Category Archives: parenting

Retrospective suprise

So my mother comes out the bad one. I thought I was going to dive into the darkness around my father — and no, it is not so bad, really. Just the distance of another time and culture, of trying to be a father to four girls, one definitely not his own, another born in his presence, and raised from birth as his. Still, Rachel and I have shared memories of that moment at the edge of the Singing Tree, a moment I remember as defining every moment before something is known. How to explain? We had a tree at the curve in our driveway where it split to go around the house. We had a long driveway, a couple of hundred yards, I guess, and then it circled the house, and one branch went off down to the garage and the stables. And to the left of the spot where it curved and headed downhill to go to the back of the house and the garage stood a tall tree we called the Singing Tree. We used to climb it and survey our four acres from its higher branches. Ruth May fell from it and broke her jaw. I stacked hay bales under it every weekend of winter, so that in the early frosty hours of schooldays I could toss breakfast over the fence to the donkeys without having to go all the way down the dog pen where the hay was stacked safely under cover. We loved that tree, the way the wind sighed through it, the way we felt above the world and safe in its tall branches. It was some kind of evergreen, with branches that bounced as we climbed them, and it smelled tart and mountainous. When I remember that it is gone, I feel something resist in me, and turn away.

Anyway, it obscured the back of the house, where Dad parked the Volvo. Rachel and I would run down the driveway after school, waiting for that instance when we could round the Singing Tree and discover what we wanted to know most, at that moment — was the Volvo there? Was Dad home? I think of getting letters from literary journals and publishing companies and agents, those letters that will accept or reject you, and the moment when you hold the letter in your hand, before you KNOW. It might be good news. There is a delicious joy in that moment, in all the possibilities it holds. Then you slit the envelope open, slip the letter out, unfold it, and the words are there, shattering what you’d hoped for. So often rounding that tree was a shattering of hope — the Volvo neatly parked by the kitchen window, Dad home, nothing to look forward to but being sent to our rooms the moment we entered the door, till tea was ready and we could come out long enough to sit and drink it with the silence of the house echoing around us. Then outside to play, or lined up to do our homework, and always the taut, hard silence ringing in our ears, my father’s dark, impenetrable presence upstairs, in his chair in the living room. To this day, Rachel hates silence, the silence of anger that permeated so much of our childhood. She’s rather instigate a screaming match with her partner than sit through that icy quiet.

Sometimes, on rare, beautiful occasions, the car would be gone, and Rachel and I would barrel down the hill and burst through the back door and into the kitchen, the words tumbling from out mouths: “When’s Daddy back at?” And Mum would say, “When will Daddy be back. You don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” and we’d stand and jig with our satchels still on our shoulders, waiting to hear whether we should go to our rooms or could fling off our coats and flop down for tea and as many biscuits as we wanted (chocolate-covered, of course), and laugher and conversation till the long blue grumble of the Volvo rounding the corner woke us to the silence once more.

Retrospective Resistance

I think, on occasion, about picking up my pen and delving back into my retrospective. But I cannot do so without a sense of disloyalty. For four years after my mother died, I visited my dad 160 or so miles away every couple of weeks. The past six months have been harder. Unusually snowy weather has frequently shut down the mountain pass between us, sometimes for an hour or two, and sometimes for several days, making the trip longer and more hazardous. Gas prices strain a budget already tightened by huge vet bills that took me months to pay off. Summer is a time with only a small paycheck. I need to be ready to get through it without digging into my savings — Zeke’s college money, gathered slowly but steadily since she was born. She can’t go to Harvard on it, but it will lighten the load if she stays local, and if she chooses a community college for her first two years. Spending a couple of hundred dollars a month driving across the pass to my dad’s and back (gas, plus more frequent oil changes etc. My 4-year-old car has almost 100,000 miles on it!) is too much a strain on the budget right now. I feel terrible when I find myself telling him I can’t make it, when I hear the resigned disappointment in his response. He’s always gracious: “Oh, of course. I wouldn’t risk it myself. There’s no point being stuck in traffic for five or six hours just for an overnight trip.” (The 3-hour drive over the pass easily turns into five or six hours in the winter with avalanche closures and miles of stop-and-go traffic.) But still, I know he’s disappointed. I know having company pleases him, even if it’s just the quiet of another presence in the house. I know he likes the help with fixing up my sister’s old house, and likes that Mum’s roses are still alive and even thriving, because I’ve been caring for them.

“I don’t suppose,” he says after a moment, “It would be practical for you to come across on the 24th. They’re doing the HMS Pinafore at the local theatre, but only for one night, a Thursday.” I feel a fleeting sorrow. Every year in Ireland we went to see a Gilbert and Sullivan show, that and the annual Christmas pantomime at the Gaiety with Maureen Potter. I loved HMS Pinafore as a child, and for a split second I imagine jumping in my car after work, driving across the pass for the show, and driving home at midnight. But that’s madness.

I decline, and he sighs, and I tell him I’ll come over for three days the weekend of our spring holiday in two weeks. But that means I’ll have been to see him only once a month since winter ended. Only three times in the past two¬† and a half months. It doesn’t seem enough, especially since Ruth May is so busy with her baby and her rarely sees her unless he makes the effort to come up the hill and drive across town to the house she shares with her boyfriend.

But what does all that have to do with the retrospective?

I am confused about the past. I am confused about the truth of the past, about the slippery difficulty of it. I cannot reconcile who he is now, my own current desire to help him, with the memory of the man from my youth. If I am to recall what I remember of those years, he will not look good. He will look cold and even somewhat cruel. He will look distant and ominous. He did nothing wrong, nothing overt, nothing like the kinds of atrocities I hear of from students and friends. No, he was a war child, raised in a country in which keeping the upper lip taut remained paramount. He learned to survive, and to brick himself off from pain. And I wasn’t his daughter, so he never did know how to reach out to me, the interloper, the competitor for my beloved mother’s attentions.

Growing up, I didn’t know anything about the situation, about what he took on when he took on my pregnant mother and me. All I knew was that I called him Daddy and that he didn’t seem to like me. What I remember of him is what is shaped by the prism through which I gauged him. It is not what he is, or what he was, only a distorted memory that I fear sharing. I don’t wish to speak ill of him. We do what we can with what we have. He did his best, and ultimately his best was far better than what would have happened had my mother stayed with JD. But as a pubescent child, growing towards the sullen years of teenagerhood, I knew nothing at all about his past, about mine, about my mother’s. I knew only that he didn’t like me, his “own daughter,” and I didn’t know why. So forgive what I say, if I continue my retrospective. It is not about the man I know now, whose roof I patch and whose roses I prune. It is about what I thought he was, in my own lost way, before I had experience to see it all in context.

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