I always had the dream of placing my small feet on top of father’s big wingtips as he guided me across the dance floor.
But that never happened. What happened was that my father left my mother and I one day when I was six. The memory burns as much as the assassination of John F. Kennedy did that year – 1963. Caroline Kennedy and I are almost the exact same age and we both “lost” our dads that year. Mine was just a few communities over from us, but for all my understanding of what divorce was, he might as well have been dead. Of course, I’m glad he didn’t die and am incredibly grateful that he’s still alive. But to a six-year-old, death and divorce seemed pretty similar.
Every so often, I saw my father, but it was clear that he felt ill at ease and didn’t have a clue what to “do” with a girl. Should he take his 6 foot 5 inch frame and get down on the rug and play Barbies with me (hey, I would have liked that)? Would I want to go with him to the UCLA football game (I did go and remember it as one of the happy, if somewhat chaotic, times with Dad). So we got in the habit of having ‘dates’ where I’d dress up a bit and we’d go out to dinner and we’d try and have a relationship, but it was one that had few role models.
I look back and have compassion for him because even with his sense of being the outsider, he did make an effort to have a relationship with me, all the while dealing with his own pain over the divorce, beginning to date again with all that that entailed, and dealing with my mother and whatever rules she set for him. Nobody was to blame for this turn of events and both were clueless about what would be best for me. Because clearly what would have been best for me would have been no divorce to begin with.
This wasn’t a couple who yelled, screamed, threw bric-a-brac, hit, or punched. This was a couple who probably had a fairly bloodless relationship, but at least it wasn’t violent, either physically or emotionally. But in 1963, women were beginning to stir from their long beauty sleep of the 1950’s, and the thought of being married to a man like my father must have seemed as stifling as being in a room with most of the air sucked out of it. I think my mother just couldn’t breathe.
And you know, I understand that, but my mother’s decision to save her self had huge consequences for two other people and she never did understand my loss of a father, because her father had been so ever-present in her life. Years later, I have a clear memory of my mother asking me why I cared so much about my father and his reactions to me – in essence, why couldn’t I just “forget him”. Well, I just couldn’t then and I can’t today, either.
My parents, like all parents, were flawed human beings who just happened to live in a time when women’s nascent sense of self was just beginning to be explored. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1964, and the book was a beginning to naming and describing women like my mother who had bought into the idea that good women gave up their dreams and aspirations for home and hearth. A couple of generations later, it’s interesting that many educated and accomplished women are deciding consciously to forestall their own career aspirations for home and hearth, proudly becoming SAHMs and WAHMs. They are starting internet-based businesses to bring in some income between taking care of the kidlets and couldn’t be happier. What a full circle world it really is.
So that’s my basic understanding of how my parent’s divorce happened – I just remember it as such a shocking event mainly because there was no yelling or screaming in the house – although the amount of tears is hard to determine. If they existed, they were definitely behind closed doors.
A few years after the divorce, my father met a woman with three kids and they got married and then promptly moved to the Midwest. I then became the shuttled kid, spending summers with my father and the step-monster (oh, sorry, step-mother) and her kids. I really hated this, because my Dad would try so darn hard to treat us all alike. I didn’t want that – who does? I wanted his undivided attention as, after all, I’d just spent most of the year without him, and those kids had him every day. That’s how it seemed to me. I think how it seemed to him was that he was living in the worst kind of “no win” situation. If he favored me, he’d hear about it from his wife, and if he didn’t, he was disappointing me, and let’s face it, he was living with her, not with me.
Then came the final straw with the step-mother. They’d moved again, this time to the south and I was visiting. I’d spent a portion of a school year about a year or so earlier, which didn’t end so wonderfully. It was one of the times when I tried to figure out what it would be like to live with my dad. But again, I didn’t see him all that much, since he worked an awful lot, so I was stuck having to live with another woman’s rules and resentful step-siblings. So here it was a year or so later, and I was doing my obligatory summer sojourn. And we were all in the car, driving somewhere on a short trip. And in the middle of nothing (or so it seemed) my step-mother announced that I just had to go – that it was either her or me. And here’s my dad, driving along, being broad-sided by this as surely as any truck running the stop sign.
For all I know, they’d been feuding about this for weeks and months – but it sure seemed like it came out of nowhere. I think silence ensued and the rest of the drive was laden with unspoken anger and resentment. Eventually I think there were probably some heated discussions and fights, but the upshot was, as you all can figure out, I was put on a plane and didn’t see my father for the next five years. The next time was after my step-mother was dead and buried and the step-siblings had fled the scene.
The last act of this drama ended up being a bit of a let down. I saw him for one weekend, he was a wreck because his wife had just died and his step children had left him (temporarily as it turned out, but you have to wonder about a woman who’d allowed a man to raise her kids and pay everything for them, but denied him the ability to adopt them because she said he “wasn’t blood”. No, maybe not blood, but certainly a checkbook, as it turned out.) After that weekend, there were years before I saw him again, and by then I was myself a mother, approaching my own divorce, and he was remarried, but this time to a wonderful woman.
I started this piece by remembering that I never danced with my father, and part of this is because he never attended either of my weddings. I regret this, as I’m sure he does, too. I didn’t attend his last wedding, either. Nor did I hop a plane to visit him or my grandmother who lived in the same town as him – I never had the money or time to do this. And I didn’t even attend my grandmother’s memorial service. It was always ‘understood’ by everybody and they’ve been nice enough about it, and the facts of my lack of daughterly duty at least on the surface, makes sense. But it sure feels bad.
I remember a small scene in Desperate Housewives where Bree is railing about her mother-in-law after Rex dies; basically she tells her son, “grandma’s a bitch” and her son replies, “but she’s OUR bitch.” And that’s how I feel about my Dad (and my mom, for that matter). I don’t know if I’d even like him all that much because so much has come between us over the years – caused in some cases by others, some from ourselves, and some of the distance caused by nobody and nothing in particular – it’s just become a habit. But no matter the reason for the distance, no matter how awkward seeing him again might be, no matter all of that . . . he’s still MY dad. And I’m hoping that one day soon, we can just cut a rug.
Hope everybody had a wonderful Father’s Day today. And Dad, I love you, Laura