Growing Up With Marilyn Monroe And My Father In A Used Car Shop

“Hey just got out of meeting in Missoula, do you want to get coffee around 10?”

It’s about 8:30 a.m. and, having given it serious thought, I skipped my British literature class that morning. I got dressed thinking about how I should dress for this man. He hasn’t been around for a few months physically, but I’d argue he hasn’t looked at me all my life. I want to capture who I am, but I don’t want to off-put him. Should I put on something I little edgy? Artsy? Preppy? I have no idea how to dress for this man, even if we have lived under the same roof for 18 years. I decide that a flannel over a faded “Star Wars” T-shirt will work just fine with a denim jacket.

Leaving my room, I make sure in a thorough double-check that my appearance looks normal. I see his new Honda Civic in the parking lot. It’s a wide, low riding vehicle designed to emphasize modernity in every way. Its driver was my father, a man refined enough to drive it. His short, stocky build is emphasized in his button-down that stresses his biceps and gives way to reveal his giant watch. It’s a talking piece at most social scenes, and it too demands attention of its own with its audible tick tick tick. To strangers, we would look completely unrelated. His short, stocky build is congruent with a tall bland shape. His fair complexion clashes with my pale one. Though he rarely wears his glasses, today he is. The sharp, precise metal frame looks too sharp to handle.

Through the well-cologned air, he gives a warm welcome and a pat on the pack from a walloping, callused hand. It’s these tiny moments that occur that remind who he is. As we drive through the downtown neighborhoods, we make small talk about the state of things at home: If I had enjoyed my Halloween, how my little brother is doing, and if there is anything I need. I answer in the volley of casual small talk as most people do, with head nodding and the occasional “Oh really?” and “Well, that’s good” which is all fine and dandy, especially to fill this short time before we get to the small coffee shop I usually read at.

The atmosphere of coffee is simple yet busy; a whirring roar is heard from various machines roasting coffee beans. We both order the strongest drip coffee available that day. Sipping it at our small, square table, we talk. It’s an earnest talk. At this time, I can’t remember everything that my father asked me about in specifics, but I knew we talked about family, work, and school. We laugh about the current feud between my mother and my brother, and we laughed about him buying me a 1999 Buick Century. As he continued talking about his work and his new cars he’s detailing at work, I proportionally talked about my new writing and books I was reading for classes. We spent about 40 minutes together. He then dropped me off and told me he loved me. I felt this uplifted spirit in me I was proud and at peace with myself. With time, I could look back and examine our time spent talking over coffee as a larger example of our lives and our work.

My family back in Kalispell owns Davey’s Used Cars. The building which houses the business is not something to miraculous to the outside eye. It appears, among the red bricked main street buildings, out of place. It’s a green barn with a white metal roof. Its newly painted sign revives the red and blue colors and protruding, elegant street lamps illuminate it. Constantly, the light in the office room at the right of the building stays on. In my great grandfather’s zealous attitude to grow his business, he forgot to install a simple switch to turn of the buzzing office lights. In more artistic terms, the shop is an antique island of a time forgotten somehow moored into place with a downtown scene of hip coffee shops in old brownstones and bookstores too full of old books that themselves look worn at the edges.

The building itself is old — it has been the second home of many a member of the Davey kin. My great grandfather needed a new excuse to be downtown, and he saw no better way to stay downtown than with a business. This building became a clubhouse many working class men and women who wouldn’t be there to do business, but drink and smoke and gawk at the old, yet still beautiful, pictures of Marilyn Monroe that were hung in various locations by my grandfather. It was an art exhibit with a theme on vintage beauty in an ugly yet inviting home. The large, creaky garage door, almost always open, exposed the insides of the shop. One shelving area to the right was stuffed to its brim with tires and cleaning agents. Beyond that was a long area that evolved itself into the shape of a bar. It was construed from rows of car seats and cracked bar stools, and they centered around an actual bar area.

Although not a real alcohol serving establishment, booze was served alongside a rabbit-eared TV and Super Nintendo. The opposite wall was where work was allegedly done. Cars crowded up the small area, waiting to be polished by my father. The farthest left corner was another kitchen area, but it was sectioned off by a Honda Trail 70 and rotting mattresses. Among all of the chaotic arrays of junk, more junk became collected. A small gas grill, a large commercial pig cooker, paints of every color and purpose, a box full of Hustler magazines nobody claimed, and hubcaps hanging from the ceiling holding the arms of action figures and a busted arrow. It was shit, but it was home.

It was there I found myself during most days of my childhood. I was playing video games on the dusty Super Nintendo or wandering around finding old junk that outdated myself and my father. I loved the sense of an explorer I have during these times, I would find old oil cans and posters for car parts with exciting pictures of women in leotards and sequins. Most pictures in the shop, however, were of Marilyn Monroe.

Born Norma Jeane Mortensen in June of 1926, she endured a childhood of horrific abuse and abandonment, and she was on several occasions sexually assaulted; she said that she had been raped when she was 11 years old. This perplexed those who were to discover and research it in later years. The beautiful black and white poster of a blonde woman smiling and waving out a window and the enlarged headshot that smiled back with a scribbled note and signature were both vibrant pieces in the Marilyn collection. It was only a few years ago I realized my grandfather wasn’t old to enough to have a signed poster of Marilyn Monroe, and what I saw as the most beautiful women of my childhood who reached out and seemed integral to my family history was really just a joke, a clever joke. But learning more about her, I found these times in her life that seemed so symbolic to myself, but, not just to myself, they were illustrating myself and my father.

Looking at my father, I thought saw a regular guy; he was one who you could share a drink with and laugh with. But I found myself realizing he was striving for something. Beyond being a great dad, there was his work. He can outwork anyone. This is a known fact. He meticulously cleaned and perfected small details to cars for customers, he roasted delicious meals for hours as a caterer, and he steadfastly woke up at 5:50 every morning to tend to keno machines across the valley. All of that work went directly to the American dream and his contentment with it. He was more than just an amazing father he was a pillar of strength finishing herculean tasks. His struggles to improve gave him success, but that success just went to me or the rest of my family. We are all still grateful. I’m still grateful.

I found that in Marilyn. She, despite her devotion to the art of acting, her wit, and her tale of life beyond immense tragedy, is the woman given extra piercings and tattoos sold on towels for 10 bucks outside of the Ruby Inn on the shadier side of Kalispell. I empathetically mourn still for the loss of the life of a woman who has been dead before my grandfather could even finish high school. In comparison, Marilyn, while filming “The Prince and The Showgirl” with Laurence Olivier, stumbled upon a diary entry of Arthur Miller’s in which he complained that he was ‘disappointed’ in her, and sometimes embarrassed by her in front of his friends.

I lived with that fear Marilyn had with Arthur Miller with my own father. I feared that I could disappoint him. I’d go weeks only hearing his footsteps in morning creak out the door and stumble in the dark late at night. My mother was shouting for two at soccer and basketball games. At plays, he’d say, “You did good!” and that’d be it from his appreciation of the arts. In middle school, I received a small note from him to continue writing and speaking up for myself. I lived with a drive to fight for his attention, so that in those short moments, I’d get another callused hand wallop on the back. My senior year, I had been going through a rough patch of school and feeling this walloping feeling that was my own dread, and the father walked into my room and said, “Hey buddy, I’m proud of you, I’m always proud of you, I’m so proud”

This time, my father’s voice wasn’t loud or pronounced to fill the room, but his voice filled my ear along with his warm sighs as he wrapped in his arms like I had been daring him that I’d run off a cliff. He’d been supporting me, I realized. His work, his long hours were cheering me on all these years. I was being unaware of the struggles. Marilyn Monroe was more than a pretty face, she was a worker. We all smiled at her, not knowing the struggles behind getting those laughs as she makes a giddy about not having a brain. Maybe this what he was working for. He was working to support us and see my brother or me succeed in our work, and I wish he’s come to a point where he knows it has made all the difference. Thanks, Dad.


Originally published at theodysseyonline.com on February 22, 2016.