Saturday, July 4, 2015

My daddy's shelves

My dad made a set of shelves way back in the 70's that I have lugged around since my parents divorced in 1982. They are big and bulky, and they possess many imperfections. They are not shaped the same; one shelf is cut differently from the other two. He obviously lost control of the router on the front of one of them. The boards are not true, although I'm sure some of that is weather related warping over time. For three decades these shelves have been in an attic, closet, or basement; neither displayed nor discarded. Just sitting there. Waiting. Until last week.

About two weeks ago I decided I wanted to hang them in my kitchen, not in the way dad had designed and built them, but with a more modern look. John and I bought brackets and put them up last Saturday. Well, we put up two of them. The third, larger shelf will have to wait for the remainder of the kitchen remodel, but it too will have a home eventually.

I've written a great deal about my mom, not so much about my dad. There are a couple of reasons for that, none of them seem very important to me now. You see, when my husband and I came home from the grocery Friday afternoon there was a strange envelope waiting for me in the mailbox. It was life insurance paperwork on my father.

Shelves my father made
when I was a child. 

Just to review: my mother was dead a week before anyone missed her. My dad was dead for a month and I was notified by the mailman.

It's hard for me to explain to people that I was estranged from both of my parents. It's embarrassing. It brings all sorts of awkwardness on both sides of the conversation, especially if the other person knew either of them, but especially if they knew my dad. This post is a smattering of thoughts, memories, emotions, reactions; all of which are difficult for me to put into words.

Dad was brilliant, vivacious, funny, and loved to laugh. He loved music and singing. He played guitar.  He could fix or build anything. In fact, I grew up thinking that the ability to fix cars, washing machines, windows, or build a porch were inherent man-traits because of the men in my family. I didn't know that there were professional plumbers or electricians until my parents divorced and my mother had to call someone other than my dad.

Dad was also generous to a fault. Money meant nothing to him, and if he could buy you something to make you happy he would. He died a pauper for this reason. Many people received financial support from my dad over the years. I'm a lot like him in that regard, which is why I believe my husband to be a gift from God. IN my best Forest Gump voice, "That's about all I have to say about that."

Dad was quirky. He had a way of speaking to you, a way that would at times make you question your own sanity. His method was one part flirt and two parts cocky with a twist of humor. He could appear to be a genius or a simpleton with equal flair, and he had a way of insulting service workers that went right over most of their heads. He generally got his way in stores or restaurants, but when he didn't things would go south quickly. If my dad's charming method failed to achieve his perception of success he would devolve into an obnoxious, unreasonable, threatening figure, and occasionally the poor soul on the receiving end would call security or the police just to get my dad to leave. My father has been escorted against his will out of more than one establishment.

Most of the people who know my dad thought he was a lot of fun to be around. And he was. He loved to play games. My dad always had big ideas of making life fun for everyone. Whether it was badminton in front yard or hearts at the kitchen table, bowling on Sunday or one-on-one basketball, dad liked to have fun. He expected everyone to have fun as well, and if we didn't, well it was no fun for anyone.

At home my dad was volatile, moody, explosive, and at times, physically abusive. I learned at a very early age how to read his mood and walk on egg shells. My mother thought it was quite funny when I, at the age of 5, came into the kitchen from the backyard, calmly  announcing that "dad is having one of his fits" and had just thrown the lawnmower into the concrete ditch behind the house. I wasn't as amused when he did the same thing to my bike. Or my dog Rufus.

There were many times I wasn't able to get away from his abuse, and it was always two-fold. He always held me by the arm and either shook or hit me, and he always screamed and yelled about how stupid I was for doing whatever I had done to cause his outburst. What did I do, you ask?

Once I fell down. That's right. We were walking along the rocky banks of the Nolin River and I tripped over a rock. When I got up he pushed me back down for being so stupid and clumsy. Another time I was pushing my friends around in a wheel barrow. There was the time I was 16 and talking to a group of friends outside of the building where we were square dancing. That one was especially fun, as he made a scene, cussed me out and slapped me in the car, and then forced me to behave normally at the restaurant with them a half-hour later. Then there was the time I twisted my ankle playing soccer in PE. Oh, and there is the time when I was around  five and I couldn't understand his explanation of the multiplication tables. Everyone of these times I was shaken and/or smacked, and verbally accosted.

There are times I don't remember that others insist happened. My childhood friend shared a memory with me that scared her and her little brother so badly they hid from my dad. My sister told me once he had me behind the barn beating me with a stick so badly she intervened. My mother had also told me of times I ran away from him- but I must have blocked all of these memories. If others hadn't shared them with me, I wouldn't know they existed.

And then there is the third side of my dad, the crying. Frankly, this was worse than the physical abuse. My father, tall and lean, blubbering unintelligibly while sobbing crocodile tears. He would go on and on about how worthless he was. As good as he was at insulting others, he was a master at self-denigration. No amount of logic would work at this point. Well logic didn't work at any point. But when dad was in one of these moods, you just hoped it would end well. More than once someone was worried that dad was suicidal.

So was my dad mentally ill? Yeah, surely he was. He was diagnosed as bipolar at one time. Schizophrenia came up too, but that one is a little harder for me to believe. He sought treatment a few times, both on his own free will and at the behest of a judge, but he didn't stick with treatment. He self medicated with alcohol for a while- those were probably some of the best, calmest years.

My dad was in and out of my life after I became an adult. After years of drinking and smoking, he suddenly stopped both after the birth of my first child, his oldest grandson. He became less lighthearted and more opinionated. He would be around for life events and holidays for a while, then he would disappear without explanation for months or even years at a time. I wish I could say that my fear of my father went away in my adult years, but it didn't. He still could say things to me that cut me deeply. It got to the point that I knew the first two items up for discussion would be my weight and my dirty house. He loved to poke me with political jabs, enticing me to argue with him because we did not agree on several levels. And invariably, I would end up being called stupid for my beliefs; or a failure for my lack of vision. The bottom line: I was never good enough, thin enough, or smart enough to make him happy.

My boys loved my dad, when he was around. There were times when he was very active in their lives, and then times when he just stopped communicating with them altogether. He didn't acknowledge any birthdays or Christmases, but one day he would just show up and insist that everyone go to do something fun and then get ice cream afterward. He would get very involved with the kids and then not. He attended a few of John's basketball games, but not his high school graduation. They were confused. I assured them that I could not explain their grandfather, and just encouraged them to enjoy it when he was around, and not take his absences personally.

Sadly, all four of my children had an opportunity to see my father get angry and violent. Fortunately they only saw violence toward an inanimate object, but it scared them none the less. As they told me what happened I just nodded my head and said "Yeah. I know. I grew up with that." .

I admit it. I quit. I quit trying to have a normal relationship with my father. I didn't want to be around him. I didn't want to listen to the insults, the denigration, and the accusations. I got tired of walking on egg shells, living in fear of opening a can or worms, or being called stupid. His failing health did not slow down his barrage of hurtful comments. When he went to live with my sister, I knew he would be taken care of, and in a way, I was off the hook. Yeah, I'm a quitter like that I guess. In a way I proved him right.

I had the opportunity to talk to all four children separately today and tell them of their grandfather's death. I admitted my guilt to them, but received something unexpected from each of them; encouragement. My children are angry. They feel abandoned. They do not blame me for my parents' decision to step out of their lives. Frankly that surprised me a little bit, but I'm also relieved. I also now understand that however painful it feels to be rejected by a parent, it must be exponentially more painful to feel that from a grandparent.

I will go to my grave with guilt and regret. I was a lousy daughter. And if that were the end of the story, this would be a tragedy. But it's not. If you know anything about bipolar disorder, you know it has a genetic tendency. I have a responsibility to prevent this sort of dysfunction in the upcoming generations. My father's death has only deepened my resolve to make sure I am a better mom and grandmother than my parents were. None of us can change our past, but we can allow God to redeem it. I still have a lot of daddy issues to work through, a number or demons to exorcise, and I don't expect that to happen overnight if at all. But as I hold my sweet grandbabies on my lap, may they know how much they are loved and adored. May they feel comfortable and safe in the arms and at the hands of their parents and grandparents alike.

My cousin, whom if I ever met her in real life I don't remember it, summed it up nicely in a facebook message "what a strange family we have."


  1. Hugs and prayers, dear friend! Your children and grandchildren are fortunate to have such a reflective and intentional mother/grandmother in their lives.

  2. Thanks Melissa. This has been a lot harder on my children than I thought it would be and for reasons I did not anticipate. I have been transparent with them about my family's and my battles with mental illness, a battle that started long before my father was born. I hope and pray that I am breaking the cycle.

  3. What an awful way to learn of your father's death. I'm sorry for your loss. You are a good writer, Trish. I miss seeing your posts on PT.

  4. Thank you PlayPower. There are a number of PT'ers I miss as well. I see PT in the stats here from time to time. Sometimes I follow the link to see which post led a PT'er here. I hope all is well with you and yours. Enjoy your summer break!


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