Loving the Father I Chose

You get to choose whom to love and invite into the family circle that you create in your heart.

Tomorrow we get to celebrate both Father’s Day and Juneteenth. That’s twice as many reasons to be mindful of our good fortune. Granted, for many of us, that fortune was hard won, and that means it’s all the more precious. I’m going to give myself the day off to be mindful, so I’ll keep this short.

I never met my biological father. My parents got a divorce a few months after I was born. He never paid child support. He never sent me birthday wishes or Christmas cards. I never heard his voice. From an adult perspective, I know I was most likely much better off. He was a chronic alcoholic ever since he witnessed some of the atrocities of WWII, and he died a sad, lonely, alcoholic death many decades later. So I was cheated out of a balanced father/daughter relationship, and I got stuck with a stepfather who sexually abused me. So, yeah. Good times. Not.

That could easily have been the end of my experiences of fatherhood, but I chose not to let that be the case. I met Dr. Ram Verma while working at the Duval County Health Department in Florida, and I immediately saw the goodness in him. He was the embodiment of unconditional love and support, and I remember him with such fondness that I hope you’ll honor him by reading my brief blog post about him, entitled “My Father Figure”, which I wrote nearly a decade ago when I was still in Florida and starved for the love and support he never failed to give me before he passed on.

I hope you have a healthy experience with your father, Dear Reader. It’s an enviable position to be in. But if you lack that healthy experience, all is not lost. Never forget that you get to choose whom to love and invite into the family circle that you create in your heart. Choose wisely. Choose well. These connections are precious.  

Incidentally, Ram Verma is a common name, and some of these Rams appear to be internet famous. My Ram Verma passed away in Jacksonville, Florida in 1999, and he has almost no internet presence other than an obituary. I think he’d have liked that. I only have one picture of him now, and I am choosing to leave his anonymity intact. But I will leave these flowers for him, in hopes that he is at peace in whatever form he may be in now. I hope that he somehow knows how grateful I am to have known him, and that I will love him and honor his memory always.

My Imaginary Father

I used to think he was strong.

Recently I came across this photograph of my father. It was taken in 1952, three years before the movie Rebel Without a Cause came out. My father was James Dean before the real James Dean had truly “become” James Dean.

My Father, 1952.jpg

I can see why my mother had married him two years previously. He’s got that sexy, brooding, bad-boy look about him that every 23 year old girl falls for.

Fortunately, most of us snap out of it.

I suspect that by the time this photo was taken, the honeymoon was long since over. My father was drunk in this picture, just as he had been in every other picture that was taken of him as an adult. He was even drunk in his wedding pictures.

My mother had lived a rather sheltered life. Her parents weren’t ones to drink to excess. Her dad protected her as much as he could, right up until his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in World War II. My mother was 17 at the time, and the family was plunged into poverty.

She carried on, living with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children in a tiny house that was barely bigger than most people’s garages. I’m pretty sure she got married simply to get out of there. Talk about going from the frying pan to the fire.

She stayed married to my alcoholic, physically abusive father for 17 years. You can’t say she didn’t try. They were divorced when I was 3 months old.

I never met my father. He didn’t send me a single card or letter or gift. He didn’t pay a penny in child support. I never heard his voice. I couldn’t have picked him out of a line up.

My mother didn’t talk about him much unless I asked. She did say that he was an alcoholic and that’s why they got divorced. She said he was a sharpshooter in WWII, and that he sometimes liked to shoot blue jays out of the tree from the top floor bedroom window of our house. (The neighbors must have loved that.)

I didn’t know he used to beat her until long after she was dead. I didn’t think about the fact that they’d been together for 17 whole years until recently. There must have been quite a few stories that went untold.

With that kind of an information vacuum, I was free to make up stories about him in my head. I used to think he was strong. I used to think that if he had been in my life I’d have been protected and loved. I used to think I was worse off because of his absence.

I don’t think those things anymore.

Now, I just think he looked like James Dean.


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The Epitome of a Great Man

When I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, one of my coworkers was a guy named Buz Wickless. I always enjoyed talking to him at shift change. He was definitely a people person. More than most of us crusty old bridgetenders, he liked talking to boaters and pedestrians.

He was also a family man. Never having had a father figure myself, I always loved listening to the way he talked about his kids. One of the stories he told me inspired a Father’s Day post called Pennies in the Parking Lot. I hope you’ll read it. It will tell you everything you need to know about what it means to be a kind, loving and thoughtful man.

That blog post meant so much to me that I included it in my first anthology, A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude. I mention Buz in the acknowledgements, so he will forever be a part of that book.

I’m very sad to say that Buz passed away a week ago. He was only 67. He died too soon. The world was a kinder, gentler place when he was in it.  I will miss him very much.

Rest in peace, my friend.

The Ortega River Bridge, where Buz and I worked.

Whoa. My Parents Loved Each Other.

I know this is going to sound awfully strange to those of you who were lucky enough to grow up in intact households, but for the first time, at age 52, it recently dawned on me that at some point in time, my parents actually loved each other. And now I’m having to reframe my whole concept of what my mother’s life must have been like. It’s surreal.

You see, my parents were divorced when I was three months old. I never met the man. He never once sent me a birthday card or a Christmas present or paid one dime of child support. I never heard his voice or held his hand.

For many years I assumed this was no big deal. You can’t miss something that you never had, right? But as time passed, I realized that I definitely did miss out on something. I never had a feeling of safety. I never felt as though someone had my back. I had no positive male role model to show me what I should look for in a partner. (Unfortunately, the presence of this particular man wouldn’t have provided those things anyway, so there’s really no use in speculating.)

Growing up, I did have a natural curiosity about my father. I’d sometimes ask my mother about him. To her credit, she never bad-mouthed him, ever, other than to say that he came back from WWII as an alcoholic, and that’s what eventually caused their split. It wasn’t until years after she died that I found out (accidentally, from a cousin) that he beat her, too. So I came to view him as a bad element that had been excised from my life. Good riddance.

I never really thought about their history, as an actual couple.

Then, very recently, I was contacted by a very nice lady who said that she was my father’s goddaughter. That was a shock. I didn’t even know he had one. Apparently, her parents and mine had been great friends, and her father had been a photographer. She had tons of pictures of my parents from the 50’s. Would I like them? Uh… yeah!

When the envelope arrived, I sat holding it for a long time, kind of afraid to open it. I had no idea what I would find inside. More of the story, no doubt. But would I like the story more or less because of it?

She had a lot of pictures, indeed. Pictures of my parents on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, my mother’s head on my father’s shoulder, both smiling blissfully. Trips to Montreal. Their wedding reception dinner. A picture of my mother, sleeping contentedly amongst a pile of coats on someone’s bed. And a picture that may just have been the moment my father proposed. He is kneeling, gazing up at her adoringly. She is looking happily down at him.

I have to admit that in all the photos he looks intoxicated, and he most likely was. That didn’t surprise me. All the pictures I have of him are like that. But I wasn’t expecting the adoration. That was new.

My mother’s parents were not alcoholics. I suspect she didn’t know what she was in for. She didn’t realize what havoc that blissful intoxication would eventually wreak on her life, and by extension, the lives of her daughters.

Hope springs eternal. Love conquers all. Until it doesn’t.

But those adoring looks still rattled me. Now, instead of looking at my father as a bit of mold that had to be cut out of an otherwise perfectly edible loaf of bread, I had to see him as a rusty knife that left behind a painful wound that never properly healed. My mother moved on, yes, but in all likelihood she got her heart trampled in the process. I don’t know why that had never crossed my mind.

When my father died, my uncle sent me the contents of his wallet. It included a picture of my parents on their honeymoon. My whole life, a life he never experienced, he had carried a picture of a woman whose world he had shattered, whom he hadn’t seen in 25 years. I think that’s incredibly tragic.


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Thanks, Crappy Dad!

I was commiserating the other day with someone about what horrible, toxic, deadbeat and emotionally unsupportive fathers we each have. I was wondering how much farther ahead we’d both be if we had grown up with men in our lives who encouraged us and made us feel safe and loved. I can’t even imagine what that must be like. (If you can, then call your dad right now and tell him that you love him. Seriously. Do it right now.)

But my wise friend said that she’d keep her crappy dad, because otherwise she wouldn’t be who she is. (And I’ve got to say that she’s pretty darned amazing.)

She makes a very good point. We may have sprung from the loins of a couple of really rotten human beings, but that’s part of what makes us who we are. Without the trials and tribulations and struggles that came from being raised by single mothers, we wouldn’t have the intestinal fortitude that we have. Without the financial stress, we wouldn’t have the work ethic that we have. Without the deprivation, we wouldn’t appreciate what truly matters in life, and here’s a hint: it sure isn’t money.

And then there’s also the DNA contribution, I suppose. That can’t be discounted. I guess they were good for something.

So, if I had actually had the opportunity to meet my father before he died his sad, alcoholic death, I might have said to him, “Thanks, Crappy Dad! You taught me much about the kind of person I would never want to be!”

Come to think of it, that’s quite a gift. I just sort of wish it had come packaged a bit differently.


A Shout Out to Deadbeat Dads

My parents got divorced when I was three months old. I never met my father. I did not receive a single Christmas or birthday card, photograph or visit, in my entire life. He paid not one penny of child support.

People used to ask me if I missed my father. My stock response was, “How can you miss something you never had in the first place?” And it was true. I couldn’t even conceive of what it would be like to have a father in my universe. You may as well have asked me if I regretted my lack of bonding with the Loch Ness Monster.

It wasn’t until well into my adulthood that I began to get a sense of what I had missed out on. I looked around and realized that other people had a level of confidence that I lacked. They grew up feeling as though someone had their backs. They also knew what it was like to feel safe. They had someone to go to when they needed advice. And my female friends with decent fathers knew what to look for in decent life partners. I should have had that. I deserved it.

But in a warped way, having no trace of that man in my life was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Any human being who can sleep at night, knowing that his child may be going without due to his irresponsibility and indifference, is not worth knowing. It’s better to have no male role model in your life than have one with such a wont of character and integrity.

So to all you deadbeat dads out there, if you’re going to do it, don’t do it halfway. Go all out. Disappear. Don’t even pretend that you care. When all is said and done, it’s the least you can do. Literally and figuratively.


One Crabby Family

During one of my recent “weekends” (Oh, to actually have it fall on a weekend, for once, but nooooo…) I went with my first Seattle friend to visit her parents in Port Townsend, Washington. What a gorgeous place! I’ll write about it tomorrow.

For today, I want to write more about what interested me the most about the visit: the family itself. It occurred to me during this trip that it’s a rare and special treat to experience the dynamics of a family other than my own. It was fascinating to sit back and observe how this family unit worked for two days. It was kind of like a sociological experiment, but one that left me feeling delighted.

My friend is a free spirit. She refuses to be defined. All I can say is that she’s a yoga-teaching, dog-walking, child-loving force of nature. I wish I was like her at her age. I’d like to think I’m slowly becoming like that at age 50 in my own way, but at 36 she’s already there, and I find that so admirable I can’t even put it into words.

But once I met her parents, I understood how she was able to grow so solidly into her own person. Her parents are their own people too. Retired, they recently had this stunning house built in this splendid community, and they don’t seem to have slowed down in the slightest.

Her father rides his bike 8 miles a day, and walks the dog, and is landscaping their entire yard from scratch. I have to say he’s doing a magnificent job. He also volunteers at various events, and will soon be doing a weekly Jazz radio show. Jazz is definitely his thing.

Her mother is, to sum her up, quite a pistol. She is irreverent, hilarious, and a fantastic cook. And she goes crabbing 5 days a week. I swear to God. This woman is out pulling crab traps into a tiny boat every day, and when she gets home, she bashes their little brains out and makes the most satisfying, delicious meals I’ve ever eaten. Honestly, how cool is that? She also seems to be the glue that holds the whole family together.

My friend’s sister wasn’t there during my stay, but she felt like a solid presence, as she was talked about often with great affection.

All three of them made me feel quite at home. Quite comfortable. They even allowed me to bring my dogs, which was extremely generous given the fact that one of them acted the fool the entire time by growling at their sweet old dog and pooping in their living room. That was the only time I felt mortified during my stay.

And what a loving family it is. They all know each other’s quirks and foibles, and for the most part they find each other amusing. Sure, they bicker and gripe from time to time, but in the end, the main thing is the love.

I watched my friend poke her mom as she snored though a movie we were watching. (I wouldn’t mention that except that she has one of my favorite qualities: she doesn’t care what people think.) I also listened to them all debate about whether a water filter should or should not be changed or the music should be turned up or down. All of this nearly brought tears to my eyes.

I would love to still have my mother around to poke. I’d love to have family members to irritate me. I’d love to have a gorgeous, active retirement (or any retirement at all, for that matter, but those are not the cards I have been dealt). I’d love to have a solid family unit and know without a doubt that people had my back. What a gift. What a treasure.

What an amazing family. It was wonderful to be a part of it, if only for a day or two. I was grateful for the opportunity to sit around a table eating crab with this deliciously crabby family! I will forever savor the memory of it.

[Image credit: cannonfish.com]
[Image credit: cannonfish.com]

Pennies in the Parking Lot

A friend and coworker told me a delightful story the other day. When he has spare change he drops it in parking lots. Why? Because when one of his daughters was young, he noticed that she had inherited his extreme ability to quickly spot when things were out of place. This ability meant they both always noticed when there were coins on the ground. Over time they got into the habit of collecting those coins in a special jar, and when they got enough money they’d have a father/daughter outing, such as going to see the movie Pocahontas or getting ice cream at the mall.

Now that she’s grown up and moved away, they naturally don’t do this anymore. So now he drops coins in parking lots because he figures somewhere out there is another father and daughter who have taken up the torch and he wants to contribute. He never mentioned to his daughter that he does this until just the other day, and she laughed and told him she does the exact same thing.

So there you have it. This ritual connects them to this day. And I suspect this tradition will get passed down through generations of his family, because I can’t imagine a sweeter or more delightful way to say, “I love you just the way you are and I want to spend time with you.”

Stories like this make me wish I had known what it was like to have a father. For those of you who have one, remember that it’s never too late to start a new tradition.

Happy Father’s Day.

This particular coworker passed away after I wrote this. He was an amazing man. May he rest in peace. I wrote about him here.


Another Rant About Alcoholism

One of my most popular blog entries is Why I Hate Alcohol, and I genuinely thought I’d gotten all my anger about the subject off my chest when I wrote it. It turns out that that is not the case. Far from it.

The other day, someone who calls himself “Dad” commented on another one of my blog entries, Do You Know This Child? Help Solve a Mystery. In that one, I mentioned that my father told some outlandish stories about the war, and that because he was an alcoholic, I never knew him. “Dad”, without knowing me at all, implied in the comment section that my disbelief of my father’s stories is probably “what drove him over the edge.”

Okay. Hoooo. Wow. That still pisses me off to an unbelievable degree. And when I have such a strong reaction to something, my first instinct is to take a closer look and ask myself what about the situation is pushing my buttons.

First of all, I hate being misunderstood, but in this case that was probably my fault for not clarifying my relationship. When I said I did not know my father because of his alcoholism, I didn’t mean he was present in my life but always “in his cups.” I meant that because he was such a mean drunk and a worthless fraction of a man, he left my family when I was three months old. I never met him, never got child support from him, never received so much as a phone call or a Christmas card my entire life. So yeah, I suppose I didn’t make myself quite clear in that entry. I literally didn’t know my father.

But what really makes my head explode is the implication that, had I known him, I could have in some way “driven him over the edge.” The man came home a drunk from a war that had ended 20 years before I was born. I’m sure he had PTSD, and that was a contributing factor, and that’s tragic, but making the assumption that the blame for one’s alcohol abuse lies somewhere outside oneself is the worst of all alcoholic excuses.

No one forces someone to start drinking. Not once did anyone hold a gun to the man’s head and pour the gin down his throat. Millions of people have experienced horrors and not tried to pour alcohol over those memories.

I’m sorry. I know this probably won’t be a popular sentiment, but dammit, the bedrock of being an alcoholic is selfishness and irresponsibility. Without those two things, you don’t destroy your life and the lives of every person within your sphere of influence. Full stop.

Alcoholics are very adept at blaming the rest of the world for their problems. The whole “poor me” thing may as well be tattooed on their foreheads. But I refuse to feel sorry for an alcoholic. I don’t care how often people try to call it a disease. It’s an addiction, which is a mental health issue, and yes, more often than not one will need help to conquer it. But unless and until you admit to yourself that you have made the bed that you so frequently pass out in, no healing can take place for you or anyone who has the misfortune to love you. You can’t clean up your mess until you first take ownership of it. Grow up!

“Pushed him over the edge,” my ass. Sheesh.


[Image by Somadjinn on deviantart.com]

Mommy, Mommy Jokes

When I was young, Mommy Mommy jokes were all the rage. And while they were funny, I also found them rather disturbing because they were my first inkling that perhaps not all parents were thrilled with being parents. (I was lucky in that my mother never gave me that impression firsthand.) These jokes were also my first real insight that the balance of power between parent and child is extremely skewed.

I hadn’t thought about these jokes in decades, so imagine my delight in discovering that there are several websites dedicated to them. I was kind of shocked to find out that a lot of these jokes are more sick and twisted than any of the ones that were shared with me in my youth, but I’m not opposed to the sick and twisted. Ask anybody.

Having said that, here are some of my favorites from my youth from the sites in question.

  • “Mommy, Mommy! Daddy’s on fire!” “Shut up and get the marshmallows!”
  • “Mommy, Mommy! What’s in those CARE packages they send to Africa?” “Shut up and get back in the box!”
  • “Mommy, Mommy! I don’t want to go to Australia.” “Shut up, son, and keep swimming.”
  • “Mommy, Mommy! Why are we pushing the car off the cliff?” “Shut up, son, you’ll wake your father.”
  • “Mommy, Mommy! I don’t want to see Niagara Falls!” “Shut up and get back in the barrel!”

And this one I most definitely did NOT hear when I was young, but it makes me laugh regardless.

  • “Mommy, Mommy! What’s an orgasm?” “I don’t know, dear. Ask your father.”