Not everyone has happy memories of their fathers. For some of us, all the Father’s Day wishes scratch open old scars.
My father was a handsome, charming artist who also happened to be an angry, misogynistic alcoholic. My mother was attracted to the former and made excuses for the latter. By all accounts, he beat my mother and took out his frustrations in life on his infant children, either by active neglect or willful harm.
The two stories I know about him from my childhood are these. Once, when he was supposed to be watching me while my mom worked, he got angry because I was crying – as babies who are a few months old sometimes do – and he locked up the house and left me there alone for 8 or 10 hours. When my mom finally got home from work, the neighbors said I had been screaming all day. They didn’t call anyone because that’s not what you did in the neighborhood I grew up in. The word mom used to describe me was inconsolable.
The other story is from when I was a little over a year old. My mom, who was pregnant again and who was the only one working by that time and who felt trapped in the marriage, gave me a milkshake to drink for breakfast so she would have time to get herself ready. When the milkshake was done, and she was dressed, she tried to give me “real food” for breakfast. I didn’t want to eat it. My father lost his temper and smacked my face so many times my cheeks swelled up and I couldn’t eat for days.
So that was my father. When my sister was born – I was about 18 months old – my father lost it because she was a “worthless girl” and threatened to stab her and my mother to death. There was a scuffle involved a knife. When he passed out for the night, my father’s own mother, who lived in the neighborhood, gave my mom some cash and told her to get away for her sake and for ours. Mom left all her belongings behind and got on a Greyhound bus with two infants and left New York to return to Ohio, where her mother made her life miserable: back in those days, no real woman ever left her husband – it was too shameful.
My father sent me a card once with $5 in it – for my birthday or Christmas, I don’t remember – when I was about 6. My mother, whenever she was angry at me for acting out or doing poorly in school or whatever, would accuse me of being just like my father. Usually before spanking me.
When I was 12, I flew out to New York to meet him. My mom bought me an orange polyester leisure suit, and orange knit suit to wear for the trip. It matched the color of my acne. My father went on a drinking bender and never showed up, so I stayed with my grandmother instead. I had one short phone call with him when I was there – he was obviously calling from a bathroom, telling me how he had the flu – in retrospect, he was just drunk. My grandmother wrangled some male cousins into spending time with me. That was my last interaction with my father during my childhood.
I did have a stepfather. My mom was pressured to remarry – “because children need a man in their life” – but my stepfather turned out to have a severe form of multiple sclerosis, something he knew when he dated my mother although he kept it secret from her. He was looking for someone to nurse him, not someone he could parent.
He had four kids from his previous marriage and it should be pretty telling that they wanted nothing to do with him. Three of them were boys, and like him they were all athletes and very traditional guys. One went on to work in a factory and be a farmer, one became a firefighter, and one became a housepainter.
My stepfather had no clue what to do with a nerdy, bookish, uncoordinated kid. He acted like he was ashamed of me most of the time, a favor I am embarrassed to say I returned to him. He did all the things he thought he was supposed to do to turn me into a man – spanked me, yelled at me, hit me with his fists – until I got hold enough to hit him back and knock him on his ass. After that we reached a mutual détente that involved ignoring each other. I didn’t know much about his life, and he didn’t know much about mine.
Empathy twists us. As I got older, and as he was confined to a nursing home because of the progression of his disease, at an age not much older than I am now, I felt sorry for him. So I started visiting him regularly, and I found out that he was an all right fellow, as long as I met him more than halfway and cared about the things he cared about, like Indian relics and old coins and farming.
That’s the thing fathers are supposed to do. Get interested in their kids’ interests and encourage them. But he was so caught up in his own pain, he never had that gift. When he died, I was still in college, and I was sad for both of us.
But at the same time I had reconnected with my own father, who had finally sobered up. I’ve written about that odd experience before – meeting a stranger in an airport terminal who looked and had physical mannerisms and an art style just like me – and how, when was unemployed and collecting bottles on the roadside for the deposit money, he won the lottery, how he gave me $10,000, a Thomas Moser rocking chair, and a bunch of promises, and then wanted to tell me how to live every aspect of my life.
For about ten years, in my twenties, we talked regularly, and I went to visit him 3 or 4 times and he came to see me once. When he was broke, for most of the time period, I send him food and art supplies. In exchange he imparted the wisdom of his life: how real men always cheat on their wives and girlfriends, how to buy illegal handguns and shoot the guy who crossed you and how to get rid of the weapon afterwards, and how to find good hookers in Portland, ME, which is where he lived at that point. He made me promise to piss on his grave someday.
He was charming and loved books and art and he had a talent, if you protested anything he said, for turning it into a joke or making it about your problems instead. I still wanted a father. I made some bad decisions to stay engaged with him.
He was the one who broke things off and disappeared out of my life again. When my first son was born, I had strong beliefs about the inherent wrongness of men giving their surnames to their children and my ex-wife shared them, or at least went along with me. So we named our son after my mother’s family and he took his mother’s last name.
My father, God bless him, lost his fucking shit. Called me during the day. Then started calling me at 3 or 4 in the morning, sounding drunk and threatening. Made my grandmother call me. I was supposed to name my son after him. He was going to disinherit me. How could I be so disrespectful?
His last words in his last conversation to me were “You don’t know how to be a father. No real man names his son after a couple of cunts.” Then he moved, changed his phone number, and disappeared from my life. This time I stopped trying to get in touch with him and let it go. When he died a couple years ago, I found out online.
With my own kids, I tried to be the father I never had. Spent years as a stay-at-home dad. Tried to be involved with their schools and activities. But let’s face it: a divorce and dating and remarriage, an absence of role models, and a life spent pursuing creative work, do not add up to being the most stable and consistent of fathers. I made a lot of mistakes but I didn’t always have a chance to apply what I learned from those mistakes. Kids grow up fast. As a parent, you just move on to your next error and don’t lose enthusiasm. I think my kids are honestly still making up their minds about whether they have happy memories of their father or not.
I don’t celebrate Father’s Day for my dads. My kids usually don’t do anything for Father’s Day for me. And that’s good.
This isn’t a story looking for sympathy. Maybe I needed it when I was 4 and so afraid of men, my grandfather couldn’t walk toward me without making me burst into tears, or when I was 12 and I was standing with my suitcase on the exit stairs of a plane in New York scanning the crowd for a father who wasn’t there. Now, not so much.
Nor is it looking for reassurances that I’ve been a good father. Sometimes I have been, sometimes I haven’t. Despite that, my sons have grown up well and I’m proud of them.
This post isn’t about my specific experience. Heck, my personal experience isn’t that bad. My mom escaped. I escaped mostly unscathed. Not everyone is so lucky.
No, it’s about the holiday. It’s about Father’s Day.
When it’s your birthday, it’s not everyone else’s birthday, and you don’t expect them to celebrate. Maybe you celebrate Christmas and Easter, but you know that some of your other friends observe Hannukah and Passover instead, or no seasonal holidays at all. If you’re American, you understand that your friends in Canada don’t have the day off on Fourth of July.
Father’ Day is not a universal holiday. It doesn’t apply to all fathers. Your happy memories of your father are not the same as someone else’s happy memories of escaping their father.
Let’s not make everyone celebrate. And let’s not ever talk about “all dads.” That’s a category without meaning. To everyone who doesn’t celebrate Father’s Day, to everyone who avoids it because it brings up too many painful memories, this post is for you. Congratulations on escaping and surviving and being better people. You rock.