Sometimes I worry a little for Sigmund, Carl and Alfred. I think they obsess a little on the heavy stuff and also they tread on the edge of material that belongs under the Department of Redundancy Department but anyway, as long as my vacation weekend is over I stopped by to read their blog. They cite Goldie, whose writing I always enjoy and raise the issue of redemption and parenting.
My father grew up on a dairy farm in rural Ohio, his parents those rigid and stern German Protestant kind. He was one of four. By the time I became acquainted with him he was 22, had served in the Pacific as a teenager, married the spoiled only daughter of Connecticut Yankees and I was his second born. He was struggling to make ends meet in one of those ticky tacky post war burbs working for Ford Motor in the Tractor Division selling farm equipment across the Midwest. Without health insurance. My brother was a sturdy and cheerful enough toddler but I left a lot to be desired in the baby department: colic, pyloric stenosis complete with projectile vomiting and one eye that wandered around in circles on broken auto pilot. Puny to boot, a real runt. And very very klutzy.
Back then they treated "lazy eye" (amblyopia and strabismus) with first patching and then surgery. And then more patching. And more surgery. The more time and energy and money that got invested in that eye the more pissed off my father got. I know this because he became frankly abusive.
We had a new TV, the cabinet about five feet across and the screen about 8 square inches. I could be a member of The Mickey Mouse Club as long as I wore a patch on my good eye but it was just too hard to stay awake and watch something I couldn’t see. When my father caught me sleeping in front of the television he would hit me- hard– on the head with his knuckled fist. When I would step on, sit on, lose and break expensive eyeglasses he would hit me with the belt. And so forth to the nth degree until he and my mother divorced when I was nine. Like many divorced fathers of that time he moved far away and formed a new family and for much of the next decade I saw him briefly about once a year. Just enough to fuel fantasies of an idealized father who was far too important and worldly to visit but would come back into my life soon, with open arms, overwhelming love and lots of gifts.
During young adulthood I saw him not at all. I was working fulltime and going to college fulltime and basically saw only my cat, Willie. There was not much at all in the way of family in my life and mostly that came to feel so familiar that I didn’t consciously care or think about it. Instead I struggled through terrible bouts of depression and engaged in huge anxiety-fraught scenarios around abandonment issues with boyfriends.
When I was thirty I had my son. He came after a very long, very hard labor and C-section. My husband made excited calls to his family, he called my mother and she was pleased to have a first grandson and he made a perfunctory call to my father in Oklahoma. The next morning when I woke up in the hospital room my father was standing in a hospital gown, at the end of the bed, holding Daniel and he said, "Happy Mother’s Day." (It was.) Every year after that during May my father came to spend a week, to celebrate Daniel’s birthday and Mother’s Day with me. My children adored him and the earliest videotapes we have- when videocameras were still quite new and very heavy- are of these visits. In one tape my father has brought his prized trombone that he played in the Army band and he is teaching shy Daniel (age 6) and squealing Abby ( age 2) how to pucker up and go pha-pha-pha to make the right sound.
About redemption: Abby was a wild thing from the start. It took work to find amusements and distractions for that girl. When she was around a year I would take her out to lunch sometimes at a local family restaurant and let her have ice cubes on the tray of the highchair as we waited for her macaroni and cheese. She came to expect this and I could buy about 10 minutes as she would puddle, pinch, splash and shoot ice around contentedly, making a fine mess. When she was 17 months and my father came for his annual visit the three of us went out to lunch. Abby wanted her ice. As I put my fingers into my glass to fish her out the cubes I flashed onto a childhood birthday celebration at a restaurant (a time when we very rarely dined out). My brother and I must have been involved in some major-minor transgression because we got sent to the car to sit and anticipate the subsequent beating while my parents ate. At that present moment, with my father and Abby in the restaurant, I felt myself getting physically panicked. I was immobilized with anxiety over how my father would perceive Abby’s behavior with the ice cubes. Barely able to take a breath I put a handful of ice on Abby’s tray. She took splendid aim and slip-pinched ice directly at my father. After a long moment of silence he said, "You certainly are having a fine time there, Tadpole. When your mommy was your age I wasn’t able to let her have that much fun."
That statement became, in one moment, the sum total of my relationship with my father. It was the ONLY time either of us ever addressed any issues or feelings or memories around my time as a child and his as a young and frustrated father. He said, "I WASN’T ABLE." This from a self-made man who believed we are all able to do whatever we chose with the right determination and work ethic. In that statement I came to understand my father’s not uncommon history: before he was my son’s age now (24) he had served in wartime, taking apart underwater mines. He lost his shot at a college education or a career as a professional jazz musician. He supported a family and tried his very best to fix his daughter’s wayward eye that could never be fixed. He tried to raise children in the way he knew with the added stress of a difficult marriage, a sick child, little money and none of the comforts of farm life. In that statement I came to appreciate his transformation. In becoming the loving and gentle grandfather to my children he became the father I always needed.
I think that for most of us each generation hopes to do somewhat better than the one before when it comes to parenting. Sometimes we’re cocksure we can do it so much better, that we will never make the same mess of things. Sometimes we come, through our own painful experiences as children, to know exactly what we DON’T want to do as parents and then we find a gaping hole with nothing but book knowledge to plug it with. Often we revert: when my son was 12 and called me a bitch my first thought was "Where’s the Fels Naptha?" and when I didn’t act on that I was left, at least momentarily, with nothing. There have been periods of parenting when each night I go to bed chastising myself and each morning I wake, praying for a better day as a parent. Sometimes the best thing we can have is faith and hope.
Between my father and me: forgiveness, understanding, most certainly redemption. I miss him terribly.