Just to torture myself I watched the new HBO series, “Luck.”
At the same time that I was admiring how the premium channel brought their usual high standards for superior production values, amazing acting and casting, as well as writing to the world of horse racing, I was also physically ill, as gambling was my father’s downfall.
“Daddy lost his money because of me,” was my response to my mother’s question, “Why are you crying?”
She and I had just returned from a weekend at the Jersey Shore where my aunt had a summer home. Some family and friends were going to the track and I announced that I wanted to go. To this day, it is the worst of my life because I saw my father for who he was, instead of the man I had created in my mind.
My parents had separated when I was two. I did not see my father again until I was 12. Although she showed me pictures of his handsome, cherubic face surrounded by dark wavy hair (just like mine), my mother never spoke of him for better or worse. This void was canvas upon which I would paint the dad I wanted him to be: successful, responsible, loving, an all-around good person.
When I met him, right before going into high school, I just transferred all I believed to be true onto him and reveled in the fact that I could finally go to a father/daughter dance, as well as use “parents” in casual conversation. Even though they were technically back together, they did not live together. We still lived with my grandmother who took us in when he left. My mother felt guilty about abandoning her, now old and getting ill, so we stayed put and he lived about 20 minutes away.
Because he wasn’t there for the day-to-day, it was still easy to lionize him, because the person who isn’t around can do no wrong.
That was all wiped away during the course of nine races at Monmouth Park. I was 17 years old and had brought $20 of my vacation spending money. Rather than bet two dollars here and there, I decided to save the whole bill and bet it a 9 to 1 long shot called “Handsome Ghost” in the ninth race, simply because I liked the name.
I figured I just sit and enjoy watching the races before that one and have a good time with my dad and our group. It took me just seconds into the first race to realize I was with people who unlike myself were there to bet as though it were their job. They, including my father, stood waving a fan of tickets in one hand and wads of cash in the other.
Race after race there were a few winners and many losers. By the end of the fourth race, my dad was tapped out. I was glad. I thought he’d just sit with me and watch the rest of the races until the ninth when it would be my turn to bet.
That bubble burst when I heard him turn to a friend and say, “Gimme $600.” My mouth fell open at the request and then my eyes went wide as the request was granted. So much for responsible. All my life I had watched my mother work hard for her money. Seeing him throw his away so easily and get himself in debt to boot was the most depressed I’d ever felt, until the end of the eighth race when he sat slumped over muttering something about how he’d thought he’d had a sure thing. He was loser in more ways than one. And I couldn’t stand another minute of being there.
I was a captive audience though, dependent on others for a ride back to the beach house. So as the ninth race was about to start I took my 20 to the window. I’d never placed a bet before, so my dad came with me. “Put it all on Handsome Ghost,” I said.
“That horse hasn’t got a prayer,” he said, perusing a piece of paper with stats. “This one, here. Put it on this one.” I do not remember the horse he bet my money on. All I do remember was Handsome Ghost crossing the finish line. I did not care about the $180 payday I would have left with. All I could think about was the $600 my father was in the hole for on top what he had lost of his own bankroll. And of course, the desperate look of someone for whom if he didn’t have bad luck wouldn’t have any luck at all.
When we got back, the track crowd gave a play-by-play of each race, who made what witty remark, who almost had it, and so on. I couldn’t listen. I went in my cousin’s room and went to sleep.
We left the next day and by the time I got in my own bed I had worked myself up into such a guilt-ridden frenzy my mother came running in to see what I was so hysterical about.
“It had nothing to do with you,” she said. “He would have spent money anyway with his picks.” I was sure she had no idea what she was talking about and made a fool of myself saying things like, “No, you don’t understand. You weren’t there. You didn’t see.”
To prove me wrong, she finally decided to share the stories she had kept from me all my life: the hocked wedding ring and other jewelry to place bets or pay bookies; the money she’d saved for vacations or new things for the house -- “borrowed” never to be replaced, because even if he won, the winnings were parlayed into another wager. My mother could have gone on longer, but there was only so much I could take. I asked her to stop. “I get the idea.”
Although my love for him didn’t change, the way I thought about him did. I no longer saw my fatherless decade as one of deprivation. I had been spared. I couldn’t even imagine the state of my family’s finances being contingent upon whether Dragon Tail come in first in the fifth at Aqueduct or being told I’d have to study by candlelight because, “Daddy lost the Con Ed money on a football game.”
Two years later he died of a heart attack, as food and drink were also his indulgences. My mother and I carried on as we had for the 10 years he was gone. In fact, in some ways, it felt as though we’d gone back to normal.
During the subsequent years, when I thought of him, there were sad periods, angry ones, some times when I just didn’t care. And then it was time to put the past where it belonged.
I have my own husband now, who abhors gambling, and two teens. Our living room bookshelves are dotted with old family photos; my favorite is a picture of my parents all dressed up at a wedding we went to when I was in high school. They are smiling, and he has his arm around my mother. In that moment, he looks successful, responsible, loving, an all-around good person. She’s smoking a Benson & Hedges, he a non-filtered Camel. Somewhere on the table is their drink: scotch on the rocks.
This is how I choose to remember their relationship, and how I once again imagine him. My handsome ghost who can do no wrong.