Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day Thoughts

Father's day is a difficult day for me to spend time on Facebook.  On Facebook it seems like everyone I know has or had the perfect father, whom they love unreservedly, and if deceased miss whole-heartedly. Reading all these posts makes me feel weird and a little crazy, and jealous of these people with their wonderful fathers. The cynic in me also wonders a little how much embellishment of reality is taking place.

I never particularly liked Father's Day while my father was alive.  It was an annual obligation. As a child there had to be a gift, as an adult a card and a phone call. These were rote duties that must be performed, or my mother would be upset with me.

Father's day is even worse since he died because my feelings do not fit into some nice acceptable "oh I miss my dad" box. Fact is that I don't really miss my father. I didn't really have much of a relationship with him for nearly 20 years before he died as his profound deafness made telephone interaction with him impossible. My relationship in him in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood was very conflicted relationship. Which leaves about 15 years in the middle when I had a reasonably comfortable albeit long distance and sporadic connection with him.

My feelings about my father were ambivalent as long as I can remember. There are many good things I can say about him.  First of all I loved him, simply because he was my father. He made sure there was a roof over my head and food on the table. Of course he always made sure we knew that the roof and everything under that roof was his and only his, and everything under his roof had to be done his way.

He was a very intelligent and creatively very talented, but he had not gotten education after high school as a young man like his brother and sisters because he had the bad timing to graduate in 1930 seven months after the stock market crashed.  He frequently spoke at home of the ignorance of the men who were his supervisors. They had more formal education than he did but he expressed low opinions of their mental abilities and talents. He spent most of my childhood attending night classes at the local community college until he finally completed his degree, and was granted the advancement to management that he had always craved.

His diligence at his studies was a good example. Both he and my mother were adamant that me and my brothers would get a college education, and good grades were the primary achievements lauded in our household. But, when a man who works 40+ hours a week goes to night school two nights a week and studies at his desk many of the other nights of the week, it makes it difficult for his children to connect to him. He was either gone or very busy, and when he was studying we had to be very quiet.  The only conversations that I can remember from childhood were primarily related to school work, when I took homework (mostly math) to his desk to ask him a question.

Meal times were particularly difficult. My father would come home from work, around four, at which point the TV that we children were watching was immediately shut off. There were the occasionally really good days, especially in spring and summer when after he got home, my dad would take us outside or to the local park to play softball or tennis. Or he'd go out to the garage to help us with some project - a race car, scooter, or other such thing.

More often however, were the days when after work my father would begin to complain about his day. He would rant about whatever slights he felt had occurred at work, and about the stupidity of the men with which he worked. He would pick up the evening paper and look at the headlines, and then shift into that evenings political rant. His political rants would last through supper which went fairly quickly.  We children said nothing. Our opinions were of no consequence. On the rare occasion that my mother offered an opinion, especially on those occasions where she suggested that perhaps there might be some other interpretation to events, she was loudly berated and shouted down by my father. No other thoughts or opinions were tolerated other than my fathers at the dinner table, and no other conversation other than his nightly discourse on his work, American politics, world affairs or the economy were acceptable.

My father was a liberal, a hard-core union man who gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto when I was about 11 or 12, and who believed in political equality for blacks and women (but not equality in the home when it came to housework), and all though registered Republican he voted for Kennedy and Johnson and  most adamantly against Nixon and Reagan.  I agreed with his political values then, and still agree with them, but did not enjoy his tyrannical control over all conversation at the table. I was afraid of my father, who frequently bellowed and yelled and bullied and intimidated his family verbally. 

As a child I was a big fan of Clarence Day's Life with Father and the play and the movie it inspired and did not really see the correspondence between that father and my own. However, when Archie Bunker hit the small screen, although I watched regularly with friends who loved the show, I never really cared for it, because despite having 180 degree opposite political views and being far more educated and articulate, my father was way too much like Archie for me to be really comfortable with laughing at that show.

I was afraid in other ways that I understand less clearly.  From a very young age, I was unable to sleep through an entire night without having to use the bathroom at least once. I was frightened of the dark (in my early 20's I came to realize that my night vision was dramatically poorer than most other people my age which accounts for some of my night fears). Every night, I would wake up and I would call out very softly to my mother: "mama, mama, I have to pee, mama." It was very important to me to wake her up and have her watch over me. However, I was absolutely terrified -with a deep cold dread- of waking-up my father. Waking my father was worse than getting up alone in the dark.

When I was about 12 or 13 my father injured his back (not the first time), and went into the hospital for an extended stay. I remember experiencing an enormous sense of release and freedom at his absence. It was as if an ominous cloud over our existence had been lifted briefly. I remember that my mom experimented with some foods that we kids wanted - in particular I remember her getting mint chocolate chip ice cream and spumoni with pistachio ice cream (my father forbid green ice cream in his house).  Life with him in the hospital was like a holiday.

In high school my relationship with my father went from bad to worse. I was painfully aware that my family dynamics were the exact opposite of nearly all my friends. Most of my teenage contemporaries did daily battle with their mothers and adored their fathers. I almost never fought with my mother, on the surface we were always in sync and often felt like we were comrades in an on-going war with my father, who bullied and terrorized me constantly. Home work was suppose to be a priority, but should my homework keep me up past the time my father wished to go to bed there would be yelling and threats.  Personal space was not respected, even in the bathroom for me as a teenage girl. My feelings of hatred were strong enough that they scared me; so much so that I sought out my high school "counselor" (a P.E. teacher who did academic advising) for advice.  I remember only that she had a hapless, bewildered look and no real advice to offer.

Ultimately I ran away from home to get away from my father. Yes, I went to college, 2500 miles away.  I was one of less than a dozen (out of 425) students from my high school class who left California to go to college (there were such great, tuition free public colleges and universities in California as well as outstanding private institutions that it was rare for students to leave the state in the 1960's and 1970's). It was my "great escape" and my mother encouraged me to begin planning  it when I was a sophomore in high school.

Our conflicts were never discussed, never openly examined, never resolved. Distance simply allowed me to move on with my life. However, I have come to realize since his death things buried in the psyche never really go away, they just influence you in ways you fail to recognized consciously.

While there are many things that I admire or appreciate about my father, and I loved him because he was my father, I cannot say that I miss him. I am not sorry that he is gone. He lived a long life (died just before his 98th birthday), and expressed a readiness to go for some months before he died.