An imperfect man

My Dad as a teenager.  Even then, a sharp-dressed man.

My Dad as a teenager. Even then, a sharp-dressed man.

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.

24 thoughts on “An imperfect man

  1. You conjure up those moments shared so truly, what a gift. I admire your honesty and openness, and celebrate that you could see the love he felt, no matter how deeply buried beneath fearful remarks. Indeed, some fathers just break all the molds – and any card for them must be unique:-) Blessings, H xxx


  2. What a sincere and beautifully written piece about your father. In a way, he reminds of my dad who hardly played with me while I was a boy, or cared to tell me bedtime stories (well, this is something virtually all African parents don’t do). My dad won’t spend his money for the luxury, but for the value or importance of a commodity. He sleeps for long hours on Sundays. Waking him up during such time is like a taboo.

    Thanks for sharing, Mary.


  3. Mary, What a wonderful and loving tribute to your father. I sometimes think it’s rare that children — even adult children — attempt to understand the motivations and mysteries that have moved their parents over the years. It’s difficult and exhausting to see past all the childhood resentments and disappointments we’ve attributed to our progenitors — and more to the point of this piece, to look honestly, and with genuine empathy, at what we find when we do. Seems to me that’s exactly what you’ve accomplished in this post. Oh Mary, such lovely, lovely writing!


  4. Mary,
    You’ve taken your eloquent writing skills and used them so well in this Father’s Day post. I admire that. Having grown up with a very challenging father, myself, I can so relate to your challenge. On birthdays and Father’s Day, my biggest frustration was finding an honest card. I usually settled for some innocuous and generic card with either a “fishing” theme or a “handyman” theme just to show him I “knew” about his interests.

    I do think that as we get older, we see the complicated parts and some of the ways they loved us, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. At least, I hope we do. I hold onto some of those memories of my own father and have finally, truly forgiven him as he had a lot of his own demons.



  5. Mary, dear, please know how very much someone who knew you all way-back-when admires and appreciates what you have written Bless you for your understanding loving heart, and thank God for giving you the ability to express these complicated feelings so beautifully…


  6. This is indeed a very fine post – honest and loving at the same time. I’m working on a book right now called Father and Demons. I think you (and Jack, too, and Ray) would like to read it when I finally get it published.


  7. Oh boy, I can certainly relate to this. My father is eccentric to the point of making me look pretty normal. And that’s saying something.

    He wasn’t always easy to live with growing up, but he has a good heart, and over the years I’ve come to understand him pretty well. We have a good relationship now, but I don’t even try to pick out cards for him. I sent him a T-shirt with a train on it for Father’s Day, and he was thrilled. He does love trains. 🙂


  8. What a gorgeous post, Mary. It’s wonderful to see your adult writer’s eye turned on your father–lending beautiful depth to how you experienced him from childhood. He is an interesting character and you are the only writer who could show him to us this way. Nicely done!


  9. You’ve written a wonderful tribute to your father, and one I can relate to in many ways. Mine was also a “complicated man,” and an alcoholic. He could be warm, loving and supportive…or mean, sarcastic, and bullying. You never knew which you’d get. I loved him and I hated him, sometimes at the same time. You’re right – Hallmark doesn’t make Father’s Day cards for that. But with maturity (mine) comes understanding and forgiveness. And since his passing, I’ve learned things about his own background and childhood that have given me a lot of insight to his character and empathy for the person he was. I choose to dwell on the good memories and let the others fade into the background. He’s been gone nearly 20 years now, and I miss him.


  10. This was beautiful, Mary.

    Please never ask how many boxes and tins of tea I have stashed away–countless! Perhaps your dad and I gave up stashing and hoarding one type of beverage in exchange for another?


  11. Wow, Mary, you’re so insightful and I’m impressed by the way you’re able to write so objectively when surely this is a deeply personal topic. I feel I not only understand you better as a result of the words you wrote, but the way that you were able to write them. (I’m also impressed by the words “30 years sober.” My mom just made it a little over a year and I can’t express how much it would mean to me for things to stay that way for years to come. And yet, I realize that my mother too will always be complicated.)


  12. Mary, well written and from the heart. I have similar memories of my dad and in some ways they haunt me. Our dads were complicated men. They were cut from a different cloth then the men of our generation, or the generation we are raising. Their stoicism was ingrained and for some reason alcohol and tobacco was the norm. Both of my parents were alcoholics as were their parents. Fortunately, that did not jump to me, though I suppose it easily could have. I still have my ‘dad’ moments, my wife calls me Robert and I calm down. The “Greatest Generation” is haunted by their own demons which we’ll never know. Thank you.


  13. Love this picture of Dad – as a teenager, and the picture you paint with your words. No matter his eccentricities, I also know he loves us kids and shows us in non-traditional ways. Thank you for sharing about his tears – I was too young to remember that day. It was only recently that he shared with me it was the saddest day of his life – when Susie died. The happiest he said was his wedding day. And all the days since those days – we can only guess….I feel fortunate that Dad is still around so I can ask him about some of those days.


  14. I read this twice before commenting, but still I struggle for the words to put here. It seems we share something other than the gift of pen. My father is an equally complicated man, and beyond that I can’t go right now because this IS a comment and not a post.


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