Like father. . . like me?
My saddest secret is my earliest memory of my father. For some reason, it’s exceptionally vivid; I remember what room we were in, the color of his shirt, the shape my thoughts took. I don’t know how old I was, no more than three, I’m sure, and he’s lying on the floor, with me straddled across his lap. He’s swinging my hands and talking like you do with infants, asking obvious questions to get them talking.
“And who do you love?”
“And who else?”
“Do you love your daddy?”
There it fades away, and I don’t know what happened next, but I know that eventually I ended up in the adjacent room with my mother, and she asked me why I’d said that. I was just learning characters and how to read and what letters and symbols meant, and to me the word why was the same as a question mark was the same as a curlicue was the same as the crook my little bo peep doll carried, and I responded with a question about sheep.
My mother put down the laundry she was folding and walked across the room, kneeling to grab my hands.
“Your daddy loves you very very much. You really hurt his feelings. Go and tell him you love him, please. Why did you say that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because you know it was a lie.”
And when she responded like that, the crook appeared in my mind again and I’m pretty sure that was the first time I ever doubted my mother.
Rinse and repeat for the next eighteen years.
To say that my relationship with my father has been strained is an odd understatement; I’m sure to the outsider, that’s all there is to be seen in our bizarre dynamic, maybe even appearing a little exaggerated, since we’re nothing if not civil. We share some qualities, if it pains us to admit it. We both stay placid when company’s around, even if our anger is boiling over. We both love adventure and excitement and mocking people in an affectionate way, we both love being outside and pretending that everything is absolutely, ridiculously wonderful at all times, despite impending disaster. Qualities that have worked against us since my infancy. I almost feel like we’ve never had an honest conversation, both of us working so hard to conceal that anything might be wrong.
I remember when I was eight and he took me to vote with him, for governor.
“Now, which lever should we pull?” he asked, laughingly, like it was all a joke.
“Which one is the nicest? Who will do good things?”
He laughed harder.
“Probably neither of them. But look, his daughter’s go to your school, why not him?”
“That’s a dumb reason,” I replied, emboldened by the unchecked use of the d-word, my mom would have scolded me. Although, the only reason I used it was because she told me what they both promised, what they meant, and he wanted me to vote for someone’s daughters.
He laughed and gave me a funny look before pulling the lever. The next morning, on the way to school, my mother told me all about the differences between the Republican and Democratic party, rhetoric and what actually came to pass, and the Senate and the House. I asked her why she and Dad voted differently, and she told me to ask him. “I’m biased,” she said, “and he’ll want to have his say.”
“Well, the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. . . “ he trailed off and called my mom in. “She’s only eight! What is this?”
“She wanted to know.”
“The difference. . . a lot of the time, Democrats say ‘oh here we are going to take care of everyone all of the time,’ and Republicans say that everyone should take care of themselves and be responsible.”
“Well Democrats sound nicer.”
“Well that’s where you’re wrong. Its complicated, you’ll understand when you’re older. But see, what if we never taught you to read?”
“I would have learned at school.”
“But let’s say they didn’t teach you at school. And we just kept taking you everywhere and doing things for you because you couldn’t read street signs or cereal boxes or letters in the mail. And then we died. What would you do?”
“What?” I started crying. “You’re going to die?”
“She’s only eight, for God’s sake!”
“THAT’S WHAT I SAID!”
And that sprouted our deepest and scariest fight; the ideological battle that has shaken out house for ten years. I don’t think it was just that beginning conversation that spurred my liberal attitude, it had a lot less impact than all the fantasies I read and my obsession with the preservation of my outdoor sanctuaries or my general instinct to nurture and help and care for everyone I come into contact with. My life bleeds almost seamlessly into an easy and exciting hippy-dom; By the end of elementary school I have joined the Sierra Club and put up posters around school reminding to recycle, I have written long essays on My Hero: Rachel Carson, I read books about the politics of World War 2 Germany incessantly and I really want to die my hair blue. The sweet southern belle my father was expecting is nowhere in sight, and he is pissed. Just as he did that night at the polls, he still talks like the world at large is no more important than the weather; just a polite discussion to pass the time. Because he feels its inappropriate; I’m eleven! Eleven year olds read The Mouse and The Motorcycle, not Silent Spring!
“Dad,” I say, as we set out for a vacation to the beach, “Why don’t we take one car?”
“We might want two when we get there, you know, in case we split up.”
“Yea, but aren’t cars bad for the environment?”
“Well, some people might say that, but you know what cars make? Carbon dioxide. You know who eats carbon dioxide? All the trees, just like in The Lorax. The environment needs cars, honey.”
I roll my eyes. I am eleven, and way too smart for this crap.
I am fourteen, and my parents tell me that he’s moving out, getting a house on the other side of town, but everything’s fine. I’m shell shocked and weirded out, but once he’s gone and the cognitive dissonance fades everything seems normal, a sort of normal we never had before. The normal of me being alive. For once my presence and opinions carry a weight that tells me they matter and if Mom cries herself to sleep and needs me to watch Desperate Housewives with her to make her feel better, that’s ok. I know that will pass and that soon we’ll get used to this world where I’m allowed to think and spread out. It’s a little calloused of me, I know, but for once I don’t see etiquette and civility and peacemaking as the most important thing- there are big problems and huge ideas and crazy worlds out there and this was necessary for me to be able to break out and find them.
I am fourteen and a half, and my father is inexplicably moving back in and I am all of a sudden again entrenched in family fun and the “trashy and horrible” television like Desperate Housewives is banned. As are fourteen year olds with strong opinions.
I am eighteen and my father corners me in the kitchen. “So. . . college.” I look at him blankly. “I hear. . . you’re thinking about a gap year.”
“Because I don’t feel ready. I need to do some sort of tangible work and stop working for the esoteric.”
“And you’ve told your mother all this.”
“Why aren’t you angry at your mother?”
And so begins our only conversation close to honest. Now, six months before I move out, there’s a tangible urgency at the dinner table when I dismiss his conservative ideals, a fear crossing his face when I voice my plans to join the Peace Corps. and work for humanitarian organizations, a spasm in his neck every time I leave for a protest. Six months before I leave, he’s decided to ask me to be his friend. A little late, but I guess. . . it’s a start. This is only my life so far, after all.