It’s Father’s Day in the United States. Oh, yay.
If you’re here looking for a feel-good, mushy post, keep looking. Regular readers know that my father takes a beating in this blog. I’ve bashed him for getting married too young, having too many kids, having too many divorces, and marrying too many women. I’ve vented about how his wives were always the primary focus of his attention, rather than his children. And yet, in my dad’s house, you were lucky if you were neglected. If you were unlucky, well, you just hoped your siblings were equally unlucky and Dad’s spanking hand was tired by the time it was your turn. Spanking time was the ONLY time I was glad I had older siblings.
But, once again, I digress into my father’s lousy parenting. And that is not the topic of today’s post. Today’s post is about character:
I first saw these as flags hanging from the gym rafters at the YMCA where I played in a recreational volleyball league. You couldn’t miss them, or at least I couldn’t. I bumped the volleyball into them repeatedly.
When “Trustworthiness” wrecked a fantastic rally for the seventh time, I complained to my team. “Why they hell are those flags even hanging in the gym?!”
My team recoiled like I was a six-headed Nazi.
Player #1: “Those are the six pillars of character!”
Japanese-American Player #2: “Didn’t your school teach you about them when you were growing up?”
Gasps all around.
Home-schooled Player #3: “But your parents did, right?”
I laughed. “Seriously, guys?” I pointed at the blue and yellow flags. “Trustworthiness and respect? Hell no. My siblings and I picked locks and read each other’s diaries in hopes of finding blackmail material.” I waved at the red flag. “Caring? Are you kidding? We regularly wished e coli on each other in the hopes of getting seconds at the dinner table. Citizenship? Ha! The KGB wished they’d had informants as unscrupulous as the Ashbough horde – we insinuated, tattled, and outright lied to get the front seat in the car, an extra cookie, or a scrap of parental attention—”
Player #1 grabbed the ball out of my hands and ran back to the service line. “Enough chitchat! Let’s finish the game, ladies!”
No one showered near me after the game. I’m sure it was because my organic body wash smelled like ginger-laced cabbage.
As I scrubbed myself all cabbagey fresh, I thought about those pillars that my father had never talked about. Well, except for fairness. Fairness got a lot of attention in my family.
My Brilliant Future Lawyer Sister was the youngest member of the horde for eight years, and therefore the least successful at achieving an extra snack or the front seat. Thwarted repeatedly, she often screeched, “It’s not fair!”
My father’s response was invariably, “Even Jimmy Carter knows that life isn’t fair!”
He was right. Life wasn’t fair. When I was sixteen and rear-ended another car, my dad railed at me on the phone while I sobbed. After fifteen minutes, he finally asked, “Well, was anyone hurt?”
Not “are YOU hurt?” But “is anyone hurt/ is there going to be a lawsuit that wrecks our insurance?”
I wish I’d answered, “Don’t worry about it, Dad, they’re merely amputating my arm as we speak.”
Instead, I just sniffled, “No,” and tried to tell him that I’d hit the brakes over and over and they’d taken forever to finally engage. I had a witness, but my dad didn’t want to hear it. Instead, he launched into his “no excuses” lecture.
When my dad married for the third time, he got on my case about how I wasn’t very welcoming to my latest stepmother. That was not true. I was perfectly welcoming to Stepmother #2. I was not, however, remotely welcoming to her dog, which had bitten Pretty Space Cadet Sister. My dad didn’t want to upset his new love, and so the dog was staying despite my little sister’s stitches. Dad and I had a very long, very loud argument. The argument wandered through childhood hurts, touched on filial failings, and culminated in my shout of, “Goddamn it! I didn’t ASK to be born!”
My father snorted. “You weren’t exactly my idea either! YOU were the failure of birth control!”
There’s just no comeback for a brutal shot like that. I retired from the field of battle, reduced to foot-stomping.
Afterwards, I checked my psyche for wounds. But there were none. Mentally, I wasn’t bleeding. I wasn’t even bruised. At first I thought I was just numb. Maybe the pain would come later. But it didn’t. My dad had merely confirmed what I had always known. He hadn’t wanted any more kids after my older sibs had been born.
I’ve spent years revisiting my childhood with that information (in addition to a therapist). It’s like looking at a picture with various filters. All the hard edges I was so angry about have blurred and grown soft. Other items are now in focus.
And I think I see some of those pillars of character in my childhood picture after all.
First, it was actually rather nice to know my father wasn’t a total Duggar-like idiot. He knew his limits, and he tried to plan. (I’m pretty sure my mom, who loved being pregnant, sabotaged multiple forms of birth control.) After he married Stepmom #2, the man had a vasectomy. Respect, Dad.
My dad was honest. To a fault. If you didn’t sing, dance, or play a sport well, he never pretended you did. He certainly could have lied and fed me a line of bullshit about how much he and my mom wanted a little girl just like me. It would have made him look good. It would also have fucked with my head. Trustworthiness, Dad.
My dad used to be a Republican. He worked on Capitol Hill and at the EPA. He could have stayed Republican, stayed on as a lobbyist, and made more money. But he didn’t. Dad saw his party for limited government morph into a corrupt party of plutocrats spouting religious rhetoric to motivate voters. He left them. (Or, as he likes to say, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party. They left me!”) I know many Republicans who, perhaps out of misplaced loyalty or laziness, twist themselves in knots trying to defend the policies of the current GOP. I have friends with parents that they can’t even talk to anymore, because those parents watch and parrot Fox News exclusively. Not my Dad. He stays informed with multiple news sources and is now a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club. He’s a feminist. He rescues discarded dogs and cats in Utah. That’s some serious citizenship, right there.
My birth might not have been as eagerly anticipated as Big Brother’s, but my dad did his best to treat us equally. Our allowance was the same. Our curfew was the same. Our punishments were the same. If Big Brother could do yard work at age twelve, so could I. Life wasn’t fair, but my dad gave us the fairest household he could. My sisters and I never believed we weren’t capable of accomplishing a task just because we were girls. (We might have internalized self-doubt for other reasons, but NEVER due to our gender.) So props, Dad, for fairness. (And yeah, I can’t believe I’m thanking you for making me mow more than an acre of grass with a push mower in the 100+ degrees plus humidity of a DC swamp summer.)
The responsibility pillar? That one was the easiest to find. My dad’s butt was firmly parked on it. Dad wanted to be a writer, but he worked as a mostly miserable government bureaucrat to pay the bills. When my parents separated, it was my mother who left us and went back to school. My father’s 9-5 job fed us. We didn’t have quite enough to eat, but we didn’t starve, either. My father opted for a house in excellent school districts over an abundance of food. Good school districts tend to be affluent. My sibs and I were repeatedly taunted by our richer classmates for our cheap clothes. Years later, Ex-Stepmother #1 told me it had been unfair to us kids to live in such wealthy neighborhoods with so little money.
I thought about that one. For maybe two seconds. And shook my head. “No way. We got exposed to rich, entitled assholes and learned some empathy for the less fortunate, while still getting the same great education those jerks got. I would do the same thing for my kids.” Dad had done the hard thing, but it was also the smart thing, the responsible thing. And it wasn’t like we kids were the only ones with crappy clothes. I did the laundry – I knew Dad’s underwear was sometimes more hole than underwear.
Which brings us to caring. So here’s a shock for my regular visitors. My dad reads my blog. Despite the fact that I’ve bashed the crap out of him. (Hi, Dad! Happy Father’s Day!) Now, Dad might just be reading this blog out of a warped sense of masochism, or a need to do penance after not being the greatest father. But perhaps he’s reading it because he cares about what I’m doing, or wants to read my writing.
Either way, Dad tells me it’s funny. He says he laughs out loud. And you know what? I believe him. The man has never handed me a single empty compliment or a solitary word of hollow encouragement just because I’m his kid.
I guess my father’s got too much character for that.