Friday, August 26, 2011

the conditions of love.

I have a mouth on me. I know this. As a child and certainly as a teen - I was rarely reprimanded for what I said and instead for the way I said it. My emotions, when left unguarded, would fly out of me in caustic tones. My voice would get raised, my aim got sharpened. I kept an eye on the jugular and I rarely missed a shot. It was for this reason that my mother and I often found ourselves at odds as I aged. We fought frequently. There would be quiet bickering laced with sarcasm and subtly or all out word wars. We would stand toe to toe shouting to be heard over each other for varying lengths of time until she had put me back in my place -- and that is just the way that adolescence goes. I would test my boundaries and find my voice with my mother because I knew that even if she played the enemy - she was, in fact, the safety net. No matter how long an argument would last once it had come to some sort of reasonable conclusion -- it was done. Vanished. Our relationship would resume again just as strong as it had ever been. I know it drove my mother crazy that I never felt the same freedom with my father.

My dad has over the years hurt me more times than I can count. I would often feel slighted by what he did not do and let down by what he did. For years I felt like my father regarded every emotion I managed to communicate as suspicious. As it they weren't truly mine and I had just been sent on a mission to manipulate him courtesy of my mother. That was never true and the moments of doubt that passed between us often made me feel like a common criminal. If I tried to swap a weekend so I could attend a friend's birthday party he saw it only as my mother getting extra time. When my grandparents wanted to treat me to Christmas in Disney World my father wrote my mother a three page long letter telling her how awful she was -- never a mention that it might come to be one of my favorite childhood memories. My father always treated me like an extension of my mother and rarely of himself.

But perhaps I can not put all the blame on him that the rifts grew wider. I know that of all the times my father has hurt me he probably knows of very few. I could never properly verbalize those feelings with him the same way I could with my mother. Sometimes it was because I didn't want to appear affected. I didn't feel like he deserved to know that he could have such an impact on me. I didn't want to look overly weak or sensitive. I was afraid to show that I cared. But more often than not -- when I look back now with a calmer mind and the benefit of age - I realize that I wasn't just protecting myself. I was working despite anything my father did to keep our relationship in the best possible condition. Because his love never felt unconditional.

Monday, August 1, 2011

...and then there were 3.

January of 1995 has no place in a history book. For most, it was a cold and uneventful month filled with post-holiday stress and snow showers. An unremarkable collection of days and nights. But for me it brought an irreversible shift in my ever changing world. At 6:03 pm on the last day of the year's first month -- my father's wife gave birth to a baby girl. Suddenly I was no longer my father's only child - I was simply his first try. I had firmly become the remainder from the division of his first attempt at a family. He, his wife and new baby made the perfect picture - and on occasion I was required to hang onto the frame and smile.

There are many differences between a full sibling and a half sibling - the least of which are biological. If my father had never had another child I would have been left to imagine what a life with him would have been like. I could have waxed poetic about maybe's and might have's. Instead I watched him parent as though it was a spectator sport -- and I admit that there were times when I was guilty of keeping score.

Another baby came along in June of '98 and brought with her new emotions for me to carry. My two half sisters were each other's whole -- and suddenly the space between us felt much further apart than the branches of a family tree.

My one father has three daughters. But I will get no second attempt. I will have no third try.

Somewhere, sometime ago after one too many beers my father told me that he often worried that I believed he loved my sisters more than he loved me. He was wrong. In all my 26 years I have never once doubted that my father loved me. I know to my core that he would step in front of a bullet to protect me, give his last breath to save me and demonstrate a variety of other hyperbolic gestures. But I have never believed, not for a moment, that he liked me.

I am the product of my mother's presence and my father's absence. I represent none of his ideals or values because he was not there to instill them. I am no reflection of my father on any surface deeper than a mirror. We share no common bonds beyond biology. I visited my father's house and my sisters were raised in his home -- and that has been the greatest difference.

Monday, July 4, 2011

once is never always.

My father is not a villain and I am not a saint.

I am perhaps a childish 26. I don't own a home and my mostly urban lifestyle requires no car. My artistic callings called for no college degree so I never bothered to obtain one. My friends are a motley crew with similar ambitions and equally lacking academic achievements. I have no ring on my finger nor do I have the urgent desire to put one there. And through the grace of God and Trojan, I have no children. My bank account over the course of a fiscal year reads like the blueprint of a roller coaster and if before night fall if I've remembered to eat dinner - I count the day as a success. In this particular phase of my life - I would be no one's perfect parent. I am selfish and career oriented - an arrogant over achiever.

It is armed with this perspective that I have tried to give my dad, a father by age 23, the benefit of the doubt. But objective reasoning gives way to confusion for it was never in these years - my early childhood - that he failed me. I have many early happy memories with my father that are just as vivid and haunting as the ones that came later in life. It was he that helped teach me how to imagine and create. We would sit for hours making up songs on his guitar, writing stories on his old type writer or battling Nerf sword to Nerf sword in epic pirate battles. He was the perfect play mate.

It was as he and I got older that the distance grew wider. Both emotionally and geographically. The man who had walked me into my kindergarten class was no where to be seen when I boarded the bus to first grade. He was not present at back to school conferences, he did not read report cards or help with science projects. He never knew my friends or my teachers. At times I have wondered if he has ever known me as more than the child he once played with.

Weekend visits were not accurate portrayals of my day to day life. My father never had to check my homework or monitor my curfew, he didn't assign me chores or dole out an allowance. My father picked me up long after school had ended on a Friday and brought me home before bed time on Sunday. He was the perpetual play mate to an aging child.

I may be a childish 26 - but I am an adult. And the person that I have become is a stranger to my father.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

sleeping with the ally.

The first time I met my father's wife she was my father's boss.

It was a mid summer picnic on the company's dime and though my parents were still married my mother had opted to miss the festivities, citing a headache...whether she already had one or was sure the chain of events would lead to one - is unclear now. Three cheers for foresight.

I don't remember the exact moment the introduction took place. I barely remember the day. But I do remember a water balloon fight that lit up my five year old face. My partner in aqua warfare was a seemingly sweet woman in her early 30's who let me lead the way and kept my stockpile of balloons fully loaded. Later I would gush to my mother over the friend I had made at the picnic and how much fun we had had together. I'm sure I, like most excitable children, repeated the epic battle story over and over again. I can only imagine how many times and ways I filled my mother's ears with child like wonder over my new partner in crime. It would be years before I would understand the significance of that meeting -- before I would realize that the woman who so enthusiastically played with me was playing more adult games with my married father on a regular basis - before I understood the sheer audacity and disrespect that my father had displayed that day.

Friday, June 24, 2011

the PILGRAMage that never was.

It's worth noting - in the interest of context - that my father's family could never be mistaken for The Waltons or any more relevant, equally stable nuclear unit. In the fall of '73 my paternal grandfather went out for a pack of cigarettes and never seemed to find his way home. My grandmother, an otherwise sane woman, still hangs their wedding picture in her bedroom as though she believes he'll stumble in one night complaining about thirty some odd years of traffic. For this reason, or perhaps a thousand others, my father has never truly understood the depth of family ties.

His emotionally distant Irish kin were the perfect foil to my mother's close knit Italian clan. What served as conversation at one dinner table would be thought of as banal small talk at the other. This distinction was never clearer than at the holidays. If I thought I was missing out on family fun on the weekends, I knew it for sure on Holy Days and other annual celebrations. But it was a Thanksgiving in the early 90's (I couldn't have been more than nine) that has stayed with me far past its welcome. Now I will be the first to admit that my memory is not infallible - I can not provide evidence for each and every story that lines it but I know what I felt and what I feared - and that alone has been all the fact required.

Thanksgiving with my mother's family was an epic event - the anticipation of which made getting through Wednesday's school day a task every year. I knew for sure that once the holiday was underway I'd be surrounded by numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandmother was one of six sisters - each of whom had married and had their own children and for the most part those children had gone on to have children of their own -- and no one missed Thanksgiving. A typical year found sixty or seventy people gathered under one roof to give thanks for good food and each other. If I had a time machine, these are the days for which I would travel.

It had been decided that on this particular Thanksgiving my father would come and whisk me away just after dinner for a weekend to be spent at a hotel in the mountains with him, his girlfriend and a few of their friends. I can still remember the sinking feeling I had in my stomach as I watched the clock count down the hours. To a child a year might as well be a decade - how could I miss out on those last precious hours of Thanksgiving when the next one was so far away? Still I had already learned that court documents and he said, she said (mostly he said) carried more weight than my high hopes for an un-shared holiday. So I sat upstairs, suitcase packed, coat on, waiting while the sounds of my cousins still playing and laughing drifted up from the basement. My mother made several attempts to cheer me up. She offered promises that I'd have fun once I got there and reminded me over and over again that I'd see everyone soon enough. In retrospect, I realize now that those holiday separations were just as hard on her as they were on me - but at the time, she was equally the villain - pushing me out the door and insisting that I off I went.

My father and I made it a few miles up the highway, maybe a half hour or so, before my stiff upper lip began to quiver and soon enough I was crying. I had tried to put on a brave face - I had tried not to make my father feel bad but I desperately wanted to turn around. I wanted something familiar. I wanted my family. I did not want to be in a car with a man who barely knew me, racing away from home to see people I didn't know do things I didn't care about. Unfortunately, at that time my father was not a man with a lot of empathy. He yelled at me. I'd never seen him that angry. He spat his words at me saying it was his time now and he wouldn't give me back to my mother, he called me selfish and inconsiderate. I had never in my life been talked to like that. Like I was just a possession to be owned - that I was something that could be divied up. I sobbed. He became so frustrated with me that he spun the car around in the middle of the highway, driving in the opposite direction of traffic for a moment, as if that were the way to take me home, before spinning it back around and reminding me that this was his weekend. I was terrified. The man who was supposed to be protecting me was growing manic before my eyes. Finally he pulled the car over on the shoulder of the road beside a pay phone. He called my mother, demanding that she come get me, then opened the car door to tell me that he was so furious that he couldn't even stand to be in the car with me, that I made him sick - he slammed the door shut and then stood ahead of the car by a few feet while we waited for my mother to rescue me.

To this day my father and I have never spoken of that night -- a night that I imagine was, at the most, a bruise on his precious ego.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

a brief history of the inevitable.

My parents divorced in February of 1992. I was six years old - or as I likely would have told you at the time an elderly six and three quarters. I was precocious and inquisitive, likely to be found rattling on about imaginary friends and fairy tales or holding court in a room full of Barbie dolls. But in February of 1992, I was the only child of a marriage that lasted just shy of eight years, the only bullet loaded in for that particular game of Russian Roulette - and the judges and lawyers were firing the gun.

Full custody was awarded to my mother and my father never contested it. In all my years he has never done anything else for which I am as grateful. A piece of paper with a signature I'll never recognize mandated that every other Friday and sometimes on holidays I would find myself clutching a small suitcase and journeying an hour or two from my home, my toys and my mother. If these occasions made me feel anything but inconvenienced and lonely, I can't remember now.

My mother's family, which I have never referred to as anything more than mine, was loud and more alive than most. Four walls could barely contain us and we would often spill into cousin's backyards and onto aunt's kitchen tables. Laughter rang out over lively conversations, debates heated up over coffee and someone, somewhere, was always cooking something. When I recall my childhood - these feelings frozen in time, these bits of family video that loop my mind, are by far my favorite. So it was always with a heavy heart and a feeling of loss that I would climb into my father's car and take off up the highway for a weekend that I was sure could never equal the one that I was missing.

The ink had barely dried on the divorce papers before my father had moved the last of his things into the home of his former mistress turned girlfriend. Together they shared her stiff, child fearing townhouse and for two weekends a month I lived out of a suitcase in the guest room. They tried, often too hard, to make me feel welcome and keep me entertained but the rules were different, the house was cold and the food tasted funny. Sunday could never come quickly enough.

There were nights when I was reprimanded for crying, for missing my mother, for wanting to go home. I was made to feel guilty that my honest emotional distress made my father feel inadequate. The subject of whether or not he really was inadequate was never open for discussion.