Resolving my father issues

St.-George-and-the-Dragon-statue-etchingMy stepmother died last Friday. No condolences are needed; there was no love between us. I hadn’t spoken to her in years. I do feel for her family – she had children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, who all loved her very much – and of course for my father. They were everything to each other, and did everything together. He’s in his late seventies, and now he’s alone. I know this has hit him hard.

I flew to the Midwest last Sunday, not wanting to go but unable to get out of it, and as it turns out I’m glad I did. In grief, a person will say things they wouldn’t say at any other time. We don’t really talk about anything in my family – at least, we never have before.

My sister had her own family emergency that I won’t go into, but one result was that she dropped me at our father’s house on the day of the funeral and had to take off immediately, which meant that I spent about three hours on my own with him that afternoon. Pretty much exactly the situation I had always dreaded.

We looked at some photo albums, and he teared up and admitted it was hard to look at the pictures of my stepmother. I did my best to comfort him, and teared up myself, on his behalf. She was never a monster; she always seemed like a perfectly nice person, but even at eleven I could tell that she didn’t want to be raising any more children, especially someone else’s. Her kids were grown, with children of their own. My problem was that I always needed more than that, and was disappointed over and over by her coldness. After my mother had died, my father didn’t seem to want us around, either. He and my stepmother both always did the conventionally correct things, especially materially, so we had regular meals, and vacations and Christmas presents and birthday parties, and clothing, and I got braces, and in spite of the upheaval of my mother’s death and my father’s eventual remarriage, we had stability. Lots of people don’t have that, growing up, and I’ve always been grateful.

But it still hurt that there was no love there. My father was always harshly critical of us kids, contemptuous, really, and incapable of controlling his temper. My mother could mellow him out, and to a lesser degree my stepmother did the same, but there were those years between his marriages, when we lived in constant fear of his wrath. We laugh now about the time we were coming back from Disney World, and had stopped at a McDonald’s for lunch. My sister wouldn’t eat her hamburger because they put onion on it – she was always the stubborn one, the one most like my father – and my father was furious and yelled at her. And then we got back to the car to discover that we had a flat tire. This meant that my father had to unload all the camping gear out of the back of the station wagon to get at the spare. He was beet red and cursing the whole time, and the three of us stood frozen on the sidewalk, staying out of his way and trying to ignore the stares of happier families. It’s not a particularly funny story at all, but I’m glad we can laugh.

Not at all funny were the times when my brother got into trouble, which was often back then, and my father took him into his bedroom and beat the crap out of him. My sister and I would stay in the living room, out of the way but hearing it all, trying to act like everything was okay. My brother was the oldest, and probably the most affected of us three kids by our mother’s death. What he was doing is now called “acting out,” and if it had been the nineties, his school might have recognized it and convinced my father to get him some help. As it was, in the seventies, though everyone in our tiny town knew what was going on, nobody could really do anything. The beatings stopped when my brother ran away at 13 and was brought back by the police. My father stuck to just yelling after that, which was bad but not the worst. He and my brother never reconciled their troubled relationship, and even now, when my brother has been dead for seven years, my father despises and blames him for causing all that trouble.

Not funny, either, were the constant insults I endured from my father. I didn’t just have a messy room; I was a pig, I was disgusting. I didn’t just get a bad grade; I was stupid and lazy, a disgrace. He always expected the worst from me, and accused me of lying when I hadn’t done anything bad.

One Saturday afternoon I came home after spending the night at a friend’s house. We’d gone sledding that morning, running up a big hill and sliding, screaming with laughter, down again, over and over. We’d had such a good time, and when her mom dropped me off, instead of going straight to my room, I went into the kitchen, where my father and stepmother were, to let them know I was home and had had fun. I was reeling with fatigue, not having slept much, of course, and then all that sledding, and my father accused me of being drunk. Drunk? I was twelve. I hardly knew what that meant. I realize lots of kids do start drinking that young or even younger, but I was a good kid. I never got in trouble at school, and certainly had never given him any reason to suspect that I was one of those kids. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t convince him that I was just tired from staying up late and being a kid. I went up to my room, all my pleasure gone in frustration and hurt.

It’s hard to convey how hurtful all of this was to me as a child. Lots of people experience that kind of parenting, where nothing is ever good enough, and the slightest infraction is blown way out of proportion. As an adult, I can see that the good outweighed the bad, but as a child, all I knew was that my father seemed to hate me, and I became convinced that there was something wrong with me. I entered adulthood with shattered self-esteem, hating myself and constantly expecting other people to hate me, too, crippled by a deep, unconscious dread of other people. Though I knew it was really a fear of my father, that knowledge never took that sick feeling away. I moved far away as soon as I could, going to college at seventeen – another good thing my father did – and rarely going back to his house, moving to San Francisco the day I finished my studies. I’ve seen my father and stepmother five times since then. They never invited me to visit, and I certainly didn’t want to. Relations with the rest of my family suffered as a result, but I had to do it. I had to get away from him and sort of re-raise myself. Find some sense of self-worth, stop getting into relationships with people who treated me like my father did, and learn how to love people.

My father’s contempt extended well beyond his children, and encompassed most of the human race. He was no Archie Bunker; he was aware that you’re not supposed to talk like that, and seldom did, but his racism was clear to me when I was very young. He would drop remarks about Blacks, Jews, Arabs, Asians, everybody – even Italians. The Irish got it, too, though his children were half Irish. I’m grateful that he doesn’t hold women in the same contempt, or I would be an even bigger mess than I already am.

He did teach me, inadvertently, to separate a person from his faults and not to dismiss a person for having one or two bad qualities, and also not to disdain an entire race because of the actions of a few; because that’s what he did, and I could see that it was wrong. But I always thought that, underneath all of that, he was a good person and would be there for me if I really needed him.

And this is the ultimate issue I have with my father: that he proved me wrong. After I was raped – by a black man – he and my stepmother both treated me badly. My father blew up at me at the hospital, and the nurse had to step in, mercifully, and take me away. My stepmother treated me even more coldly than usual, and at home my father lectured me at great length about how you simply can’t trust a black person, they were just violent, natural criminals. Then he ordered me not to tell anyone what had happened, and that was the end of it. Not a single word of kindness; they never even asked me if I was okay.

This betrayal was a far more serious trauma than the rape itself.

The ironic thing is that I trusted that guy, the rapist, and agreed to give him a ride (“just down the road”), because he’d paid me a compliment and, during the few minutes that we talked, asked me about myself and appeared to be interested in what I said. I was sixteen, and that had almost never happened to me. And when I hesitated to let him get in my car, he said, “What’s the matter, you don’t trust a brother?” and I thought, That’s my father’s voice in my head, telling me not to trust him because he’s black. I didn’t want to be that way. I still don’t. I’d rather trust the wrong person some of the time, than trust no one, ever.

My father’s racism was more important to him than his daughter. I’ve tried so hard to forgive my father for this, understanding that forgiveness is something you have to do over and over, but I never could conquer the rage I felt whenever I thought of him.

That the fight we finally had, my father and I, was about politics, is hilarious to me. We’ve never agreed about politics. My earliest political memory is the presidential race in 1976, when I looked at the two candidates on TV and said, of Carter, “I want him to win.” He had a kind face, and his name was Jimmy. My father said, “No, we want the other guy to win,” and I thought, No, I don’t. But of course I couldn’t say that aloud. I was already afraid to contradict him.

So we were in the car, last Monday, going to get some information from a cemetery/mausoleum where my father was considering placing my stepmother’s ashes. I guess I started it. My father is one of those people who forward those hideous, racist, hateful, lie-filled emails that the more rabid form of conservatives send around. I do not exaggerate, if you’ve never seen one of these. They don’t just say that Obama is the wrong man for the job; they say he’s a terrorist. A few of them even say directly that a black man should never be president, and go on in terms that could have come directly from the KKK. I’d surprised myself by hitting “reply” on a few and refuting them, calmly and rationally, trying to reach my father as an intelligent person, to no avail. Even though they were just emails, hitting “send” was terrifying to me. Anyway, in the car that day, I noticed that Rush Limbaugh was on the radio, and said something light about how I could see where he got his ideas from. My father unleashed the most hateful tirade I have ever heard.

And I spoke up. After all these years, I finally wasn’t afraid of him anymore.

I have learned, from the internet, how to argue with someone without resorting to ad hominem attack. Calling someone names in an attempt to cow them is ineffective and degrading; my father has never learned this, being unaccustomed to having people disagree with him. I let him talk, but whenever I started to say something, he just shouted over me. And when he called me an idiot, I said “Don’t call me an idiot. You disagree with me, but I’m not an idiot.” I asked him how he knew he was right if he never listened to differing opinions, and he said he didn’t need to hear another point of view. He said such awful things, about how anyone who didn’t have health care was lazy and deserved to die, that everyone in Guantanamo was a terrorist and should be killed, in fact all Arabs should be in prison, and I asked him a question I’ve wanted to ask him for decades: “How can you call yourself a Christian? Your god is supposed to be the god of love. How can you say those things?” He had no answer for that, just snorted.

I let the argument go after that, for the most part. I mean, his wife had just died. I was surprised it had gone as far as it had, and even more surprised at how calm I felt. I had kept my temper, held my own with my father, and spoken the truth, and the world hadn’t come to an end. We arrived at the cemetery and everything just went back to normal. If he was at all disturbed by what had happened, he certainly didn’t show it. Another good thing about my father is that while he can dish it out, he can also take it. He referred to our argument over the next few days, but didn’t seem to feel bad about it. He also didn’t try to make me feel bad about it. Not that he would have succeeded.

He even told me and my sister over dinner that he felt awful about not being able to keep his temper with us when we were kids. And he told us that our stepmother, when her first husband died, had promised herself that she wouldn’t marry a man with kids, that she didn’t want to do that. We refrained from letting him know that we could tell. These admissions were huge for him, and I appreciated them. But I’m even more thankful for all the work I’ve been doing, these last twenty-five years. I like who I am. I’ve slain the dragon at last.

I told my father several times that I loved him. He even said it back, grudgingly and not terribly sincerely, like always, but it doesn’t matter. At some point I would like to talk to him about what happened after the rape, but even that is no longer such a barrier between us, for me anyhow. I’m even looking forward to visiting more often, seeing my cousins who also live in the area, and my sister and niece and nephew, whom I love so much.

I don’t believe my father is capable of loving his children like he loved both of his wives, and I’m more sure than ever that he genuinely, deeply loved my mother. He can’t decide where to put my stepmother’s ashes because he’s conflicted about where his own remains should go. The space next to my mother in the cemetery in New York belongs to him, and he feels he should rest there, beside her. But thirty years with my stepmother mean a lot to him, too. That’s a good quality for a man to have. I can love him for that.

One Response to “Resolving my father issues”

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