Osprey, Mono Lake © Robert Sommers 2023

Monday, May 16, 2016


My brothers and sisters  (and I) had a pretty tough ride when I was a kid. My brilliant but erratic late mom liked to drink and take pills. She also favored rather toxic relationships with men that had us all clinging to the flotsam after the inevitable wreck. Mutually assured destruction. Cue marriage number two.

Don was certainly brilliant as well, a rocket scientist and engineer. Off the charts i.q., well over 200. Early Allied Radio builder, grew up in depression Berkeley, picked apricots in the summer in the Central Valley. Bombardier navigator in World War II. I was maybe five or six when he stepped into our lives. It might have been okay for a year or two and then things started to unravel. Their relationship reached some fission like equivalent and destroyed everything in the perimeter like a neutron bomb. Drinking increased and regular beatings ensued. Some good times too of course.

I am not going into a blow by blow. Suffice it to say that at some point the wheels came off the track.

Three of the four Sommers kids never had a family of their own, not having any idea at all of what a normal family or childhood looked like after what we went through. Buzz had kids. He was young and sidestepped a lot of it. Not like I was an angel in any case.

Johnny was born in 67 and he was also too young or lucky to be a recipient. We others weren't so fortunate. But that was then, this is now, need to focus on the good parts. He taught me photography, we did play a lot of chess. He was certainly a genius. Loved our great danes, our english sheepdog, Emily. Like my real father, a brilliant mathematician.

It is tough for a kid when you love somebody in authority but see that they are also unfortunately very sick. Things got very bad for our family. I interceded once in a physical altercation he was having with my mother and that was the end of it. Would have been better for he and Adelle to never get involved except they did have a wonderful son, my brother. I can't say I blame him so much. She drove us crazy too.

He came to Leslie and my wedding and I hadn't seen him since. We got along fine that day and it was great to see him. He got into transactional analysis and reevaluation counseling and remade himself in some way. Got in touch with the softer side. I was around before that.

Got word about a week ago that he had died. Living in Santa Paula, he may have been drinking and hit his head. Nobody found him for about five days. Laying right there on that carpet stain.

I was driving to the show through my favorite Camulos Valley on the 126 and was talking to Buzz on the phone. He said that brother Johnny might be very close. I called and he was at the Santa Paula Police Department getting the water shut off not ten minutes away.

I met him at Don's house. Don had been having a spinal problem and was in a lot of pain before he died. Guy must have been near or past 90. House was a wreck, very disheveled. Old and in severe pain. And still lots of booze.

My brother said that he had become a much nicer person as he got older and I am glad and believe him. He told me that he also had close friends and a girlfriend. I am glad he wasn't alone.

Johnny was good enough to give me his  father's Yashica camera, very similar to the one he taught me how to use when I was six or seven. The house was full of Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Judy Dater posters. Lots of photography books. He must have influenced me a lot, come to think of it. Old scientific instruments. He had copious diaries, back to 1967.

He always liked dates and nuts. Living in Las Cruces and El Paso in the mid sixties, we would visit nut farms as a kid. Mesquite beans. Cotton fields. Beer and Oso Negro. Old Crow. He now had a nice selection of rainsticks. In his spare time we would sometimes go to rural Chihuahua and install air conditions in the poor colonias so that the villagers could escape the intense summer heat. I once watched him save a man from a burning car early one morning in Alamogordo.

I dug up a couple old purple iris out of the yard. Nice to be there with my brother John and his fabulous wife Connie. A sense of completion for all of us. I loved him in a strange way. Maybe Stockholm syndrome, who knows? I bore his name for many years. I learned a lot from him. Hope he found peace along the way.

Our wounds define us, as much as anything. All of us.

Great to see John. To be with him on this part of the journey. Fitting.

As I was leaving John showed me his father's tarot deck. Pull a card, I tell him. He pulls the five of cups. My memory of the cards isn't so good at this point but not so hard to figure out the card of loss and heartbreak. But a few cups are left standing, all is not lost. I have a certain ambivalence. He was sadistic at times, but nobody gets a dress rehearsal in this life. We all wing it.

Thanks Don, for the good times. Gallup Ceremonial, cross country trips, your incredible late son David. John Matthew. I am sure you did your best. Hasta la vista.


Stutzy said...

Sufjan Stevens "Carrie and Lowell"
It kind of fits with your family past


Blue Heron said...

My own memories are pretty vivid. They aren't lacking for company.

Jon Harwood said...

As one who survived crazy early years about all I can say is that if you don't wind up in the hospital or the prison, the god awful early years can provide one with a depth of character and a wicked sense of humor.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

A wonderful piece of writing. I'm in awe.

Jack said...

I love your photos, your words, and most of all you