For my father, Brian
July 1938 – July 2015
Retired Chief Petty Officer,
Electrical Technician in the US Navy,
served 30 years and in 2 foreign wars.
I miss you.
Aside from the terrible rift between my sister’s and I, that is unlikely ever to heal, I am feeling grateful. I feel grateful because I’m reminded that I had at least one parent who truly loved me, flaws and all, and just as I am. In fact, it’s from my father’s side of the family that I’ve experienced the most familial love.
You see, I was what you might have called a “messed up kid”. That’s what a kid who got in a lot of trouble was called, what I was called, when I was 15 years old.. No one really considered that such a kid was being abused at–beaten black and blue by her mother– and that was likely the source of such teenage rebellion. But shortly after meeting my father my life path changed, for the better.
My father, whom I’d never met before, had finally gotten my mother’s approval to fly me and my younger sister from the east coast to sunny southern California. As a sailor in the Navy, living over 3,000 miles away, and at sea in a submarine for months at a time, the every-other-weekend parent/child visiting schedule just wasn’t possible. But at last, we were going to meet him and to meet the family we never even knew we had: an uncle and aunt, cousins, and even grandparents! A Grandma and a Grandpa! I was excited about the prospect of meeting a whole new side of my family. Being the blacksheep that I was on my mother’s side, there was no comfortable niche in which I belonged, or was welcome or accepted. Square Peg, Meet Round Hole. Maybe this side would be different?
I had envisioned meeting my dad all my life, so was terribly excited about this adventure! I had imagined him to be some really cool, laid back and handsome, bachelor dude. In the one picture I knew of that existed of him, he looked kinda cool and handsome, in a short sleeve shirt, a sailor’s crew cut hair, with dimples in his cheeks and a cleft in his strong, square chin. He’d been in the Navy his entire adult life, so I figured he would have to be strong and handsome, right? In fact, I was looking for that guy when my sister and I got off the plane and into the terminal. I was definitely NOT looking for that strange guy in a loud Hawaiian shirt that was waving his arms in our direction. I wouldn’t have been caught dead hanging out with someone dressed like that, after all. What self respecting Valley-girl-wanna-be teenage girl would?
Look! Look! I’ll bet it’s that guy! Him! Over there! The one in the the polo shirt and khaki shorts and the nice tan… he’s got the dimples! and I’ll bet he surfs… and…no…it’s not him.. Well, maybe it’s that guy on this side, the one that…damn! Hey, there’s a guy in military dress…no? Damn, I wish that weird looking guy over there would stop making such a scene. Seriously. How UNcool is that? Who is he trying to get to pay attenti….
This stiff-backed, too-old looking guy wore very uncool, 50’s-style black rimmed glasses, and an even more uncool Hawaiian shirt! His uncool hair was too straight and shaggy lookin -not the short bristled crew cut of a strong, proud military man! Don’t get me wrong, I liked longer hair on guys my own age, but his looked like he didn’t even brush it. Like, Oh. My. Gawd. Gag me! I totally could’a barfed. As he got closer, I even thought I could smell alcohol, too. How could this very uncool, uncouth vermouthed, 4-eyed, broom-stuck-up-his… well, you know- this guy– how could this guy be our dad? I was expecting a really cool dad. I admit it. It was a total letdown…like, fer shur. And, he was, like, totally awkward with us, you know? Like, trying way too hard to be some kind of gentleman with us, or something. Opening doors for us and shit like that. Seriously. Like I said, Way. UN.Cool.
“Hi. I’m your dad, Brian!” Big toothy, totally uncool, smile. (I’m sure I grimaced. Oh well. I was here, so I’d best get on with it and over it, right?)
I asked him, “how did you know we were your daughters?” He explained that had a few pictures of us, but he would have known us anywhere, even without them. One picture turned out to be of my sister when she was a giggly 8 or 10 month old, with me standing beside her crib. Another picture was a copy of one my mother had. I’m sitting on a kitchen counter, only 2 ½ years old, lightest blond hair with a dutch-boy hair cut. On my lap there is an open jar of peanut butter, and I’m sticking a butter knife in, trying to scrape out some peanut butter. Beside me are a few slices of Wonder Bread, and an open jar of grape jelly. It was obvious that I knew, even then, if no one was willing to make me a PB&J, well damn it! I could -and would- make it myself. SO there! (You might imagine that, upon seeing this picture, the word most often used to describe me at that age would be “precocious”… or, “unsupervised”. Take your pick, both are true).
Anyway, both my younger sister and I felt awkward around him; no one knew really knew what to do, or say. It took several days to find some degree of understanding and comfortableness between us. He tried to be a gracious and entertaining host, and he obviously wanted us to like him, which clued me into the fact that he might be a lot more permissive than my mother… and might allow me to do the kinds of things that my mother would have slammed me into a wall for, like smoking cigarettes (she could do it, so why couldn’t I?) Sure, I could’ve snuck out to find a vending machine, but I decided to test him instead. I told him,
“hey. I smoke, but mom doesn’t know. If she did she’d flip out. I’m out of smokes. Will you buy me a pack?”
He nodded, said OK, and then bought a whole carton for me! Whoa! And he made sure I never ran out while we were there, too. He even allowed me to drink a beer as long as my little sister didn’t see, because she’d tell probably tell our mother. He definitely earned a few points on my father cool-o’-meter for that. It was enough to let me decide I was going to lay it on the line. You know, let my darker self out, the sassy teenage girl with a cig hanging from her lips, saying whatever the f**k she really felt like saying. You know, be a real punk pain in the ass to test his worthiness of the title of “Dad”, rather than just “my father, Brian”.
The fact is, he just wasn’t the heroic father figure I’d fantasized having as I was growing up. Letting me smoke and drink a beer didn’t make him a good father, I know, but it was all he knew to do at the time. He didn’t have any experience dealing with kids – let alone, teenage girls. Thinking back, he must have been scared out of his mind!
After that, however, everything changed. He brought us to San Francisco, and on to Walnut Creek to meet cousins –and grandparents. To my Grandmother…
…She came rushing out the door the moment we arrived — my mirror image in nearly every way: height, hips, thighs, square jaw –only she had darker hair (my color now) fine and soft, permed to give it some curl, and streaked with gray. We had identical facial features, even expressions! but she also had such beautiful, soft, lines on her
face. Lines that spoke of kindness and of a life that experienced more joy than sorrow, and she carried those memories of joy within each line, and it was beautiful to behold.
Then, she came right up to me, so very close.
(Whoa, invasion of the personal space, lady!)
She placed her small, square shaped hands
(hey, they’re shaped just like my hands!)
on either side of my face, gently cupping under my jaw to hold me still -captive!
(do I break away?…no…..it’s ok…)
and I saw my own face still looking back at me, much older than me, ageless, but ancient at the same time. And kind and wise. My own marbled blue/grey colored eyes gazed back into themselves. Reflecting. But I mean, she really gazed, hard! Looking into me so deeply I knew she could see those secret places –those places that hurt, that cried and curled up in dark corners to hide and keep secret.
(why don’t I feel afraid?)
Then, as if it was the simplest, most natural & normal thing, like everybody and anybody could do and say this kind of stuff in front of anyone,
with each word emphasized gently so as not to scare me away, she said, “I. Love. YOU. S0 very much. And I always have”.
“Always” echoed through the chambers of my heart. Always? Me? She’s never met me! How the…?…Inside me the guarded, too cool persona with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in my T-shirt sleeve like James Dean, with all those protected, hidden wounds, dark secrets and fears and anger…felt it become real. Every single locked space within me just opened up, completely, the doors flung wide…. and then….all the fear and shittiness inside spewed out of me, as if a dam broke from inside.
Then, in the next heart beat… sweet baby belly laughs….the scent and taste and feel of warm chocolate chip cookies. It all WHOOoshed in, and filled up those emptied places as if it belonged there first. A perfect fit.
Do you know was the most amazing part of all of it? I Believed Her. That I could, at that age, believe that someone actually loved me, was nothing less than a True Miracle (–and I say that as a very non-religious person). My world change. I changed. She was a gift. A gift to me from my father. He gave me a family where I belonged and felt wanted, and it was just given to me without expectation or demand. Given with love. He gave me a Grandma and I loved her, fiercely and completely (and I still do). And then I started to love him, too.
I haven’t thought about those first meetings in years. They changed me…fundamentally changed me. It was the first time I had ever experienced being unconditionally love. And it allowed me to believe that my life could be better. Two months after meeting my paternal family, I ran away from home for the last time, at last. I left because I didn’t want to become like my mother –abusive, hateful, selfish, brutal and cruel. I wanted to be like my grandmother (every kid should have one like I had –a grandmother who can make the word “Always” echo in the chambers of her heart, with yummy baby belly chocolate chip cookie happy-ness and jiggly giggles that fit inside perfectly).
She died years ago, but with my father’s death I feel the loss of my grandmother again, too. Alone. I understand that this is a part of Grief. Of course I am grieving, but it strikes me as odd. I didn’t think I could ever feel this kind of grief for my father. My grandmother, yes, but I didn’t know losing him would feel just as painful…even more so.
I did visit him a few more times over the years, as well as my grandparents, and we talked on the phone and wrote letters to each other regularly. But it was not your typical father-daughter relationship, any way you look at it. Still, I continued to challenge him over the years, demanding answers to what had happened between my mother and he when I was just a toddler. I asked him where he was during those years that my mother was beating me. The thing is, though, he would answer me. I didn’t always like his answers, but in responding he was telling me that I mattered to him. As my Dad, he was willing to dig deep into some seriously scary, emotional stuff that caused his military masculinity to tremble, and he did it because he cared.
Isn’t that what Dads do? I still have every letter he ever wrote to me.
Sadly, and wrongly, I let too much time pass since I last saw him or talked with him. I was too caught up in my own world, with my own kids. Any reason I might grasp for is weak and worthless, though. All I can only say is my selfish child-within never paused long enough to imagine a world without him in it. I never considered he might actually become old…or need my help. Now, adding to my grief, sits inside me a cold stone of regret, tumbling around with the sadness, anger, and such a deep sense of loss.
I don’t like this feeling of Grief. I feel like a little child missing her Daddy–when he never was a “Daddy” to me. And I definitely had not been his precious little girl. He was just… my “Dad”. He was that “not-a-surfer-dude” guy I knew, and who happened to end every phone call by saying,
“and remember, I love you”.
He signed his letters with those same words. It always felt somewhat foreign and weird and I often couldn’t understand why he’d say that when I really wasn’t deserving. Not really. We never went fishing together, or do anything that might resemble parent and child bonding time. Whenever I visited him as an adult we’d usually go to his favorite sports bars to quaff a “seven & seven”, followed by a Lite beer. I went to visit when I was considering entering the military, so he took me around to the various recruiters and, of course, the Navy base. Then to the American Legion for a light lunch served with another 7&7 and Lite beer, and so on. Another visit, after I’d graduated college, was spent visiting various sports bar and military bar lounges, interspersed with a little sight seeing. Each visit was spent like that. Some father-daughter relationship, huh?
Still, I never wanted him to stop writing and calling, and saying
“and remember, I love you”.
I usually answered, “ya, you too”. Once in while, however, the words would even slip out of me, all on their own,
“I love you, too, Dad.”
(I think those words bubbled up from where they’d been living ever since my Grandma tucked them back inside me.)
My sisters did not get what I got. Except for one other time, they never spoke to him again, or communicated with him or our grandparents and cousins, after their first and only meeting. When was about 65 years old he decided it was time he travelled the US, to see all his surviving family for the last time. He knew that, at his age, he probably wouldn’t be able to make such a trip again and he wanted to see us all together, just this once. Regardless of whether they cared, or did it for the steak dinners he paid for, I know it meant a lot to him. And this time he got to meet his grandchildren, too.
For what it’s worth, in his own way he became the parent I needed him to be. He stepped forward, reached out to me, and brought me “home”, but he never encroached, reproached, nor made demands of me as a daughter. He was a father who, if nothing else, was willing to try to make a connection with his kid, to try to be a “Dad” even if he didn’t rate very high on the cool-o’-meter. It may not seem like much to anyone else, but it was all we had. It was all I had. And I loved him for it.
Yes, I am sad that I’ve lost my father, my Dad, and I have regrets for missing out on so many years of life we could have (should have?) shared, but I’m also filled with a wonderful sense of gratitude for him -for my Dad- because I still know that my Dad did love me. I had started to forget, but then, all these memories of the gifts he gave to me have come back and… well…
Whoosh! I am home again.