd been punched in several vicious fights. "You should see the other guy" comes to mind, because I soon learned that everyone was afraid of Lucy, even the boys. Lucy had a temper, and no fear of violent confrontation.

The sisters basically said, "now you're our friend" and that was that. I began spending more and more time at their house, in an adjacent town called Woodville.

They told their mother in Spanish "we brought home a stray dog." I didn't speak Spanish, but much later, the sisters told me what they'd said. I didn't care. I was happy to eat Mrs. Buelna's wonderful home-cooked food.

Woodville was part labor camp, part neighborhood. The Buelna family, with eleven children (the oldest, a boy, died in Vietnam) ruled like a mafia family. Most of the older girls in the family had been Cinco De Mayo queens, they were now married and out of the house. The parents didn't speak english, they never had to learn, as Woodville was where most of the Mexican Americans lived, including farm laborers.

The Buelnas owned a large ranch style house, with four or five bedrooms, some of the children had the light eyes and hair like Mr. Buelna, some were dark like their mother. Diana was the only ginger, with large brown eyes. Since Lucy and Diana were the youngest, they were the only two living at home. I often spent the night, devoured the meals Mrs. Buelna cooked, went off to school on the school bus with the sisters, and sometimes back home with them after school.

Diana and Lucy always cut in front of lines, and no one said a word. I'd slink behind them. I put henna in my hair, tanned my skin, and wore my eyeliner like the Buelna girls, rimming the inside of my lower lids, then topping all of that off with layers of black mascara. They gave me a pair of jeans that didn't fit either one of them, Lucy, too skinny and wiry, Diana just a tad too curvy for them. They taught me how to lie down on a bed so I could stuff my lower half into the jeans, holding my breath, sucking my tummy in until they buttoned up like sausage casing. We all wore the same brownish red lipstick on our unsmiling lips. Transformed, people thought I was a Buelna sister, or cousin. This thrilled me. I liked the idea of ditching my family for theirs. I felt safe, protected, cared for. I liked the fact that other people were afraid of these girls.

I spent more and more time out of my own house, either with friends, working at K-mart or fast food joints, and rehearsing for school plays and choir concerts. I wanted to create distance from my situation at home.


Diana in my mother's studio in downtown Porterville, California.

© copyright 2019-2022 Stacya Silverman. All rights reserved.

Above, more photographs of Diana. I'm trying to place the time... Diana, was going through a ballerina phase, taking ballet classes. Jan often worked from her own photographs, as I've mentioned in past blogs. What I love about these shots, besides my friend, is how the images show parts of the studio my parents shared together in Porterville, right off of Main Street downtown. Surrounded by art supplies, butterfly stickers, snap shots, jars holding all kinds of pencils and pens–– even a cow's skull, we were always thinking of new images, new models, more friends I could bring in for Jan to paint.

Whenever I'm invited into an artist's studio filled with treasures and tools, I feel immediately at home.

Jan worked by the window near the front door where she could get the most natural light, Riley typed and worked on manuscripts, ideas for shows, and comedy routines in the back of the studio. The whole place was around 700 square feet with a cement floor. Slowly, Riley moved most of his work to the studio, along with other things, a coffee maker, a change of clothes. My parents rented the studio space from a man who sold antiques in town, he had a place on the corner in the same building. He was fond of Riley, so I don't think he minded when Riley couldn't pay up.

Jan was in her 40s when I was in high school, and for the first time she realized that perhaps Riley was more trouble than he was worth. They grew distant. She gave me a book about narcissistic personality disorders, and suggested that I might recognize Riley in the pages. I was beginning to understand more about mental illness, from books, but also the psychology classes at school. At some point, I decided I was meant to be a famous psychiatrist, although I was totally in the dark about psychiatry and what was involved. It's funny to me now...I couldn't be a therapist, I had to be a "famous" psychiatrist with ground breaking work and book deals.

Below is a self-portrait Jan made from around that time, using her camera and a mirror. I think she painted this one, too.

Below, a photograph Jan took for a series of paintings. One ended up at my plastic surgeon's office, perhaps as a form of payment. I was my mother's primary model in those days.

After healing from multiple surgeries on her leg and a massive head injury from our car accident, Jan began painting at a brisk pace. She connected with an art dealer named Naim. Through Naim, the sales gave her a tiny, occasional income. She had to hide that money from Riley, and she coached me to lie to him about any money I'd saved as well. (I worked at several places in Porterville in high school, baby sitting, McDonald's, etc.)

"He'll borrow it and never pay you back. Hide it somewhere. You have to learn to lie to him," she said.


Riley’s desk–– covered with folders, piles of newspaper clippings, fresh paper, his typewriter, books, jars of Wite-out, set the scene for many of our talks, clouded over with a haze of cigar smoke. I wish I had a photograph of his desk from those days. I loved hanging out with him in the downtown Porterville studio. I’d plop down on the saggy couch with torn fabric that looked like it came out of a dumpster, and we'd have a chat. He gave me the book “Peter the Great” by Robert Massie, and he loved to talk to me about it all–– history, religion, politics.

He was a good listener, too.

Once, he went into full-blown fatherly mode, and gave a serious talk about boys, how they try to pressure girls into having sex. He wanted me to know what to watch out for, to warn me.

“They’re gonna cry, and tell you they love you, but if you don’t want to fuck, don’t fuck,” he said, pointing his cigar for emphasis. At age 17, I was uncomfortable with too much of this kind of talk from my parents.

"Are you listening?" he said.

"I'm listening," I said, wishing I was somewhere else.

He launched into his theory that women should be the ones to initiate sex, not men. He warned me to avoid men who were only nice to women they were sexually attracted to. "Watch out how they treat women who aren't considered beautiful. If they treat some women like shit...those guys don't like women," he said.

Riley claimed to be a feminist. Other times he said he believed women were superior to men, and should probably be in charge of things. Knowing what I know now, it’s hard to comprehend the stuff he said vs. the way he behaved at times. It doesn’t make sense, these massive contradictions. In some ways he tried to do things right, and was a decent parent, other times it was as if he didn't know right from wrong.

“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, kid. I don’t worry about you,” he said.

A fan of Lily Tomlin, he encouraged me to be like her, write my own stuff and put on my own shows.

“Just move to New York! There’s no need for college,” he’d say.

Riley seemed to think I was destined to become some kind of comic genius. He even wrote a comedy monologue for me, which I performed in a variety show he put on in Porterville. Before the show and all during rehearsals, I was a ball of anxiety.

He kept telling me, "it's natural to have stage fright. All the greats did."

I decided the material wasn’t funny. It was old fashioned. I panicked. It was a huge auditorium–– I’d be humiliated! People I knew were going to watch, what would they think?

By the time I got up to the mic the night of the show, something happened. I remembered everything my father told me, where to pause for laughs, where to emphasize a word, how to stand without shifting my feet. Something took over, but I did the whole thing in a trance, like the fear morphed into something powerful. To my astonishment, people loved it. Riley was a good director, a good coach, he instilled confidence in people.

I wish he’d stuck to the things he did well––the things that didn’t hurt people.

I have to say, now that I’m over five decades in, the most disorienting thing about having parents who struggle with untreated mental health issues is the inconsistent behavior. If you tried to make Riley a character in a book, or series, or even a film, you’d have to leave so much out, because the reader or viewer would be baffled, wondering, wow, that came out of left field! Why did he suddenly do that?

I mean, I’m baffled, and I probably was his longest lasting relationship (with only one break, which we’ll get into soonish). Which is why the documentary "A Film About a Father Who" struck a cord. The filmmaker didn't tell the story in a straight line, it was more like a Cubist painting–– images, sounds, lips moving in silence, children playing, women crying.

© copyright 2019-2022 Stacya Silverman. All rights reserved.


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