For my father, Brian
July 1938 – July 2015
Retired Chief Petty Officer,
Electrical Technician in the US Navy,
served 20 years and in 2 foreign wars.
I really miss you, Dad.
Aside from the terrible rift between my sisters and I, that is unlikely ever to heal, I feel grateful, because I’ve been 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. My paternal grandparents…
Omg! I can’t even begin to tell you how much my heart was lifted and my spirit replenished when I first met them!
I was a “messed up teen”. 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 the fact that a kid being abused –beaten black and blue– at home could possibly be the source of such teenage rebellion. Yet, shortly after meeting my father and grandmother, I ended up in foster care, away from the abuse, and my life path changed, for the better.
My father, whom I’d never met before, had gotten my mother’s approval to fly me, and my younger sister, to CA to meet him and stay long enough to meet the family we never knew we had: cousins, an uncle and aunt, 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…imagined he’d be some really cool, laid back, handsome bachelor type of dude. In the one picture I knew existed of him, he had looked kinda cool and handsome, in his white T-shirt and a sailor’s crew cut hair, with dimples in his cheeks and a cleft in his strong, square-jawed chin. I was looking for that guy when my sister and I got off the plane, into the terminal.; and not for the guy waving in our direction, trying to get our attention as we scanned the crowd — 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! I wish that weird looking guy over there would stop making such scene. Seriously. How UNcool is that? Who the hell is he trying to get to pay attenti…. oh. Shit.
The stiff-backed, funny looking guy wore very uncool, 50’s-styled black rim glasses, and an even more uncool, loud Hawaiian shirt. His uncool hair was too straight, and it was shaggy looking. Don’t get me wrong, I liked longer hair on a dude, but his looked like he didn’t even brush it. Was that dandruff I could see, even from over here? What’s with those big patches of red skin with white flaky dry skin all around? Psoriasis? Gag me with a spoon! I totally coulda barfed. As he got closer, I could smell alcohol, too. How could this very uncool, uncouth 4-eyed geek, who walked like he had a broom stuck up his… well, you know– how could this guy be our dad. I admit it. It was a total letdown, for sure. And, he was, like, totally acting awkward with us, and trying way too hard to be some kind of gentleman with us. Opening doors for us and shit like that. Seriously. Like I said, UN.Cool.
“Hi. I’m your dad, Brian!” Big, toothy, uncool smile. I asked him “how did you know we were your daughters? To that, he replied 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. The picture of me that he had was a copy of one my mother had, too. I’m sitting on a kitchen counter, only 2 ½ years old, with lightest blond hair with a dutch-boy hair cut. Between my knees 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. (You might imagine, upon seeing this picture, the word most often used to describe me at that age was “precocious”. That, or “unsupervised”.). It was obvious that I knew, even then, that If no one was willing to make me a PB&J, well then, damn it! I could -and would- make it myself. SO there!
I grew up hearing tales of my adventures in making Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread. Apparently, I had a talent for gathering and stacking up items (chairs first, then an up-side-down pot or two, etc) so that I could then climb them, and get onto the counter. Shortly after that particular picture was taken my older sister had walked into the kitchen just in time to see me fall off the counter, land face first onto the floor, and knock out a front tooth. Fortunately, it was a baby tooth; though recently I had to give up fighting the long-term damage that fall caused to the underlying, developing adult tooth: I now have nothing but a little nub of remaining adult tooth, encased in a crown.
Anyway, my younger sister and I felt awkward, too, and embarrassed around him; we were staying in the home of done guy we didn’t know, and no one knew, really, 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, so it wasn’t long before I learned he was a lot more permissive than my mother…allowing the kinds of things that my mother would have slammed me into a wall for, like smoking (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; so I told him “hey. I smoke and mom doesn’t know. If she did she’d flip out. But I’m out of smokes. Will you buy me a pack?” He nodded and said OK, and then bought a whole carton for me! He made sure I was never ran out while we were there, too. He also allowed me to drink a beer, as long as my little sister didn’t see (because she’d tell probably tell our mother). He earned points with me for that. What can I say? I had decided I was going to lay it on the line, 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. Ya, I was a real pain in the ass, I know.
After meeting my dad first and getting to know him. a bit, I realized he just wasn’t the heroic father figure I’d fantasized having while I was growing up. At the same time, my sister did not seem even remotely interested in being there, and I started feeling resentful of her presence. So, she and I didn’t talk much either. She isolated, kept to herself, was quiet and generally sullen. But I took risks in order to figure out what my dad was all about. One day, on a trip to see the desert, his car overheated and we had to stop on the side of the road and wait for some help. This was, I decided, a good time to ascertain whether he was at all a “perv”, so I stripped down to my bikini top and short-shorts, and lay down on a towel, right there on the side of the road., in the break down lane. I even got my sister to lay down, too –Why not? The least we could do was get tan while we waited for help…and I could discretely notice whatever he noticed at the same time.
I got nothing pervy, which was good.
He still wasn’t cool, in my opinion, but at least he’d moved up a few notches, to “Ok.” on my father-approval meter.
After that we left San Diego and headed to San Francisco, then Concord, to meet our cousins, and finally, to Walnut Creek to meet our grandparents.
…She came rushing out the door the moment we arrived at my grandparents’ house — my mirror image in so many ways: hips, thighs, square jaw –only she had permed, much darker blond hair (my color now), streaked with gray. We had identical facial features, though, even identical expressions! …but she also had
these beautiful, soft, lines etched onto her face; lines that spoke of kindness, and of a life that experienced more joy than sorrow. And she carried the memories of those moments of joy within each line on her face.
She came up to me, so very close (Whoa, invasion of the personal space, lady!). She placed her small, square shaped hands, (shaped just like my hands!) on either side of my face, gently cupping under my jaw to hold me still -captive (um…ok. What is she doing?) ,and I saw my own face still looking back at me, much older than me, ageless but ancient, kind and wise. My own fiercely bright blue-marbled-with-soft-grey eyes (huh. they really are so beautiful!) 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, the places that hurt, that cried and curled up in dark corners to hide (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 (No. Way!), she said to me, each word emphasized gently so as not to scare me away: “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 there just Whooshed out… and with the next heart beat… sweet baby belly laughs….the scent and taste and feel of warm chocolate chip cookies….it Whooshed in! and filled up all those emptied places as if it had always belonged there first. A perfect fit.
But 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).
Ya. I’m grieving and crying; it strikes me at odd times. I didn’t think I could ever feel this kind of grief. My dad and I were not really that close, especially during these last years. I sorely regret that right now. I feel like a little child missing her daddy, even though he never was a “daddy” to me. And I had definitely never been his wonderful little daughter. He was just… my “dad”, who ended every phone call by saying, “and remember: I love you” and he signed his letters with that same love. It always felt somewhat foreign and weird and I didn’t understand how he could say that when he really didn’t know me (but Gramma did…somehow). Still, I never wanted him to stop saying it, and I usually answered, “ya, you too”. Once in a while though, it would slip out on its own volition: “I love you, too, Dad. I really do.” I think those words bubbled up from where they’d been living, ever since my Grandma helped them move back in.
So, once upon a time, when I was so lost I couldn’t even find my own self, my dad became the parent I needed him to be, who stepped forward, reached out to me, and brought me “home”. He loved me, and gave me a grandma, too.. Everyone should have a father like mine who, if nothing else, is willing to try to make a connection with his kid, and is willing to try to be a dad, even if he doesn’t rate very high on the cool-o’-meter. And every child should have the kind of grandmother I had, who can make the word “Always” echo in the chambers of the heart.
Some day I hope to I can give to someone what she gave me: Foundation. Roots. Strength. Yummy baby belly chocolate chip cookie happy-ness jiggly giggles. Someday I hope i can hold a young face like she did mine, and see inside like she did, and that the fullness of love in my heart will live inside the words I speak,, as easily and simply, so unmistakably, utterly true as warm sunlight, so that this young person experiences the same Whoosh! as I did, with all that grandmother-in-your-soul goodness moving in, to remake its home there.
I haven’t thought about that day for years. It was a truly profound moment in my life; it even changed me…fundamentally changed me. It was the first time I ever experienced truly unconditional 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. I left when I became aware that I was on the brink of becoming like my mother –abusive, hateful, selfish, brutal and cruel. Just as I was about to step over the line and into her world reality, I managed to pull back and refuse that path. I bolted past her, instead, and got away.
Yes, I’m sad that I’ve lost my father, and that my sisters –who never saw what I saw, or experienced what I did, so did not care at all about him– have been torn apart from me in this wake of anger and grief (a whole ‘nother story, believe me). But I’m also filled with a wonderful sense of gratitude for him, because now I can remember, all over again, that I was loved. Am loved. I had started to forget…and then…
Whoosh! I am home again.