|Posted by christinkeck on June 15, 2014 at 3:55 PM|
My father died on December 18, 1996. He had just had his 77th birthday not even a month prior to his death, and he wasn’t even sick. His death came very suddenly, without any warning. My brother, who lived with him, found him on the kitchen floor, still clutching the aspirin bottle he didn’t even have time to open. I found out when I got a phone call, in the middle of wrapping his Christmas gift.
I was named as executor of his estate, such as it was. I took care of the funeral arrangements according to the letter he had left for me—nothing elaborate—nothing fancy. Just the plainest and barest of funerals, he told me—spend the money left on yourselves and divide it equally without arguing about it. That is exactly what I did, and though it raised a few eyebrows in the family, it was what he wanted.
Dad was a simple soul. He didn’t have much ambition to be anything except comfortable, never wanted anything beyond the necessities of life: house, vehicle, enough food to eat, and time to fish, an easy social life without pressure to be anything he wasn’t. Fishing was his passion. He wasn’t a sentimental person most of the time. He remembered birthdays and holidays, and sent cards and gifts, but he never made a big deal about it. This was one of the things that caused a great deal of animosity between him and my mom, and to her, was “proof” that he didn’t love her or care about her feelings. It may have seemed that way to her, but it wasn’t true at all. My dad was just not demonstrative. At least not the way my mother thought he should be. Yet, I never doubted he loved me, and that he also loved my mom, though they had divorced almost 19 years before he died.
I can’t really give you evidence of his love for us. Not evidence that my mother would have accepted, at least; her criteria were so different from his. In her way of thinking, love meant being attentive, kind, emotionally invested, and thoughtful. In my dad’s thought-processes, these were all well and good—he didn’t argue about them—but they weren’t as important as the concrete things he did for his wife and family: support them, house them, stick with them through all the good and bad things that happen, and never waiver in these pursuits. I have come to understand that because they had such different outlooks, they were never going to be happy together as a married couple—but that love is something that embodies not one or the other, but both.
Neither my mother nor my father had it right. They clashed from day one until the day they finally called it quits. My mother kept right on clashing with the past even after that. My father simply cut his losses, never said a bad word about her or their marriage, and moved on to a more peaceful existence.
It took me a long time to understand my mother’s point of view. From age 7 on, I had always sided with my dad, not her. She knew it, and fought it. And kept on fighting it. We never had the same outlook on life while she was alive—and eventually, our disagreements became so bitter that they caused a permanent rift between us. In one of our more major arguments, her most pointed insult to me, among the many that she tossed out, was “you’re just like your father!” And in many ways, I was. At least the ones that meant something important to her. But in important ways, she wasn’t right at all. What I knew, from a very young age, was the worth of my father—not as a husband, not as a lover or a companion—but as a father to me. To me, he was the preferable parent. Not less strict, not less opinionated or wise. Not even because he listened to me and acknowledged my pain and suffering; but something in my own psyche saw what was beyond that and what the rest of it was actually worth, and why.
My dad was, frankly, insensitive most of the time. He would not pay attention to little things, and he wasn’t a really romantic guy. Most Mother’s Days passed without glurg. There would be a card, acknowledging the day. There would maybe be a box of chocolate-covered cherries, and once or twice, a bathrobe, negligee, or small appliance. These were given without fanfare. There was never a breakfast in bed, a personal piece of jewelry, or any special treatment such as a dinner out, or a date-night. And the gifts and card were usually given cheaply. The cheapness of my dad’s gifts was out of necessity, not preference. We never had much money. Most of our family income went toward those things that could not be ignored. But personal? Nope. Even the negligees and robes were given without any thought as to their need or beauty. My mother didn’t wear negligees—and robes were ordinary things. They didn’t make her feel sexy, beautiful, wanted or desired. So why give her something like that? He didn’t think about it. He knew such things were “typical” gifts, so that is what he bought.
Birthdays and Christmas were the same way. He always managed to get her something she needed—even the robes and nightgowns—but never anything she actually wanted. It drove my mother nuts.
But was she better at it than he was? Not even a little bit. She’d buy him shirts he didn’t wear, or socks, or underwear. She didn’t even try to use her gift-giving opportunities to inject their relationship with romance. Her justification for this reciprocity was because he wouldn’t “appreciate” anything else. Maybe she was right about that. And maybe not.
I had never seen my dad as romantic until I saw his personal photo album, which he never tried to hide, but didn’t pore over either; he had kept every picture of every girl he had ever dated. Among these were several pictures of one particular woman: Lily Rose. I noticed that she resembled my mother physically. For years, I didn’t know the story behind Lily Rose, but I found out later. My dad had been in love with her—had planned to ask her to marry him. Had bought the ring. There had been a trip to New York City with his mother. And the pictures were just slightly risqué and highly sentimental. What caused the breakup I don’t know. But I know from family anecdotes that it hurt my dad a lot. It was about 6 months after they broke up that he met my mom—at a dance—and six months after that, asked her to marry him. He was 27. She was 19. And he gave her the engagement ring he had bought for Lily Rose.
Of course my mother did not know that at the time. When she found out she refused to ever wear it again. It stayed in her jewelry box until the day she passed it along to me. That was when I found out about it, and my reaction was probably not what she anticipated or desired. I simply refused to understand her resentment.
There were numerous incidents like that in their 27 year marriage. My dad was not a horrible person—only a very practical one. Why toss out a perfectly good engagement ring if you can get some use out of it? Why throw out old clothes that have holes—when you can wear them to work or for comfort? Why get rid of old photos of past girlfriends when they chronologize your life or the era you lived through? These things didn’t mean the same things to my dad that they did to my mom. She resented them. He just found them worthy of keeping. He didn’t think about the emotional toll they took on an already shaky relationship. For my mom, the resentment and rancor just built up year after year. For my dad, there was no reason to even FEEL it. So he didn’t.
And gifts should be something a person can use—or eat. Not something that just made you feel good.
It was a basic difference that would eventually contribute to the destruction of the marriage for both of them. My dad withdrew over the years, and my mom let it eat at her until she drove herself and the rest of us crazy with it. And it would never be resolved.
My dad could also be fun. And social. He loved company, loved playing cards, having fish frys, seeing his family at holidays. He loved his kids—and was a fair disciplinarian. He tried to involve himself in our lives at times; he went to my school when I was in plays, he tried to help me memorize the names of all the presidents, he even tried to help my brother learn simple arithmetic and language skills. He read to us. And if we had nightmares, he was there to soothe, or even cuddle us. When we were sick, he brought us ginger ale or held the wastebasket. He took us fishing with him, and played with us in the water when we went swimming. He tossed a ball with my brothers, and took care of the dog when no one else would or could. He even brought us pets—hamsters once, chipmunks another time. He would make fantastic creatures out of modeling clay and line them up on the bookcase in the living room. He could draw and sing, and loved to play his guitar while we sang along. He tolerated our noise, our childish arguments, our differences. As a father, he wasn’t exciting—but he was good. As a husband, he was pretty much a failure.
And it was exactly the opposite of my mother’s way of doing things. As a wife and a girlfriend, she was wonderful: a good dancer, a fun date—as a parent, she blew it. She picked favorites. She punished unfairly. She used her own inability to reach my dad against us, dividing us up into two camps—his and hers. My brother was hers—I was my dad’s. It caused no end of sibling rivalry and took a concerted effort after they were both gone to overcome. Yet not once did my father ever say a mean word about her to us. Not even after 19 years of divorce, and her death—which came two years before his.
What is a father worth after all? Does being a good father mean you are overall a good person? A good husband? A good family member? My dad was a good son to his mother, a good brother to his siblings. A good friend, a good employee. But, maybe not, too. He was inattentive and insensitive to my mother, and refused to acknowledge her needs for anything more than food, shelter, or clothing. He was impossible to read—never asked for anything from her, and didn’t offer anything either. But did he love her? I think he did. He didn’t satisfy her emotionally, but he provided for her and us, and he did not do that with people who didn’t mean something to him. Now that I’ve had decades of perspective, I can see how both of them could have made it work, but hindsight doesn’t dry any of the tears that were shed then, and won’t now. It’s over; it won’t ever be fixed. They both had problems relating to each other and one was not at fault any more than the other. What I am grateful for even now, even through all that, is that I got a father I loved and one I can be proud of, that made my childhood tolerable and even happy. That’s worth something.
And as for my mother, I can say now I “get” it. I see why she felt the way she did—her perspective wasn’t mine, but it wasn’t invalid. Yes, it was unpleasant to know and live through, but that wasn’t her fault, really. She did the best she could, despite being desperately unhappy most of the time. The bottom line here is that both of them did all they could do for us children, no matter what they felt about each other. I’ve learned to take the worth out of that too. Wherever they both are now, I hope they can know that I loved them both, and that even though understanding came too late to do anything about, it finally did come.
Happy Father’s Day, dad. And Happy Mother’s day, Mom.