Yesterday was Hallmark Father’s Day. Nisi Shawl’s post about her father got me thinking. Crying actually. I cry easily at sad things. Losing mom last year exacerbated this tendency in me that seemed to be getting more pronounced as I got older.
I felt the need to write about my relationship with my father, but after writing the following, it’s inadequate. My memory is spotty and jumbled by years of emotional tumult. So take it as a confused mental image more than anything else.
I grew up without a father.
My dad died in December 1972 after what I understand to be an ugly battle with cancer. I was 2. My brother Dan entered the world the following month, January 1973.
I’ll never know what kind of father he would have turned out to be. Probably pretty good. But it’s a big what if.
In 1975, mom married my step-father Andy. He wasn’t and isn’t the father I wish I had. I call him dad, and father, and it’s somewhat more than convenience for me to do so. Where exactly he fits and what a good definition for my feelings for him are pretty hard to describe. Properly, it isn’t dad. But it isn’t not dad either. (Oh, how Zen of me!)
I never felt like dad treated me like one of his kids. I felt like he treated Elaine, Matt, and Joe as his favorites because they were his kids. They got to do things I didn’t. I got punished more severely and for stuff at a lesser threshold of badness. Worse, he was mildly physically abusive to me.
I remember him coming into my room once, very angry. He had his belt off, and he meant to give me a thrashing. The proper way for me to take a spanking was to submit meekly. I didn’t that time. I scrambled off the bed as he hit me with the belt to try to slide underneath the bed, or over my brother’s bed. I didn’t get away. He grabbed me and held me and hit me with the belt quite a few times. Maybe a dozen. I don’t remember exactly, as it was a long time ago. I think I was 12 or 13. He was very angry and taking it out on me.
One of his favorite punishments was to make me kneel bare-kneed on gravel or our asphalt driveway. It doesn’t start off as too painful, but after just a couple minutes it hurts quite a bit. After 30 minutes, it’s excruciating.
I didn’t get punished for no reason. He didn’t get drunk and start hitting, for instance. It’s just that I got punished hard.
I never received a word of encouragement from him. He made fun of me for chewing my nails. He made fun of my hair. I didn’t have to work on the farm, so I had it easy.
When I was 14, I lived with my paternal grandfather for a year on weekdays. Weekends I stayed with mom and dad. Friends and family were told it was because taking Metro to Seattle Prep was easier from where Grandpa Weiss lived in Broadview. I think I even pitched it that way to mom. But that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was that as I hit adolescence I became both more angry at dad and more scared of him. It didn’t work out after that year though. When I moved back, things were different with dad. We still didn’t get along. But he never hit me after I started high school either.
To be clear, there are some people who suffer horrible abuse at the hands of their fathers or whatever substitute passes for father in their house. What my dad did to me was minor in comparison to the psychological and physical scars that I’ve seen on some kids. Nevertheless, what I experienced, no child should experience.
What do I wish I had for a father? I totally would have liked Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady. Sure it’s not realistic, but that’s about all I knew besides what I had. I didn’t have very much contact with other dads. Holidays with uncles. Getting the occasional ride home from someone’s dad in Cub Scouts.
That’s not completely true. I had one other model for what a father could be: John Sloane. He’s pretty awesome as Jason’s dad. John does everything a dad is supposed to do. He even did a few dad things for me. For instance, when I needed someone to help me learn how to drive, Mr. Sloane Senior took me out to practice driving. My dad refused to get in a car with me in the driver’s seat.
Anyhow, I really don’t have first hand experience for what a father is like, day in day out. Among other things, when I become a father, that could really bite me in the ass.
Years ago, he married a woman with two kids when he hadn’t even had a good role model for a father himself. A few months after that his first child was born and two more were born before he’d been married four years. Married four years and five kids in the family. More or less he was in over his head. He did what he knew.
My dad couldn’t read up on how to be a good father. His reading skills are elementary. He only got as far as the 8th grade. He’s not a person to ask advice. He couldn’t see how what he did would hurt me. He thought he was curbing my bad tendencies and setting me on the correct path.
Tomorrow I will drive to Lynden to bring a check to dad. I’ll also be signing some paperwork that puts me and my brother in control of dad’s house. Mom worried that someone would try to take advantage of dad. So rather than leave everything to him, Joe and I are trustees. It’s for his benefit.
A quarter century after I moved out of the house for a year because of this man, I am in charge of seeing that he is okay. And I am fine with that.
Andy has good intentions. He’ll help you out if you need help. His next door neighbor has multiple sclerosis and can’t drive long distance without pain, so dad drove him an hour each way for a doctor’s visit. He was mom’s primary caregiver, even when mom was not nice to him and criticized every little thing he did. He loved mom. He’s a doting grandfather as well.
Once I was an adult (i.e., mid 20s), our relationship changed for the better. I wasn’t an angry kid, and he didn’t feel like he was responsible for me. We don’t have a lot to talk about, but we don’t have anything to argue about either.
How he raised me is a thing of the past. It’s not that I’ve forgiven. I’m no longer actively angry, just sad about this hole in my life. It’s hard to describe how I think of him. He’s both the person who hurt me gravely years ago, and the man who loved mom and treated me well as an adult. Kind of a cognitive dissonance, and it actually helps.
He’s not my father, and yet he is my father.