I've been thinking a lot about fathers lately. Fathers Day is always a tough one, being as I haven't spoken to mine in 15 years and see that as a trend for me. I was talking to one of my favorite students yesterday about fathers and we agreed that, no matter how old we get or how vast the divide, we are always--somehow--looking over our shoulders, wondering if they see. That everything we do, we do to impress them for good or bad. As for me, I'm always thinking, "Living well...," as if what I needed were revenge, as if he would wish me ill. Well he might.
But it occurred to me that we'd summed up the whole problem, then and there: that we'd always wanted our fathers to SEE us, see who we were and are, which is something they'd never done. They'd always seen us as extensions or reflections of themselves. We were not to be separate creatures, or special, or entitled to our own thoughts and emotions. So while we might gain momentary approval by making straight A's or winning at the track meet, we were not going to get it when we excelled at something that proved our separateness.
This didn't change when I became an adult. The first time I was published in a literary magazine, I was 28. My father didn't say "That's so great!" or "I'm so proud of you." He scowled at the poem and told me, "I wish you'd publish something I could show my friends." And when my sister was in the hospital, withering away with Leukemia, too exhausted to see her friends, too depressed to be comforted, my father said to her, "Leroy is coming by to visit. Could you put on a little make-up, try to smile, and thank him for the robe he sent you?"
When I picked my first husband, I was certain he was nothing like my father. More than twenty years later, I'm still dismayed by that error. Turned out, my father was his hero. I think my ex got some of his best ideas from the stories I told.
For men like this, families are accessories, something to be shut up in a box and worn to make them look good on special occasions. And by special occasions, I mean family reunions and company picnics, not the likes of Christmas or Easter. For my father and my ex, holidays were hours to be endured. I have the pictures: yawning by the Christmas tree, swinging a golf club during the Easter Egg hunt, drunk at the Thanksgiving table.
This was all I knew of fathers before I married Greg. I was surprised the first Christmas Eve when he didn't stay out "shopping" till the malls closed and "stop by the office afterward to wrap the presents." He was already home, having taken a couple of days off to shop with me and consult with Santa.
When Lola was born, I kept waiting for the new to wear off, so he could start ignoring her and resenting her. She's eight, and he still rushes home from work, barging through the door with his stupid falsetto "Looolaaaaa!" Until a couple of weeks ago, I assumed I'd snagged the only truly good father besides Greg's uncle, who was the most gentle and sweetly devoted father I knew to have raised his children to adulthood. He died in April, and I will never forget him.
The week at Fripp this year opened my eye (the one that would open). There are more of these guys out there, and I was in a house full of them! Dads who took their kids fishing and golfing, who laughed at their kids' idiosyncracies--yeah, blaming them on the mothers--rather than bullying them into being little mini-mees; dads who got the kids in the shower and knew where the favorite tee shirts were and what they liked to drink; dads who didn't sneak off in the golf car(t) to the other side of the island to call their girlfriends.
These men were actually HAPPY hanging out with their wives and kids. I'm not saying they're perfect. In fact, I've got a long list of of improvements they could make under the heading 'Husbands.' But shocker of shocks, they all SEE and love their children, which is enough to make me tear up that list.