My father is a nutball. He cannot pass a tea shop without buying bags of loose tea. Even though he has enough already squirreled away at home to last him into the NEXT millennium. He buys clothes for the same reason the Kardashians do — because he loves a snappy outfit. Unlike the Kardashians, the other part of the equation for him, means getting that new shirt or pants or pair of shoes at the lowest price possible. There is no tickled pink like my father’s when he’s wearing something that he likes and knows it cost him less than the price of a movie ticket.
I understood from an early age that my father was different from other fathers. It was much later that I chose the word eccentric to describe him because it seemed a more benign way of summing up a man I have struggled to understand.
He didn’t play ball or push us on swings or take walks with us. He didn’t read us bedtime stories or tell us silly jokes. When he wasn’t working, he was catching up on his sleep. He could be at various times controlling, intolerant, and self-involved. He often grew belligerent when he drank too much, which he often did. His alcoholism ran like a ravenous wolf through our lives until the evening when members of the local volunteer fire department wrestled him into a straitjacket and drove him to the St. Lawrence State Hospital. I was nineteen at the time.
There are no Father’s Day cards for that.
He was a complicated man. He pinched pennies and bought food and shoes and blue jeans in bulk to feed and clothe seven children who grew faster than his wages. He locked up the extras and doled them out as needed. He became proficient at hording. (So much so that he cannot break the habit decades later even though he lives alone.)
For a while he had friends. Guys he grew up with and worked with and stopped at the hotel with to have drinks. But, he was also kind of a loner who stayed up late reading on nights when he wasn’t working. He believed in education. And penny-pinching as he was, he surprised us once by bringing home a complete set of music appreciation records that taught us about Brahms and Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan, folk music, gospel, and jazz.
He insisted on listening to classical music on Sunday, and going to church, and sitting down to big Sunday dinners. He was so fond of Christmas that he let us eat candy all that day. When his father died he cried openly. When my baby sister Susie died at two days old he cried openly.
Once, in a moment of light heartedness, I plunked myself on my father’s lap and I hugged him. He looked at me and said, What do you want? As though I had an ulterior motive. I jumped up, stung. But even as my teenage self bristled at his remark, I knew — I’d seen the look in his eyes and understood it — the hug had pleased him. He just didn’t know how to accept it.
And therein lay the crux of my struggle: Angry as I could be at my father for his meanness, I somehow sensed that he loved his children, even when he couldn’t articulate that love. I sensed that the person he was most disappointed with was himself.
For a few years I wore braces. On those trips home from the orthodontist’s (more than an hour’s ride away), in the lull of the drive and the comfort of a few drinks in him, he shared his thoughts with me on life and the world around us. For a brief time he talked to me, not as a kid, but someone he could trust. He told me what his dreams had been, what he believed in, what he wished he still could be.
My father is a sober man now. He has been for more than 30 years. But conquering his alcoholism didn’t vanquish every demon that possessed him. A few remain. He still wants things the way he wants them, and he can still be maddeningly self-absorbed. But last year, when my son graduated college, my father was so excited that he drove from his home in rural northern New York to Amherst, Massachusetts to attend the graduation, without a cell phone or a GPS, both of which he refuses to own. He left somewhere around 4:00am, to give himself time in case he got lost (he did), and made it to the college with just minutes to spare.
He is still a complicated man.
There are so many kinds of fathers, and Father’s Day cards are not made for all of them. Sometimes we just have to make one of our own.
Because it’s Monday, I’m linking up at Mod Mom Beyond Indiedom where you can find a tantalizing array of other blogs. Check it out.