Last Sunday night I start writing a post about my dad for Father’s Day and I couldn't quite bring myself to finish it. I have a lot of “feels” happening right now in terms of our relationship and part of it is I know that I have some unresolved issues there. As I’m sure most of you readers know or have assessed, my parents are divorced. In most of my posts about my parents, I really only talk about the good things – and there are a lot of great memories and experiences I've shared with them – but the truth of the matter is a lot of it wasn't so magical. There were times of music and levity and comical road trips and holiday movie marathons. But there was also a lot of fighting and a lot of my father not being around, especially during my teenage years.
Let me back up a bit and give a little background into my father, if you’ll indulge me. My dad grew up in rural Louisiana, in his younger days – before experiencing his own parental slit up (though I don’t think they ever officially got divorced). His parents had an incredibly volatile marriage and his father was prone to alcoholic-induced bouts of violence. His parents had met during a turbulent war time and like many couples of the time, got together probably too quickly – before really knowing each other – and had a baby (that never quite made it to term)/got married. My grandfather got injured during WWII – a topic he did not like to discuss – and when he was sent back home, he wasn't the same jovial, loving person my grandmother had fallen head over heels for. He was angry a lot and, as cliche as this may sound, haunted by things he had seen while he was stationed in Tunisia. I cannot even imagine what this must have been like for him – understanding, in a way I would never know, the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on one another. Today, it would be clear to anyone that he was living with PTSD but in 1943 he was expected to just go home and continue on with the status quo and pretend that everything was fine.
This resulted in years of night terrors, violence, and drunken benders. I think, however, the worst part, is that some rare days he would show glimmers of his old self. He’d play some old tunes on the phonograph and dance with my grandmother just because. He’d pick her daisies. He’d take her on a road trip to New Orleans and treat her to a nice dinner. It didn't happen often but it happened often enough that she really thought maybe maybe they had a chance and he could be whole again. When she got pregnant again, this time with my father, she thought that this would be enough to inspire my grandfather into staying happy and healthy. Unfortunately, that’s not how PTSD works – it doesn't just get better on its own. So their family was ultimately doomed to crash and burn.
Anyway, fast forward – by the time my dad was five or six, his father’s bouts of “good days” had disappeared entirely. He was frequently abusive, both physically and verbally – and never, not in all his 82 years, did he ever acknowledge the permanent damage he inflicted on my dad. When my dad was 12 years old, my grandmother decided she’d had enough. She had a bruised eye and a sprained wrist and she was afraid that next time he would kill her or my dad. So she packed a suit case, got together every last dime she had, and in the blistering heat of the summer of 1960, she and my dad got onto a bus and traveled all the way to Sandwich, Massachusetts – where her sisters lived, cleaning houses for the upper crust of Cape Cod. She worked 5 jobs in order to take care of my dad and struggled and sacrificed so my dad, feeling like he was a burden, enlisted in the Navy the second he was of age so that he could stand on his own two feet. And through the Navy, when he ended up on leave in Rome (years later, obviously), he met my mom. Talk about history repeating itself, am I right? Another whirlwind romance, another unhappy marriage.
I know this story is getting super long now and you probably want me to get to my point. So I’ll make it: my dad grew up with only one true goal in life – to not become his father. To some people, that would mean that they would try to be the very best father figure they could be. To my dad, who never really wanted to be a parent because he was so afraid of how terrible he would be at it, his solution was to NOT be a father figure at all – but to be best buddies with his children. It seemed fun when I was a kid – he let me live in a tent in the back yard for an entire summer, he let me watch whatever I wanted on TV (no matter how graphic), he’d take me on trips to Tijuana, he would sneak me into concerts when I was like thirteen… he encouraged every single indulgence I had, every single one, always. And while I do think that parents should let their kids make mistakes and live and learn through them, he had almost a pathological aversion to refusing us ANYTHING, regardless of how dangerous it may be. My brother once “borrowed” the car when he was 15 (well before he had a driver’s license) and was pulled over by the cops. When he was returned to our house, my dad was very “boys will be boys” about it despite the fact that the cop told him he was pulled over because he almost hit a person in the crosswalk because he was going too fast and panicked and almost didn't stop in time. My dad laughed it off, as usual.
Also, my dad was gone a lot. He traveled all the time and when he was home, he preferred to spend his time at the office or going on hunting trips with his buddies. It was one of the biggest things my parents fought about. To my dad, however, he wasn't yelling or hitting us so he was succeeding as a parent. In my teen years, I started to resent him for it. My parents had divorced and he wasn't interested in sticking around to deal with the fallout so he moved back to California (we were in VA at this time) and there was a solid two years of radio silence, except for the occasional birthday card/check. I had a lot of anger about that time and it’s nothing we ever discussed. I came to terms with it through therapy and just… accepting that our parents are people too and they screw up and while I wish things had been different, life isn't perfect. When I got older, he would tell me how he would have done some things differently but when a parent acknowledges how they’d screwed up where you were concerned, it’s hard to really convey to them what it was like for you.
But, even so… there are things that I’ve always wanted to talk to him about, even if it’s just to let him know that I understand why he was the way that he was when I was growing up and while it makes me sad, I’m okay and he’s okay and he’s still my hero and always will be. He is a person that grew up with so much adversity and he pulled himself up out of nothing and he joined the Navy, put himself through law school, and started his own practice. He taught me the power of self-reliance and resilience. He didn't support every single decision I ever made, but he supported my right to make my own choices every time. He showed me what it meant to be independent. I put myself through college and learned how to support myself without any real financial backing from him (or either of my parents, really) and it has been really hard but thank God for it because I wouldn't be the person I am today otherwise.
I guess I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say. My intention isn't to paint an ugly portrait of my father – mostly to show him as a whole person, who had faults and weaknesses like anyone else. He is an amazing person but he is also a person who was screwed up by some things growing up and never really shook it off.
That being said, over Father’s Day week, I did a list of songs that reminded me of my dad. I stopped midweek not because I forgot or lost interest…. but I was concerned that I was giving everyone an unrealistic depiction of my dad. Saying bad things about him at this juncture is pointless but I don’t think it’s doing a favor to anyone by acting like growing up with him was nothing but Cosby Show-esque larks. Also, creating the list was getting harder and harder the closer I came to Father’s Day…. but I think it’s important for me to finish this, for better or worse. So without further ado:
“Today I Sing the Blues” by Aretha Franklin: This was chosen because it was a song that my mother listened to a lot whenever she and my dad were fighting. I get that from her – feeling my sadness at its fullness through music. Anyway, I knew whenever I heard that song that my dad would be gone for a few days. Towards the end of their marriage, during my 13th and 14th years, I heard this song a lot. I remember very distinctly the last time I ever heard this song. My parents had a particularly big row in the backyard and my dad, who to this day probably doesn't realize I was awake and could hear every word, said to my mom, “You make me feel like I’m a prisoner in my own life.”
And when he left the house, storming away from his prison, my mom went to her room and played this song just one time and I never heard her play it again.
It should probably be said that my dad saying those words stuck with me for a very long time. Again, I’m not trying to paint him as a villain, but there’s a reason why I gravitate towards shows like Mad Men and books like Revolutionary Road so deeply – because I feel like they give me insight into my father that has been hard for me to pick up on my own.
“Singin’ in the Rain” by Gene Kelly: Now this song is my happy song. It’s a lot of people’s happy song, actually. And while, yes, it does make me happy… I also recall that it is the song that I was listening to when my dad called me to tell me that his father had passed away – of cancer (surprise surprise) of the lungs. My dad, at the end, had tried to find peace with his father and never quite found closure. I was living in New Mexico at the time and it was a very… difficult conversation. I remember every word of that conversation: he said, “He’s gone, Natacia. My dad’s gone.” I had never heard him sound like such a kid and never did again. We chatted briefly about how I was going to come out to New Orleans (where my Grandpa was living when he passed away) and I’d help him with funeral arrangements – though my mother, who actually came all the way out from Italy, decided to take the brunt of that responsibility (their relationship was complicated). At the end of the conversation, my dad was almost laughing when he remarked, “Old coot had to hurt me just one list time, didn’t he?” Nothing my father has ever said pained my heart as much as that did. Nothing. And sadly, part of me always thinks of that whenever I hear “Singin’ in the Rain.”
And for my Father’s Day selection… “Christmas (Baby PleaseCome Home)” by Southside Johnny Lyons: Here’s the thing. Christmas was a big deal in my family. A really really big deal. We barely acknowledged birthdays or any other holiday. Growing up, my mom had a very strict household (I can’t even get into all the things screwed up about her relationship with her own parents, that’s its own blog post) but Christmas the one time a year that joy was overflowing in her family’s home. My dad, on the other end, had mostly bad memories of Christmas growing up. His father was always particularly agitated when the holidays came around and even after they left him, his mother was often working too much to actually spend much time with him. (Not to mention the one Christmas my mom sent my father to stay with his father over the holidays, after the separation, and my father left my dad alone on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to go on a fishing trip with his buddies. My dad was utterly alone, in a relatively unfamiliar place, and the only food he had to eat was stale bread and eggs. Happy Holidays, one and all!)
Anyway, one of our regular Christmas movies to watch while growing up was Home Alone. This was my dad’s favorite to watch (until the year that it was banned from rotation due to the 1994 year of watching it every single day during winter vacation) and he even bought the soundtrack on tape and would play it often over the holidays during dinner or while putting up decorations. Then our old tape deck, much like the bit in How I Met Your Mother, wouldn't spit it out and would play “Please Come Home for Christmas” repeatedly. It drove my mom C-R-A-Z-Y but my dad seemed to never get sick of it. One of the best years of my childhood was 1992 and that Christmas was one of the best. My parents were still in denial about the problems in their relationship or at least hadn't realized how deep their problems were – and my dad worshiped the ground I walked on. That Christmas, he danced with us a lot. He didn't disappear with his drinking buddies. He didn't make excuses about needing to work late. He cherished every moment with us. One Sunday morning when we were listening to the soundtrack again, after church, my mom begged my dad to just put in a record – anything other than that song – so he turned it off and pulled my mom away from the omelets she was trying to make. He told her that if this was the worst thing she had to deal with then they had a pretty great life and then he started singing “Please Come Home for Christmas” as they danced in the kitchen and my brother was complaining how his eggs were getting burned.
It’s a bittersweet memory because while that was wonderful and I was so lucky to have such a wonderful Christmas with such a wonderful family… it was the last year I truly felt the magic of the season. I love Christmas very much but every year after that was harder and harder because my parents’ marriage slowly deteriorated until it finally imploded. Every year, I feel like part of me keeps trying to recreate the magic from that one Christmas even though I know it’ll never happen again. I know it’s better to look forward rather than stay locked in the past but sometimes it’s harder than you’d expect.
So yes – I will take the good with the bad. Because, as I like to say, a person is more than the worst thing that they've ever done… and all people are capable of wonderful and terrible things. It’s about degrees, I suppose, and all things considered, I still think I was pretty lucky. And perhaps I’ll never receive the exact type of closure I've wanted, a part of life is acceptance and I think I’m getting there – slowly but surely.