Sunday, June 19, 2016

Confessions of a Second Rate Dad

Pater familius and the clan at Grandma Pat's for Christmas, 1988, I think.

I was/am a second rate Dad.  Not a terrible one mind you.  I didn’t beat, rape, or terrorize my children.  Or abandon them.  Any emotional trauma I inflicted on them was unintentional and accidental and I hope not deeply scarring.  It was a hard job that I just wasn’t very good at it.  Hey, they don’t write manuals about it!  Er, well it turns out that they do, but I am a guy and would no more read one of those than the instructions on how to assemble that bookcase or set up the lawn mower.  Come to think of it, those things were harder than they looked, too.
I had a role model and I think a pretty good one.  W.M. Murfin exemplified the considerable virtues of his generation.  He came home from World War II a slightly overage veteran touched and troubled by firsthand experience of too much horror.  But he pulled himself together and resumed forging a family, and ongoing project haunted by Depression hardships, the loss of an infant son, and the separation of the war.  His wife, Ruby, was emotionally fragile and carried her own grief and scars.  Together they made a family by adoption taking on infant twins—my brother Timothy and me.
Dad had a calm, sensible, unflappable demeanor, perhaps as a conscious balance to my mother’s wild mood swings and sometimes explosive temper with its ferocious blind lashing out at the closest available targets—my brother and particularly me, the big disappoint to her dreams of an ideal All-American boy.  He was kind and protective as far as he was able—most of my mother’s most abusive moments came in his absence and perhaps because of that absence.  He would listen patiently to my endless chatter, at least feign interest in my latest hobby horse, take us fishing on Sunday afternoons, and play a gentle lob-the-rubber-ball game of catch on the front lawn as twilight descended.

My father W.M. Murfin, was my role model, but I didn't have his virtues.

But he was not the kind of hands on Dad involved in every aspect of his children’s lives that is now expected of the middle class father.  He let us to pass our time unsupervised and up to our own devices.  In my case that meant plenty of time for elaborate solo fantasies in the back yard and later lounging summers away in the crotch of an old Willow by a Cheyenne park pond reading paperback books and dreaming of writing them.  He did not haunt my Little League practices or even, as I remember, come to any games.  Despite having been a proud Eagle Scout and a devoted pre-war Troop leader, he never became involved with my Scouting activity.  He even declined, when urged by my mother, to introduce me to DeMolay, the organization for boys of his beloved Masonic Lodge.
I’m not sure Dad ever said “I love you” unless prompted.  He was not a hugger.  As soon as we were old enough to stop jumping up on him every time he came home, we were instructed a manly handshake was all that was required.  I am told this is stereotypical of his generation.  It is described as emotionally distant and has kept many a psychotherapist in Cadillacs and country club memberships from listening to the sobs of wounded Baby Boomers.
My brother certainly felt emotionally abandoned by Dad and went to his grave angry and obsessed.  But I never felt that way.  I thought he was simply a man of his times.  I treasured the times when we were simply together.  No mushy sentiments or embarrassing embraces were required.  I adored and respected him above all men.
But it turned out I could not perfectly emulate him.  Oh, I was just fine with the emotional distance part, but I could not match his calm self-position.  I tended to get cranky, and it has gotten worse the older I get.  No towering rages, mind you, very little shouting, and no days of smoldering resentments.  Just an offhand snappishness, a tossed off moment of snark  before returning to “normalheedless of the feelings hurt and egos bruised.     
I came to fatherhood at age 32 as part of a package deal.   Carolynne, then 9 years old, and Heather, 7 were the daughters of my bride Kathy, a young widow.  At first I was deluded into thinking the transition into a new family would be smooth.  The girls seemed to like me and beyond a certain incident involving Carolynne and her refusal to leave the house on an outing without pretty new socks once foretold no problems.   I told myself that I would avoid the pitfalls of being an evil step father, by not having to compete with a living father who had custody every other weekend.   Fool.  It turned out that ghost of a barely remembered father was tougher completion than I could have imagined.  I would learn the sound of a defiant “You aren’t my real Dad and you can’t make me.” 

A new step dad with Carolynne, Heather and Kathy at the North Lincoln Ave Festival in 1982.  Few pictures of me exist from those day with out a can or glass of beer in my hand.  And that was a problem.

They were right.  I seldom could make them.  I didn’t know how.  I let family discipline fall to my take-no-shit wife.  She always had to play the heavy and rightfully resented it.  I was useless, which was compounded by being frequently gone.  I worked a second shift as an elementary school custodian and held down a second job on weekends as a maintenance guy at a local shopping mall.  The girls hardly ever saw me except when the schools went on holiday or summer vacation and my hours would shift to days.  As a father, I was mostly a couple of inadequate pay checks.  
Their tumultuous teen years inevitably got met more involved, perhaps against my will.  By that time I was around more, on day shift at the school where I had become head custodian.  Commitments to church, social justice and peace work, and the Democratic Party kept me tied up at meetings most nights until my wife put her foot down and I cut back involvements to a couple of meetings a month and an occasional special event or project.  When times were relatively calm I was mostly just an embaracement—this strange looking dude with the goatee, too-long and dirty hair, and those damned cowboy hats—to be avoided and shunned in public lest anyone suspect that we were in anyway related.
I drank too much, and after the family ganged up on me—they called it an intervention—I quit.  Thing mostly got better.  But Kathy said I was a dry drunk meaning I was no longer a public embarrassment but I was still too often a jerk.
In times of crisis—and there were many of them including runaways, emotional breakdowns requiring hospitalizations, school problems, and obviously unfit and possibly dangerous boyfriends—I had to get involved.  That might mean actively wrestling knives from the hands of a hysterical girl, literally chasing off a mid-twenty year old creep suitor with a baseball bat,  or going to high school with a daughter to offer to personally escort her to school and between classes to prevent her chronic truancy.  Some of these episodes are now re-told and laughed over at family gatherings, but they were painful to everyone at the time.
Maureen was born two years into our marriage.  She naturally bonded with me from the time she would fall asleep on my chest as an infant.  My second shift job meant that I did much of the day time childcare before I had to go to work and deposit her at a commercial day care center or home childcare until her mother got home from her job.  That meant dressing her—according to her and her mother—in terrible taste every morning, playing with her, making her breakfast and packing lunches with carefully made mustard smiley faces and hearts on her bologna and American cheese sandwiches.  I read her favorite books—over and over.  We went for walks, weather permitting visiting a hollow tree where I told her elves lived  and the flop eared rabbit who lived in a cage at the end of the block.  We watched endless hours of TV together—Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, and later a particular favorite, Zoobilee Zoo.  One morning we watch the launch of the space shuttle Columbia—and its explosion.

Maureen and I had a special bond but this old time photo taken on a trip to the Wisconsin Dells is downright creepy.
Later when she was in elementary school and I was getting home about the same time as she did from my job, she got irritated when I would sit in my chair and get absorbed in a book or some old movie on TV.  She demanded my attention by plopping down in my lap and giving almost minute-by-minute accounts of her day in school and would quiz me to make sure I was paying attention.  She continued to do this all the way through Junior High.   Maureen would not allow me to escape from being involved in her life.  Then every evening she would stretch out on the floor in front to the TV and every goddam night would spill a full glass of pop on the carpet.  And every night I would sop it up, cursing under my breath.   
The one by one the girls grew up and started lives of their own—lives with perils, heart breaks, and triumphs.   There were marriages and relationships that ended in divorce, break-ups, even death.  Each left home and returned at least once, sometimes with mate and/or children in tow.  We were the haven and refuge over rough patches.  There were grandchildren.  Carol gave us Nicholas and Joseph who lived on and off with us and his mother.  And then came Randy Patrick, after her biological father and step old man.  When I heard the name I knew old wounds had healed, much that was misunderstood was seen in a new light, and offenses of cluelessness were forgiven.  
The oldest, Nick, stayed with us when his mother and brothers moved to California.  He stayed all through high school—a rough time for him and beyond.  Our house was really the only stable-always-there home he ever knew.  And despite and on-again-off-again relationship with his Dad, I was the most regular male presence in his life.  I was no better as a pseudo father to him than I was as a step dad and father to the girls, but I tried.  Nick stayed for years ow after school, moved to Rockford a couple of time and just came back and got a job at the same gas station/convenience store where I work weekend overnights.
Heather and her husband Ken have had a long stable marriage, but often had economic struggles.  They gave us our only Granddaughter, Caitlin, who just graduated from high school.
Each of the girls is now doing pretty well.  They all are now happily married—Carol and Maureen each tied the knot in May.  They all have good jobs and bright prospects.  Carol is chief financial officer of a growing national real estate company in Wisconsin.  Heather, who was once my boss as assistant manager of the gas station, now manages her own store and is so well thought of she may be headed higher in management.  Maureen just started a new job as the assistant manager of a video and computer game store and is tracked to get a store of her own quickly.

Many of us gather at Maureen's wedding last month--The Old Man, Grandma Kathy, Heather peeking over her shoulder, Maureen, youngest Grandson Randy, Heather's husband Ken, Carolynne, and Grandaughter Caiti.

Even the grandchildren are now all employed.  Caiti is working in a factory and plans to start community college this fall.  Randy just got his first job at Walgreens.  Everyone right now is reasonably happy and presently mostly healthy.  About the best any family can hope for.
We gather frequently for ceremonial holiday dinners, birthday parties, and front yard barbeques.  We laugh a lot and tell the same stories over and over again.  No one seems to get tired of them.  We are all adults now—even Dad grew up—and treat each other with respect and rely on each other for support.
Not bad for a foolish old man.

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