A bitter son’s reflections on Fathers Day
I envy those of you with great fathers more than you will ever know.
It’s Father’s Day. In the past I have reposted my story on the day my father died. It’s a funny story, a sad story, an OMG story, a no fucking way that couldn’t really have happened story. If you haven’t seen it and want to, click on over.
Today, though, I want to say how happy I am for those of you who had great dads, and also to say thanks, on behalf of kids everywhere, to those of you who are great dads. I don’t know if you fully understand how much of a difference you make.
My father was not a great dad. He wasn’t the worst guy in the world, but…
- Let’s be honest – I was not … ummm … planned. He didn’t want me, and then he didn’t want my sister, and then my other sister was an accident, too. In and of itself that’s not a huge deal, but at no point in my life did I ever get the feeling that he had changed his mind. He never said anything like “we didn’t plan you, but you’re the best thing that ever happened to me” – something I have heard other parents say more times than I can recall. Nor did he ever suggest it through his actions.
- When I was three my parents divorced and I got handed off to my grandparents to raise. So in a very real and tangible fashion he wasn’t a father, period. Throughout our lives he was more like a distant uncle whom I saw periodically (he lived a block or two away). He might be good for a few bucks now and again when there were expenses (like school clothes, maybe), and he was always at family events like holidays, and I always called him “Daddy.” But it was more of a ceremonial title than an actual job.
- Nonetheless, he had very clear ideas on what I should be in life. In short, I was to be Him, Jr. I’m Sam now because I changed my name legally in 1989, but I endured his name for the first 28 years of my life. (Nobody should ever name their kid after the father – that Jr. thing ought to outlawed.) For instance, I had a friend when I was a kid who Daddy decided was gay. So he immediately began worrying that I was going to catch a case of the queer, homosexuality being contagious and all. I used to love Good Times, and I remember walking into the room once and striking JJ’s signature “Dyn-O-Mite” pose. Turns out it was a little limp-wristed, in his view, and I think he was tormented for days because there was proof that wasn’t going to grow up to be a man, after all.
- I did pay him back for this silliness when I got older, though. I had three ear piercings and was known to wear a couple more dangly cuffs to holiday dinner.
- I think the issue was less that I might be gay than it was that his friends might think he had a gay son, which I assume would make him gay, too. He worked for the airline, which meant I had a free fly benefit. Airlines have dress codes for employees and families flying pass, and when I showed up one time wearing an earring he was having none of it. (The policy said nothing about earrings – it was only clothing.) What ensued was the worst fight we ever had, and it culminated in me telling him to fuck off. In those words. The issue, of course, wasn’t the earring. It was the fact that he was ashamed of his son.
- He then responded by punishing me financially, in a move I’m sure he thought was good parenting. Tough love only works when there’s love, though. And good parenting requires, you know, parenting, so I don’t think it worked out like he hoped. The good news is that when you’re not exactly responsible for a lot of the money being spent, you’re limited in the damage you do. I survived, I learned, I hardened, and our already bad relationship got a little worse. Not sure if he ever forgot that moment, but it’s obvious I never did.
- He did have high hopes for me educationally, though. He was happy as hell when I got into Wake Forest and Carolina, and when I managed to land the Hankins Scholarship, which was nearly a full ride at Wake, that was even better because it wasn’t going to cost him any money. Best of all, my plan was to be a lawyer, which was as good as it got … because now he’d have a free lawyer when he got into trouble. When I started coming home with some odd notions in my head, though, it was clear he didn’t appreciate the book learnin’. When I then announced that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer after all, he was done.
Think about it for a second. I was the first person in my family to get a college degree – from Wake Forest University, one of the elite schools in the nation, no less, where I graduated cum laude – and by the time he died I was in a PhD program. I was a blistering success at all kinds of things as a young man, but my own father couldn’t really be proud of me.
He did get me a TV for graduation, though. But when he handed it over, he made clear that if anything happened – as in, if it got stolen, for instance – I was not to call the police. In other words, my graduation present was hot.
There’s more, and if you read the story linked above you’ll get a fuller picture. If you ever meet my youngest sister, for instance, ask her about getting skinned by her own father in a car deal that time when she was pregnant and she and her husband were trying to scrape together a little more money to afford the cost of the baby.
My grandfather, then, was my real father, and I honored his commitment to me by taking his name – Sam – when I filed those name change papers in January of 1989. And I can never say enough about what he did for me (he was far from perfect, too, but I owe so much of what I have become to him). Still, it’s hard for a man that age to be a real father, in the sense we think of it, because he and the kid have so little in common. He was born in 1913 and grew up through the Depression. I was born as the Space Age was picking up steam, and he couldn’t have had much reference to the decade of the ’70s when I was coming of age. We loved each other, but there was always an unbridgeable cultural gap.
I don’t want to suggest that Daddy had no redeeming qualities. While he was a bad father, he was a fantastic son. He took excellent care of my grandparents and made huge sacrifices in his own life to insure they were looked after. He and my grandfather had an obvious closeness that I never had with either, and while he was never anybody’s idea of a model child, my grandmother loved him as much as any mother ever loved any son.
He was also an honest man, in his own circumstantial sort of way. By this I mean that no matter how bad he was with me, he was always truthful. He never lied to me, ever. He never bad-mouthed my mother, and he always took responsibility for his failings as a husband. He was okay with me seeing these flaws, and I appreciated that – perhaps because there was so little else to appreciate, but still.
And he knew he wasn’t much of a father. In his defense, I think he loved me as best he could. One time, when I was 12 or so and we were at Myrtle Beach (one of only two times he ever took me on vacation?) I recall him tearing up and saying he loved me. This is the only time I recall him saying that, and maybe it wasn’t his fault that he had so much difficulty voicing emotion (or showing it). I have a boatload of baggage myself, so I get how we’re creatures of our conditioning.
In the end, I guess I’m trying to say that Father’s Day has never been much more than a cruel reminder of what I didn’t have. When Daddy died in 1994, I was conflicted. On the one hand, it was my father. On the other … as hard as it is to admit, but his death roused in me not much more emotion than his life did. I was certainly anguished over his final days – his decline and passing were brutally hard and painful – but I didn’t honestly feel much beyond the obligatory. How many of us have relatives whom we “love” because they’re relatives. Maybe we don’t say “I love my mother.” Instead we say “of course I love her – she’s my mother.”
My sisters, I think, are a lot more charitable on the subject of Daddy than I am, although I know both have wrestled with some of the same issues their whole lives. And I hope, with all my heart, that they’re not sitting around this morning feeling the kind of ambivalence I am. I hope they don’t feel guilty for not feeling the way they’re supposed to.
To those of you who have great fathers, and to those of you who are, happy Fathers Day. I hope you know how blessed you truly are.