My father was a deeply flawed man. He grew up in what we would now call an abusive home. He self-medicated severe depression with alcohol (all four brothers drank, and two of them commited suicide). He boozed throughout his life and had affairs while in the service, and he had an explosive temper that we all indulged. He was stubborn and could occasionally be, verbally, both thoughtlessly and purposefully cruel. He was also hard-working, funny, impulsively generous, soft-hearted, sentimental, and smart.
My parents’ marriage is difficult for me to wrap my mind around – when you’re a child, of course, that’s just the way things are. Dad was the star, funny and furious by turns, but it was Mom who quietly kept the whole thing ticking along, food on the table and clothes on our backs, stretching a dollar. It’s tempting to sketch her as a saint, and she was sometimes close, believe me, but there was co-dependency there too; I guess we come to embrace our roles. (My eldest sister, Linda, once described Mom and Dad’s marriage as Patience on a Monument hitched to Hell on Wheels.) At any rate, together they raised five children who exhibit the best of their parents’ virtues and minimize their faults (though I, for one, could use more of Mom’s money-sense. And her dab hand with brown gravy).
I am the youngest of five children, with 18 years between me and the eldest. I was born when my parents were 40, which meant I came along after my father had settled down a bit – after the military nomad life, near the end of the worst boozing. I’m the one who got to have a real home town and father home most evenings and every weekend. I got to be a true daddy’s girl, and I LOVED it. When I grew up and had my own conflicts with Dad and got married and more widely educated and began to understand my mother’s experience, my relationship with my father became vastly more complicated, of course. And then, in the horrible drama of my mother’s final illness and the following last year of my father’s life, the complex became simple again. I realized I couldn’t really quantify or judge my parents’ marriage – they danced that dance together. And I finally admitted that my father didn’t just drink, but was an alcoholic and that aspects of our family life, Dad’s temper explosions and the way we had to tiptoe around him at times, and the fault we were made to carry (it wasn’t Dad’s job not to get mad, it was our job not to make him mad) were horrible. But I also realized that, as a child and as an adult, I was never, ever unsure of my father’s love or pride, and I always knew he would do whatever he was capable of to take care of us. On the cosmic balance sheet, I think my sibs and I all came out ahead. If nothing else, we each carry an armor of humor that has served us well.
Back to being a daddy’s girl: Father’s Day always brings to mind the best of my times with Dad, and of those, here are three of my favorites:
The summer I turned seven, we moved from the Puget Sound area to Yerington, Nevada, where Dad had a job as an auto mechanic. Before the initial trip down to find a house, my parents took me to the store and I was allowed to pick out a stuffed animal for the trip (as if that would keep me quiet). I chose a pink and white kitty, flat-ish like an old fashioned, floppy teddy bear with a cat’s head. Several years later, the kitty’s black plastic nose fell off, and my father cut a nose out of black electrician’s tape as a replacement. Every few years that tape nose had to be replaced and each time, well into my twenties and until the toy’s final demise, my father ceremoniously cut-and-stuck the nose onto my kitty.
When I was eight or so, the parents of one of my friends got divorced. Until then, I had no idea one’s parents could split up and their children be juggled between them, or that the parents could CHOOSE among their children. I knew my parents had tensions and sometimes fought, and I became terrified they would divorce. Even worse, in my eight-year-old mind, was the idea that Dad would leave ME (this wasn’t about my parents at all, of course, and though I had the vague idea even then that it was Mom who kept us healthy and alive day to day, she wasn’t any fun). One evening when my dad came home from work and was in my folks’ bedroom, taking off his shoes and emptying his pockets, I sat down next to him on the bed and said, “Daddy, if you and Mama got divorced, who would you take?”
Dad put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Honey, Mommy and I aren’t getting divorced.”
“I know,” I said, “But if you were, who would you take?”
Dad untied his shoes and put them neatly under the dresser. “Well, I’d take Henry, and I’d take Carol, and I’d take you . . .” [ah, I was safe!] . . . “and I’d take Dino (our dog), and I’d take Mommy . . .”
“You can’t take Mommy, you’re getting divorced!” I said. I was clear on this rule of marital dissolution.
“Honey, we’re not getting divorced.”
At this point, Dad likely gave me a piece of candy or a quarter and then went into the kitchen to talk to Mom and make sure he wasn’t in trouble. I was happy and safe in the assurance that my parents were not getting divorced, but, if they did, I would still be daddy’s girl.
When I was a pre-teen, my girlfriends and I were totally over Barbie* and completely into model horses, the pricey sculpture type, made by Beyer. Like Barbie, however, the horses were not just desirable items in and of themselves, but came with accessories that ran the gamut from saddles and bridles to corrals to full barn buildings. I received a horse here and there, for birthday or Christmas, but our family budget was tight and I was running far behind some of my friends in the Beyer acquisitions race. That’s when my father disappeared into the garage for a couple of evenings and a weekend and emerged with several yards of REAL WOOD corral fencing, in foot-long sections of 1×1 posts and ½ x1 planks carefully nailed together with brads and set on wooden feet. There was even a gate in a proper X design, with tiny hinges. I was the envy of the plastic-horse set, at least in my own mind.
*Barbie did have a role to play in my horse games – she was the evil rancher the horses overthrew before creating their own equine utopia.
I still have two other wooden creations my father made just for me – a low pine bookcase he made for my first dorm room, to accommodate oversized textbooks (a world history book fell on his head during a visit). I’ve used it ever after as a TV stand. He also made me a desk/table during my senior year of high school, sized exactly to me when sitting on an old chrome-and-yellow-vinyl kitchen chair.
Anne Lamott writes that when a Daddy’s Girl loses her father, she loses the only man in the world who ever truly thought she was perfect.
Don’t I know it.