Character (#59)

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?”

Me: “Uh…no?”

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.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

25 thoughts on “Character (#59)”

  1. Rescues dogs and cats in Utah. Had me at that one. As most of us, he is complex and a contradiction. I’m glad that you have been able to come to terms with it all.

    1. My dad lives in a college town in Utah. There are many abandoned animals from college kids, as well as a culture that emphasizes man’s dominion over the animals more than compassion for animals. This makes for a lot of strays, and not always the nicest forms of euthanasia. He and his wife are big supporters of Best Friends, and at one point they had 4 animals they personally rescued in it. They’ve cut back, though. Down to 3.

      1. I’m a big fan of Best Friends. I think they have done a lot to educate all shelters on no-kill and training techniques. I have 4 pets with one on the proverbial banana peel. I swear we are downsizing too. Sometimes it’s tough to get a comfy chair!

  2. I picked a real gem of a story to comment on for the first time…here’s to wishing all father’s, in all their absurdity, a happy father’s day 🙂

  3. Lovely post about your dad. Hard on the outside, but soft on the inside perhaps? I emphatise with “No Excuses”. As a kid, each time I failed to do something my parents asked me to do, say take out the trash or put back a book on the bookshelf, my dad would get all fierce and ask me why I didn’t do it. Sure, my dad might have been a harsh and demanding dad that way, but in hindsight, it was these moments that taught me discipline and take responsibility.

    Sounds like your dad shows his love to you in the smallest of ways 😀

    1. You’re right, he’s mostly not a demonstrative guy.

      Parenting is tough — there’s a fine line between teaching children responsibility and teaching them to be so terrified of making a mistake they never take risks.

      1. It sounds like your dad did both at the same time. I hope he had a great Father’s Day and enjoyed this post, if he read it. He must think you’re quite a writer with quite a following. Wonder if he reads the comments.

        1. He did tell me he read it and he laughed, though he insists that I exaggerate certain things. Which is funny, because I feel like I minimize certain moments.

          I don’t think he reads the comments, though.

          He did say something really nice. He knows I’ve written screenplays and books, though he hasn’t read most of them, and he said, “You’re really funny. I don’t understand why you haven’t been published.” Then we veered off onto a tangent about the subjective nature of humor, but I will prize that compliment and store it with all the other compliments I get — like a dragon with a small hoard of gold. 🙂

  4. Hi Autumn, I need to catch up on your recent posts. This was a good one to start with.

    Thank you for your honesty. I have a pretty good relationship with my dad, but overall the relationships with my parents (and step-parents) is complicated. I actually haven’t seen my mother in 15 years or talked to her in over a decade. Sometimes I feel sad when these holidays come around because it seems like everyone has such picture perfect relationships with their parents. It’s nice to read, for once, that I’m not the only one who has issues with her parents and that parents aren’t perfect (shocker!) but that doesn’t mean they haven’t done good things; it doesn’t mean we are entirely ungrateful.

    I know in reality most people have complicated relationships with their parents, but a lot of people are afraid or unwilling to admit it. Thanks for talking about it.

    1. What a very nice thing to say! Thanks, Rosie — and I am amazed and flattered that you have time to read anything, actually. Nice to cyber see you, and I am glad the post spoke to you.

      15 years is a long time. I know women who’ve reestablished ties with parents because of having children. (I also know Moms who were like, “Hell, no! I’ll protect my kids from that horrible woman who birthed me like a Mama Grizzly if I have to!”)

      And then there are those parents who leave without a backwards glance. Ever. I find it unfathomable.

      If you want a brutally honest post, you can pop over to Big Asian Package
      I suspect that, despite the “Facebook Front,” there are more of us with parental ambivalence than not. Or perhaps those who got more parental praise got more confidence and found it easier to blog?

  5. Sounds like your dad was his own special brand of a “tiger mom.”

    He’s right, you are really funny. And prolific. You’re also fearless and fearlessly truthful. I think your faithful readers all agree: you will be published before long, and your book will be a big seller.

  6. I discovered your blog over the weekend, and finally finished this latest post after a day of binge reading (and lots of LOLs along the way). I wish I can be a good writer like you and write about my father!

    1. Oh! And now a gemstone of a compliment. 🙂 Thank you so much, YC, for taking the time to tell me you enjoyed my blog and laughed.

      And if you want to write, give it a shot! Sounds like you have a story that you really want to tell.

  7. Like R Zhao said, most children have complicated relationships with their parents. I know I for sure have. It is something that I have never discussed on my blog, but I do in my book.

    You are an amazing writer and are very brave to talk about difficult aspects of your life. A true inspiration!

    1. Thank you, Constance! I appreciate your comment. I won’t lie, it was a difficult post to write. I went through at least five drafts, threw up my hands, banged my head on the desk, and spent the better part of last week struggling to be entertaining and honest without being unnecessarily mean. (This is difficult for someone who lived on “unnecessarily mean” for many years.)

      I’m glad it turned out not awful. 🙂

      1. Actually, you are really an inspiration for me. I have debated about including some aspects of my life in my book, going back and forth between being honest, downplaying the situation, or omitting it all together. However, I realize that it has to be there. I know it will ruffle some feathers with my family – however, me going against the norm and doing my own thing and in the process, ruffling some feathers is nothing new.

  8. This was a really emotional article, but still kept its funny part. It made me think about my own family’s choices and hmm… still debating on some aspects. But I guess they did have their own role in my growing up as a person. For the lessons they taught.

    1. Thanks, Cosette! My goal is always to keep things at least a little funny. Though sometimes the humor is very, very dark.

      I think it’s hard to be angry with your parents if you like where you are in life. Because either through encouragement or adversity, they gave you the skills to get to that place.

If you liked this, let the white girl know!