I think I’ve done almost everything I can to avoid starting this post. I’ve started a new load of laundry, cleaned my bathroom (though frankly that space NEEDED to be cleaned before the folks in Haz Mat suits were called in), played around on Facebook, updated my Fitbit, etc. etc.
And this entry was my idea! Mia posted this poignant, heartbreaking, authentic entry about a Christmas present she received from her father who passed away earlier this year. My dad is still on this side, but in so many ways, Mia and I have similar stories when it comes to fathers. Her story is here.
So, here’s an entry we both agreed to do based on questions (I’m sure) we’ve asked ourselves and those we want to ask others to help with our and their healing process. I’d give so much not to overanalyze every conversation I have with that man and not hurt at the awkwardness that still exists even after all these years.
This post is musically choreographed by John Mayer’s “Daughters.”
My mother was 21, and my dad was 25. For years, she told me (and my aunts bore witness) that my father was an intellectual, cold and unfriendly man who she married to escape my Grandmother’s house. I’ve lived with Grandmother. As much as I love and miss her, I get it. Grandmother used to tell me that Dad would come visit and he’d pull out a book. He wouldn’t play dominoes or card games or talk like my Uncle Leo (one of my aunt’s husbands). Dad says he felt he had little in common with these folks who talked about people rather than ideas, and that while Uncle Leo exhibits that grace and coolness that seems to be a hallmark of the inner city popular black man, Dad himself was never able to imitate or exhibit this characteristic. Dad grew up in the hood in Chicago and remembered running from gangs while wearing platform shoes (for the first and last time). In other words, there’s truth on both sides, and I understand taking a book everywhere you go. I’ve often wanted to break one out, and I have, and I’ve determined not to care that my husband’s family’s nickname for me is “Fancy.” I will study and read and not watch endless episodes of Meet the Browns with you and be okay. I will also gossip about Taylor Swift and the best pecan pie recipe and gush over how pretty your baby is. I will do this based on my mood, because I want to be authentically connected to others and because I know when I need to step away.
But back to Dad. I don’t know how well he was able to finesse those moments with my mother’s family, and to listen to all parties involved, not well. I think what was more unforgivable was the beatings. My mother said she knew she had to leave the day he backhanded her into the closet, and she looked up to see me standing in the doorway. It wasn’t the first time he’d used his hands to make a point, but she was determined it would be my first and last time to observe that behavior.
I asked Dad, after I hunted him down, at 18, after not seeing him for at least 16+ years (the divorce was final when I was 2, and I never laid eyes on him again until I was a college freshman) if he ever physically abused my mother. He said there was an “incident” in a rocking chair. I don’t know if that’s all he remembered, if that’s all he was willing to admit (keep in mind, this is his teenage/adult daughter asking him these questions upon their first face-to-face interaction in more than a decade), or if he wanted to keep that part of his life tucked away, not to be examined too closely.
I will give him this: when I called his number in Memphis from my grandmother’s house in Kansas City, Mo., he was in his car that weekend on the road to see me. When I came downstairs in my t-shirt and silk Daffy Duck boxer shorts (wow, that’s a random detail to remember so clearly) he remarked on me wearing socks to sleep in and said he was the same way: cold feet at night.
When my parents married, my mother’s best friend later said she’d longed to tell my mother not to commit this mistake, but Zoe was afraid she’d alienate my mother. My mother always says she wishes someone would have said something and that the night I was conceived, she fought. Does that make me a product of rape? Whenever I respond that means she wouldn’t have had me, she firmly states she would’ve gotten me some other way.
Meh. Methinks that’s so much of what she’d like to tell herself. She might’ve gotten a baby some other way, but she wouldn’t have had me, Gia. Which begs the question: was the abuse as bad as she stated or is it boiled down to the “incident” my dad recalled to me? I think it’s somewhere in the middle. When my mother’s family all commented on the ugly way my father made her dress, what he said to her, that my father cheated on my mother, and I found the evidence (another story for another day) and that my brother (whom I love madly) is the product of my father and his “mistress,” (my Mom, technically my stepmom, whom I also love like crazy), and I think of what Dad has said at different times to Bro and Sis and me, I can beyond doubt believe he was verbally abusive. The leap to physical abuse that was continual is not far. Yo, make no mistake, my mother was no angel. She infuriates and inspires me simultaneously. THAT is also a post for another day. But her cold shoulder or backbreaking moral principles don’t merit abuse or infidelity.
I’m 37. Bro is 33, and Sis is 31. I proudly claim my spot as the oldest, but what’s that mean when I wasn’t there for the first 14 years of my brother’s life and the first 12 of my sister’s? When we all met [and what a weird sentence to type – when I met my brother and sister] I remember singing along to Jennifer Holliday’s “You’re Gonna Love Me,” loudly, exuberantly, parody-style, because making a fool of myself was the only way I knew to make everyone comfortable with this new addition that had just dropped into their whole, un-fractured family. Dad once said “My kids know about you.” And that further separated the three of us. I know what he meant. He was used to thinking of them as his kids and me as this lost balloon floating off somewhere. Still.
Why did I have to come looking for you? His reply: “I had to take care of my family.” I’ll never forget that, because what it meant was “trying to be your dad was too hard, your mom wouldn’t let me, they garnished my wages for child support, but she still wouldn’t allow me to see you, here I’d gotten this other woman pregnant, and I had to go be happy without causing more strife in my own life or that of my new family.”
Know that I have no respect for women who don’t allow estranged exes to see their kids. But I also know there were times my mother would take the bus or walk through the snow to an appointed place to meet Dad, and he wouldn’t show or would have some excuse.
My mother sacrificed. She worked two jobs, put herself through nursing school, paid my tuition at a private, Christian school, and she did this on her own. Sure, she had help from her family, but they weren’t the ones who helped make a baby. My dad was. At one point, Dad taught at the same college I attended. I was visiting my mother in the another state during one of our school breaks, and I was trying to arrange everything for my return to school. He said he couldn’t come get me from the airport (granted, it was about an-hour-and-a-half drive) and I needed to take a shuttle, because it was inconvenient. I remember casually sharing that info with my mother who had picked me up on the other end of the trip. I was, maybe, 23 at the time, and still in undergrad. Her response: “it was inconvenient for him 23 years ago, and it’s inconvenient now.”
Honestly, she had a point. But then, so did he. When you’ve got work and bills and classes to teach, it is a lot to drive and pick up your daughter from the closest airport in the next major city. Isn’t it? Or am I just making excuses for him? He put Sis on the shuttle too, so I think some of this is just the way Dad, an absent-minded professor, deals with people. Although he and Bro have this bond that I envy. When Dad and I talk, I always feel like I have to think up something to say, and that makes for a stilted conversation. Dad and Bro talk like long-lost best friends, and they’re so alike, except Bro has Mom’s heart. He was the first man I met that made me realize how kind and thoughtful black men could be. Bro got Dad’s brains and Mom’s compassion. And maybe it’s the awkwardness I feel that rubs off on Dad. Or maybe he’s got his own baggage with our relationship.
When I moved from MO to TX, I told Bro I was cutting all ties with Dad. He’d tried to give me what he felt was fatherly counsel. I felt like he was trying to criticize a life he was largely absent from. After moving here, I went through this period of self-reflection. Dad, unbeknownst to me, was going through that same experience. I left Missouri in June. When Dad called to wish me happy birthday in September, he laid out moments when he felt wronged by me. “But she did this…” I’m not an easy wife to love, The Hubs will tell you. I never thought that perhaps I wasn’t an easy daughter to love. I still say his baggage isn’t my fault, but mine is his. He made this situation what it is and not the other way around. But I respected that he was willing to honestly and openly acknowledge the splintering of our relationship and work with me to rebuild it.
I slept around in college. Some of it was just a fondness for sex and the mighty O. Some of it, okay, a LOT of it, was me looking for a man to love me. Mother never had that talk with me about men wanting one thing and that I needed to guard it safely. I left her house and her rules and what felt like the chokehold of religion on my life and went off to explore. But I wasn’t always safe, and it’s by God’s grace those trips to Planned Parenthood never revealed AIDS or a baby, two situations I wouldn’t have had the emotional maturity to handle. As it is, I did end up on the receiving end of various antibiotics and treatments and infections requiring long-term care. Who knows? Had Mother had the talk with me, maybe I would’ve loved myself more. Or maybe it would have been like so much fluff blowing in the wind and I would’ve had to learn that lesson the hard way just as I did.
I don’t want to carry the pain and the doubts and the insecurities with me. And I’m happy that I was the one who planned the kids’ surprise visit to MO for Dad’s 60th. Bro came with his family, Sis came with her daughter (her hubby had to work), and I came with my family. Mom was in on the secret, and we all had a great time planning and celebrating.
So healing has happened. But I’ll never have the easy hugs and phone calls and “jeez, (s)he’s getting on my nerves” the way I do with Mother.
Does it matter? Can I let it not? Or is this all just drivel and anguish twisting in the wind with no answers to be found?
P.S. My father’s father died when I was in college, and since Dad had no way to find me (I was at Mother’s and this was pre-cell phones) I didn’t find out until after the funeral had occurred. I never met my grandfather. I adored my grandma. Dad had a troubled relationship with his dad and was also a half-sibling to some of his brothers. Did he simply inherit and pass down what he didn’t know how to overcome? Was it Mom’s influence that kept him from being a shit to the kids they made together?