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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My Father's Dresser - Shitheads and Letters

I have not seen my father in person since 2010. It was the day after Christmas and we had breakfast in a pub with his girlfriend. I babbled on nervously about my aspirations and hoped it would become a regular thing.

It didn't.

My father has never understood my need to write. He learned everything he ever needed to know in old westerns and war movies in the midst of Marlboros and long beards. When I was a little girl he told me to never show the enemy your fears or tears, to hurt before healing, conceal before feeling. If the need to write is the same as the biological need to breathe, my breath was asphyxiated at birth, my father putting out his pithy advice like cigarette burns on my soul, blowing smoke into my lungs. Communication was foreign tongue in our household.

My father was a self-proclaimed expert of my needs. He always had an idea of what I really needed. “You don’t need to be in the house all day at the typewriter, telling people these things! What you really need to do is go outside, enjoy the sunshine! It’s a nice day and you’re wasting it cooped up in here!” 


My father was a joker. He picked on my toys and fed them to the dog to my squeals of laughter. My toes were subjected to affectionate games of This Little Piggy and my afternoons horsing around with the dog. One time I called him a shit head, risking the wrath of the anger he always seemed to struggle to keep at bay.  Instead of a belt or his hand which sometimes came and harsly so, that afternoon he lead me to his bedroom dresser and revealed a box. Inside the box was a brown sculpture of a man's head made out of shit.

I felt like I was welcomed into some secret club of just us two.

My father was my caretaker. When my mother was sick he combed out my tangles, read me bedtime stories, and picked me up from school when I was sick. Then he would get sick and stay home with me and in our pajamas under a large blanket we would watch Nick Jr. while drinking ginger ale or sweet tea.

My father was an artist. His art was of many mediums, none of them as a form of communication.  My father worked in metal and leather, in paint and in wood. His hands never at rest, he would sit in his workshop and make neat things. Welding, sewing, painting, sculpture, never revealing his secrets.

When I was barely out of elementary school my father traded his mountain man beard and Marlboros for a Brad Pitt goatee and tattoo needles. He traded his Jeremiah Johnson fantasies for his Hell’s Angels dreams. He came home at night complaining about “The Man” and how we needed to start another “revolution.” Black Sabbath soon replaced the bright, eighties sounds of bands like Midnight Oil and even the sounds of fiddle and banjo we used to hear through the vents coming from his basement workshop.

Even now I hear him say in my head, “Come on, don’t tell them all that, Jen, they don’t need to know all that! Just put your head down and keep your mouth shut.” Well, there goes the neighborhood. 

My father was a mini-celebrity among the teenage boys in our neighborhood with his homemade bicycles built to look like hot rod motorcycles and his wild lifestyle. I was constantly accused in school that my parents were cooler than I. For two people who constantly claimed they did not want to attract too much attention, the way my parents lived definitely generated interest among not only my peers but also our neighbors. 

One time my father was working in his workshop located in the basement across from our laundry area. Some of the woodwork he was manipulating suddenly caught fire! Immediately he put it out using a fire extinguisher. 

This was my very first time ever seeing a harmful fire. A fire, threatening to burn down our very home! My father was a hero, he put out a fire and saved our house from burning down! I owed him my life and probably most of the toys littering my bedroom. I called up my best friend Mickee, our neighbor who lived behind us, to brag and share my awe and glee about what had just happened.

In mid-sentence my father came roaring upstairs. He grabbed the phone out of my small hands and disconnected the line. He yelled at me for gossiping about what he had seen as an embarrassing error in his craftsmanship and how dare I make him out to be a fool in front of God and everyone! Then just as quickly he stormed away, leaving behind a shocked, confused, disappointed silence, heavier than the scent of smoke still lingering in the air. I was seven. It was the first time I saw him as a man with feelings and insecurities and it was the first time I felt like I understood him.

I wonder when I’m older if people will remember me more for my misguided fits of rage than my generosity, quirkiness, and laughter.

My father saves his memories of me in the bottom drawer of his dresser. Kind, gentle memories of when our respective Irishness was a bit more locked up than usual. I found this out one day during a weekend visitation where I was alone for twelve hours and nothing to do. I went through everything and found every card, every letter, everything I'd ever mailed or made for him. It was all there, alongside his late girlfriend's love letters and other treasured things. It meant the world to me that it was there and I think about it every time I have a negative thought that started with him, every time he does not call, and every time he does not show up. 

I love my father. He left our family when I was fourteen and if I were him I might have done the same. I lived with him for a year afterwards and he was not the same person I grew up with. Nevertheless, I worry about him when it rains. I look for him on every motorcycle. For half of my life now we have not been in each other's lives and I've wondered why we just cannot communicate.

Much like my friend made me Google my ex, my family makes me regret not being in contact with my father. 

I wonder if anyone makes him regret not being in contact with me? 

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