When my younger brother was born I was in Junior High School. That made me thirteen years old, or, to put it another way, thirteen years older than my brother. This is interesting to me because I calculate that my father was probably seventeen years old when I was born … maybe eighteen. So, if I was the older brother, should I have thought of my father as being more of an older brother to me than as a wise and experienced father?
Before anyone asks, I was not a father-figure for my brother: more like a cool uncle that visited every few years and brought nifty presents. Throughout High School I was my mother’s go-to babysitter and on too many occasions actually went on dates with the unfortunate toddler sleeping on the backseat. Luckily my girlfriend at the time was very understanding. Maybe that was a hint that she wanted kids of her own. She did, on an early date, express a willingness for premarital sex, which I obviously agreed with but never really consummated. Hey, it was the age of Blue Denim not Aquarius.
When I went away to college, I basically abandoned my sister and brother to a difficult life with my father in the house. I went back once for the summer but, by insisting on my independence, I experienced a lot of turmoil and even physical threats. My mother had to throw herself between my father and me more than once, scuttling me out of the house to safety.
My response to this volatile relation was a propensity to spend more time at my friends’ houses than at my own. I also now realize that my concentration on reading poetry, enjoying time with my girlfriend, surfing, and playing sad ballads on my guitar, became coping mechanisms as much as the healthy interests of a wide-eyed Southern California beach boy. Life at the university took over and I convinced myself that getting married was a good idea.
Unfortunately, the High School girlfriend I still think about daily after almost sixty years was replaced by the perceived excitement of a scholarly artist type from Greenwich Village. Looking back on it, I was only a year of two older than my father when I declared myself sufficiently mature to be a husband and presumably a father.
I was deluded.
It took another twenty years before I began to integrate my life and consider the possibility of developing a nascent maturity. During this dark time I fled to the other side of the continent, developed a career, removed and replaced marriage partners, welcomed a wonderful daughter, bought a house or two, drank a vat of malmsey, replaced Super-8 with VHS, raced riding mowers across the neighborhood lawns, and installed an early Apple ][ computer in a dark corner of my basement hide-a-way.
Around this time I had several adult conversations with my mother. Until she pointed it out, I had considered my father a colossal failure and the father-figure I should most avoid emulating. I wasn’t necessarily wrong but she pointed out that my father never really had the opportunity to learn how to be a Dad: He was still a kid himself.
This truth gave me a new perspective on the parts of my life that involved my father. No, I didn’t buddy-up to him, but I did begin to understand his own personal struggle with life.
Two events stand out.
My father was a joiner: JayCees, Democratic Club, Church groups, Square Dance nights, County Fair Committees. The wisened promoter from Los Angeles taught my father, who was not the drinker in the family, to enjoy scotch whiskey. One night Dad wMy Fatheras out with the boys, ostensibly enjoying the clean fun at a bowling alley, when my mother was undergoing a major health event at home. This was years before cell phones and despite calling every bowling alley in the book, she couldn’t find her husband. I can’t imagine how scared she was or how much pain she endured, but my mother had a gruesome miscarriage alone in the bathroom that night.
The second event involving my father was a rustic weekend with several friends in a cabin by a lake in the heart of the mountains. Fresh air, robust exercise, sizzling trout, and stories of personal enlightenment told relaxing around the fireplace with a mug of mulled wine and toasty slipper socks. My Dad came home devastated. As mother told it, the crew drove into the mountains, dumped their gear at the cabin, and spent the remainder of the weekend in town at the local bar enjoying a tall one and a short one until they hit the floor.
This picture of my father desperately seeking to belong, even at the expense of his family, had at first enraged me, but my mother changed the perspective and I guess I actually began to feel sorry for my Dad.
For myself, I spent many years proclaiming that I was quite the opposite of my father: where he was corporal, I was intellectual; where he was … nope, it didn’t work … despite years of telling myself I was different, my ex-wife regularly accused me of behaving just like my father, and maybe she was right.
But I think what I have learned is that each of us, as Thoreau wrote “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe Chivas Regal was my father’s Walden Pond; maybe Kathy Acker is my civil disobedience; maybe my father died without ever overcoming the quiet desperation.