It wasn’t until I’d started to develop liver spots and hot flashes that I got to know my father. It wasn’t that he was absent in my childhood, he was just very, very quiet. My mother has a strong personality, as do some of my siblings, so they took over the show in my emotional development. A couple of siblings have expressed exasperation at my father for being “absent” even though technically, he wasn’t. I can see that. For my part, though, I never saw him as distant except in the best possible way: someone who was not badgering me, even though he knew me. Most people who knew me felt compelled, it seems, almost without the need to draw a breath- to remind me day by day, hour by hour of my shortcomings. Dad left me alone, and I really, really appreciated it. In retrospect it probably was borderline neglect for a parent to just sort of not notice that his teenage daughter and her friends were home at mid-day on a school day, and that the basement reeked of bong hits, but really, how bad were we being? It wasn’t like it was mid-day heroin shooting – junior high is spectacularly boring, and a natural result is a few snatched bong hits during lunch hour, after which the kids get back to school on time, to sit through English class stoned. None of us failed. I know I was an average student, and I imagine my pot-head friends were too. At least I wasn’t aware of any of us plunging inexorably into the miasma of drugs, prostitution and crime. Perhaps I didn’t reach my potential, but bong-hits were not the problem. I gave up pot decades ago, and my potential is still out of reach. We weren’t bored for no reason: it was Junior High.
But still, perhaps Dad should have noticed, or if he did notice and chose to just shine it on (my interpretation at the time), perhaps he might have indicated that he’d noticed and chosen to ignore my bad behavior. That would have been cool. Which was probably why I’d attributed that interpretation to his negligence at the time: I wanted above all else to have something cool in my life, be it pot or a dad. Had I had that I might not have felt the need to continue with even more bad behavior, having gotten the positive attention I was supposedly trying to get. But then again, who knows? What I do know is that after all my bad behavior and theirs, thirty years later, when I felt it was possible to look towards my family again, my father was the first family member in the cross-hairs, poor man. I approached him first not to finger him for all my subsequent inabilities and failures; not because he was negligent by any means but only because he was the least likely to bite my head off. He was cool in his own, really cool-headed way. Lord knows he probably thought even horrible-er things about me and my pot-head friends than any of the rest of them did, but at least he kept those thoughts to himself. So when I grew older (but perhaps not “up”), it seemed like he might be someone I could step out of the darkness in front of. But just a little bit.
Just a little bit. And surprisingly enough, he met my little bit with a little bit of his own. One time when I was thoroughly grown up and on my own and perhaps even suffering the first random hot flashes, I found out for the first time that he and I both have hammer toes. It was precious. We exchanged foot massages in the hot pool at the spa in White Sulphur, which lead to this discovery, and lead me to ask, like a 12 year old of a newly discovered uncle the 20 questions of similarity: you have a hammer toe, just like me, and you’re allergic to walnuts, just like me, so do you read magazines from back to front, too (yes, he does), and do you like your oatmeal with butter and salt (yes) and do you take baths or showers (baths), and do you wake up early or stay up late (early)… So here was this kindred soul, but all I remember of him from my childhood was that he liked to have his head scratched by my sister and me when we were pretending to be on stage, singing Beatles songs, and he had dandruff. Lots of dandruff. And he got mad at us for bickering and for not undertaking any chores. But he went away during the day, and rarely bothered me, so he was okay. That’s all I thought he was to me then.
A lousy lot we were, my siblings and I. We never took out the garbage or did the dishes or helped paint the house without a parental hissey-fit, and even then we’d stand and look at the offending parent with one ironic brow raised and an exaggerated, glacially patient pantomime of compliance until no one was looking. Then, since we knew no cudgel of consequence would descend, we slouched around, largely unpunished. It was probably like herding cats for them; our parents. But they had their chances, didn’t they? They could have formed our pliant personalities into gracious, giving souls, but they didn’t. At least not mine. Granted, no one gave them lessons on how to raise dutiful and appreciative daughters and sons, but its no excuse. They should have raised us better. At least me: my brothers and sister have become model citizens, while I have not. My ingratitude and lack of respect to this day makes me sick.
Or at least it does until you mull it all over for a little bit. I may not have been instilled with the zeal to make me a successful all-American corporate or political aparatchick, but I know who’s my Daddy. Whatever he did, he made me love him. Well, to be exact, I love him, but I don’t necessarily always like him. He who can spend three whole hours refining the parameters by which a person can reliably determine – and repeat the results in a manner acceptable to a committee of competent and experienced observers – the difference between hay and straw despite his daughter angrily pulling off the highway and storming up to a couple of bales, grabbing handfuls of evidence and exhibiting sample A, vs. sample B. in a definitive act of boorishness, which was summarily dismissed because of a lack of definable parameters and … shit, dad. One’s hay, one’s straw. Get over it. But I love you.