This past week, since my contemplation on the subject of fatherhood memoirs, I’ve been thinking a bit about a comment left on that post:
One can be honest without romanticizing and without smearing, I think. What one can’t really do is offer a totally unbiased account of anything – there will always be subjectivity involved and that’s fine really.
With those words as the seeds germinating the decision about whether or not to move forward, it occurred to me that it was the written word that was one of the turning points in my relationship with my dad. Our relating wasn’t always easy -even most of the time- and I wasn’t always so enamored with him (what girl is if she has a father worth his salt?).
For most of my childhood my father seemed larger than life; intimidating even. My older siblings seemed to have found an easy balance between dealing with his dominant, aloof personality and the truth that he loved his kids and would never hesitate to help any of us when it was in his power. I however, just sort trembled in his presence. That is, except in the one area where we seemed to connect. That was music, the church choir specifically. Outside of that…nothing. Or so it seemed, until I was 16 years old.
Now, every boy in town knew and knew full well that Deac’s baby girl was off limits. Period. Those who didn’t know figured it our soon enough: don’t look too hard, too long, or too often. If so, it wouldn’t be long before one of my two brothers who were in school with me let it “slip”: “Johnny Smith was hanging around El today at lunch.” And that was that.
However there are always those not easily dissuaded or intimidated by a guard dog. They fancy themselves able to maneuver into any space they set their minds to enter and one such person showed up at our high school. Since he certainly couldn’t call me, I decided that I would call him. At 10, when my father, who worked as a garbage man and had to rise at 5 AM, was fast asleep.
This was 1987, so there were no cell phones. There were two phones in our house: One in the kitchen, and one in my parents’ bedroom. That alone made this a risky move, but Daddy was a sound sleeper, or so I thought. I went for it, and wasn’t on the phone 5 minutes before a click and baritone voice cut in:
“I know you must be new around here, so Ima give you the benefit of the doubt. She can’t take calls. She can not date. You can hang up now. And you (that would be me)? I’ll deal with you tomorrow. Go to bed.”
The level of embarrassed mortification I felt could hardly be put into words. Which is just as well, because had I said anything at that moment I might not be here today. But I digress.
I’m that person who can’t figure out how to formulate a quick reply or mount a defense in the heat of the moment. It’s usually later that it occurs to me what I could or should have said. Only then, it’s either too late or it doesn’t matter. Give me a paper and pen (or a keyboard nowadays), and the thoughts flow much more eloquently.
Since I couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t match wits with my father in a verbal discussion no matter how long I lay there and cooked up potential responses in my head, I wrote him a letter. Its contents are irrelevant, because seriously, how much sense do you think an embarrassed and overwrought 16-year-old girl made? But I wrote it, and I left it right where I knew my father would see it before he left for work the next morning.
I expected the worst, but got just the opposite. I still got it with both barrels, and punishment was still meted out, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Because Daddy was able to think about what I was thinking before we spoke, we were both spared my trembling, stammering, deer in the headlights response to his displeasure.
For the first time, I got an understanding that my father wasn’t trying to make my life miserable. He didn’t set out for me to be known as the untouchable girl (and the jokes that went along with that!), but he was completely at ease with that because he knew what I did not know: that it was what was best for me. One day I would appreciate it. That wasn’t the day, but at least I *got* a clue.
It was concern and love rather than sadism driving the narrow corridor and high walls he had built around his daughter. We got along much better after that. The rapport was easier not because he changed, but because I learned to “see past the weekend”, for once in my teen-aged life. It doesn’t mean I always understood perfectly from that day forward. It simply meant that my dad was no longer the distant figure providing my needs while making unreasonable pronouncements from on high.
Which brings me back to the possibility of a memoir and that tension between truth and subjectivity. When you are honest with yourself about yourself, there needn’t be any tension between truth and subjectivity. When the default position is one of honoring the one who was the vehicle though which you were given life, training and love, even the harder things are tempered with grace.
Therein lies the rub, I think. Love, and the difference between real love and our culture’s bastardized redefinition of it. It took me 16 years to get a glimpse of the difference, and I was well on my way to being 30 years old before the overwhelming power of my daddy’s love for me truly sank in.
We all remember our childhoods from a particular vantage point.Booky was right about that. Subjectivity comes with the territory. In fact, I suspect that overt attempts at an objective rendering of our pasts reveals a level of self-deception which makes it easy to romanticize or smear.
Taken all together, and no matter how I look at it, I was blessed with an excellent father.
I am suddenly reminded of the officer playing Taps at my father’s burial site. I’m going to take that as a sign that you’ve read enough to have gotten a glimpse of a great man in a world where great men are often unrecognized.
That’s a wrap.