Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Dad

Okay. It’s Fathers Day. My father has been dead for eight years now but he is still part of who I am. Here’s a (long) excerpt from Chapter 12 of my memoir, Tree Lines:

As a child, I both worshiped and feared my father. He was The Authority, relaying undisputed rules to both my brother and me: we should be seen and not heard, speak only when spoken to, say 'please' and 'thank you', 'yes sir' and 'yes ma'am,’ and write thank you notes for every gift received. We were expected to be obedient and respectful.

He was by all suburban criteria, a good father, interested and involved in the lives of my younger brother and me. But in retrospect he set impossibly high standards for us and, if we did not meet them, subjected us to some pretty scathing sarcasm and teasing.

I don’t think he understood that I believed everything he said. He was my father. What he said was true. If we had trouble with homework, or figuring out how to fix something or why something worked the way it did, we were made to feel unbelievably stupid. It was like a perpetual oral exam.

Yet Dad could be a tender Authority. When I had my tonsils out at age three, he listened to my anger about being put in a crib and he made it okay. He conspired with us to learn "Jest Before Christmas" by Eugene Fields as a holiday surprise for my mom. He brought me a bike named "Grapefruit" on my birthday. He put the worms on my hook. And, decades later, he spent hours refinishing the antique bassinet I had found for my first child.

He taught me a great deal--basic stuff, like riding a bike, fishing, and the multiplication tables. He spent time with me as I struggled with homework. It was rewarding when I got it and mortifying when I did not.

Someone else was always telling me what he felt about something . . . especially if it was difficult or negative. He never discussed big issues directly. At best, he referred to a problem with dry wit or sarcasm. He rarely revealed any emotion except anger 'in front of the children,' and found it hard to deal with the emotions of others. That was true to the end of his days.

His focuses were his job and my mom. He went on a lot of business trips. When home, he seemed perpetually busy with projects in the house or yard. I used to say he invented the Puritan work ethic.

When they came, his approvals were 'Miss America' moments, crowning a day--when I wrote an 'A' paper or won some kind of prize at school.

Family vacations--when he was released from his personal grindstone--were the times that he focused on us. To find the fishing he loved, he took us north into Ontario and, after a few attempts, found 'our' fishing camp on Georgian Bay. We'd go up there every other summer and I got pretty good at fishing.

As a special treat on my 18th birthday, he took me out to a previously identified 'fishing hole' on the edge of the larger bay and let me catch both my limit and his. That night, we consumed our bounty accompanied by his famous fried potatoes and onions, and champagne from chipped ceramic mugs. It was one of the best birthday parties I ever had.

After my marriage, contact was less frequent. Whenever I would see him--usually on major holidays--he was charming and witty and supportive. He paid nice attention to my sons as soon as they could talk, and was cordial but remote with my husband.

In August 1975, I asked my parents to visit immediately after I told my husband I had filed for divorce. I was terrified. I wanted them to provide support and (if needed) protection. I remember standing on my front porch with Dad, talking about what would happen next. I knew the house would have to be sold and that I would need to get a job. I told him that we couldn't live on the proceeds from the program I had developed, but that I was pretty sure I could get some kind of writing job. He just said that he was sure I would do fine. It felt like he meant it and therefore it must be true.

He divorced my mom and remarried. It was more than 15 years before he and his second wife visited me. My sons were approaching ages 26 and 23 and had not seen him since they were small. They were both on their own, struggling to survive but surviving. Even though I had a beautiful co-op apartment and was doing well in a highly responsible job involving international travel, I felt like a five-year-old who had broken something.

The mere fact of his presence triggered the sense that I was not good enough.

In spite of that, his visit seemed an honest overture. He started writing me letters and, once a year, I tried to visit his home -- a truck farm in the country outside Naples, Texas. Even retired, he was still dad. He raised chickens, vegetables and berries–even a few head of cattle for a while. He tried, with less success, to start a peach orchard. He worked hard, up at dawn. He still could not talk about personal things. I’d tell him about my work. He’d show me his tomatoes. He only asked about my mom once, when he was sure his wife couldn’t hear.

In so many ways, he was hard to get to. Their place was a two-hour drive from the Dallas airport. The railroad was closer. Once I took the train down, a shabby, crowded version of the grand trains of my childhood. Going home, I had stepped up to the passenger car when I heard his voice behind me: “We are proud of you.”

I was Miss America again.

1 comment:

  1. Mim, my father was much the same. My sister and I always had to say yes sir, thank-you sir, please pass the bread please sir, may I be excused please sir? He was from the south and lived with his brother on their own, orphans at a very young age. I remember later thinking that is all he remembered from his parents so that is what he knew. I adored him and sought his approval all the time. He was charming at times and I remember dancing with him while standing on his feet as a real little girl and then doing the jitterbug with him when I was a older. My father died when he was 48 and it's incredible to me that I am older than that now. He was so young.

    Thank-you for the delightful glass of tea that we shared on your patio the other day Mim. I enjoyed that moment! :)