My dad taught me to tie a tie. He stood close behind me, closer than any other time in our lives including the awkward moments when I forced hugs on him, after I learning to hug at AA meetings. His hands, covered with big veins, pulled the rough synthetic fabric across my neck. The smell of Mennen Skin Bracer was always part of his presence and still hugs his brushed-leather coat, still stored in my closet for whatever reason nine years after his death. His hands brushed against my face, and leaning back, I could feel his chest behind my back. And his quick frustration. “No, that’s a Windsor. Here, just let me do it! Forget it then – learn it yourself.”
We would camp during summers, some years in trailers and some in tents. “You guys go play” my mom would say as soon as we got to our site, and we were off to wade into a marsh to find polliwogs or hiking up the nearest bluff. Mom knew to keep us away while dad set up the tents or found a shady spot for the trailer.
I remember dad yelling at mom after she turned the wrench the wrong way on the stand that made the trailer level. “No not that way! I said clockwise – that’s NOT clockwise!” Us kids would try to find something to do for at least an hour, before heading back and seeing what mom had going for supper.
Fishing was the worst. My older brother and I always ended up with our lines tangled together, and our attempts to free them created pea-sized nylon knots that were impossible to untie. Fishing trips always ended quickly and with my dad angry. My brother and I would scatter from the campsite as soon as we got back, staying away until things calmed down.
In the backyard my dad would throw a baseball high into the air for me to catch. “The glove must be right in front of your face so you can watch it hit the glove. Follow it into the glove with your eyes” he would say. I remember flinching at the last minute, the ball hitting me in the mouth. My mom saw the blood as I walked inside, crying, and she asked my dad what happened. “It wasn’t my fault!” he grumbled. “He just missed the ball. I’m going to watch the game.” He settled by the TV as mom wiped the blood from my face.
My dad had chores for all us kids and wanted us to do things a certain way, like cleaning the weeds from the cracks of the sidewalk in front of his office using a paint scraper instead of the chemicals most people used. Before I was old enough to mow the lawn, I had to trim the grass under the fence and around trees. The shears were so hard to squeeze that for a time, I had to use both hands. Blisters would turn into callouses by the end of each summer. I don’t know when weed whackers were invented but they never spent time at our house!
I have so many tainted memories. At Christmas, someone would bump into the tree and break an ornament, or he would become angry while putting a toy together. “Why do they send this stuff in pieces?!” A fun tradition was turning down the lights and looking at slides from a few years earlier. But the carousel of the projector would eventually get stuck and we would disappear to different rooms while he tried to free up the jam.
I know I shouldn’t be so hard on my dad. He grew up in poverty as the only child of a working, single mother, while he stayed with an alcoholic aunt in the tenements of Chicago . But he served in the army artillery in France in WW2, became an attorney under the GI bill, stayed married for over 50 years, and raised a family. As imperfect as he was, I know that he tried. And that is good to know.
One reason the bad moments come to mind so easily is because they often became family stories, repeated over the years for my parents’ friends or when family visited. My brother and I casting our lines at seven and nine years old became a joke about the dumb things (his) kids do. My mother was always screwing up in some way in those stories. And the hardball to the mouth story really brought out the laughs! He became kinder to my mother during his last few years, but never seemed to recognize how us kids felt about those stories. We complained now and then if he told a story when one of us had a date over for dinner, but we were told, in real time, that he was only joking and we should stop being so sensitive.
Despite bad memories, I can’t imagine my relationship with him being any different. I think of patients who normalize whatever they experienced when they were young, so that a person raised in a cage on the kitchen floor, asked about his childhood, says “it was normal. I lived in a cage on the kitchen floor.”
And I realize that his irritability was his way of keeping us from getting too close. After all, he was abandoned by his father before he was born and grew up alone while his mother worked. And it worked; our adult relationships were careful and distant rather than friendly. His role was to say he was proud if we accomplished something he thought was good, or that he was disappointed if we did something that he thought was bad.
He must have been so uncomfortable when he taught me to tie a tie!
I think one of the main things we should try to accomplish is to raise our children with a little more kindness and awareness than our parents showed us, and I think I’ve done that in some ways. But it is so hard to avoid gaining the traits in ourselves that we liked the least in our parents.
I can’t help but think of my dad after outbursts of anger, after tripping on a carpet or dropping something a second time. “Darn thing!!” I’ll say at myself. And there he is, right inside of me, closer than he ever wanted to be.