The Unreliable Narrator: Our Father, Our Family

Vintage paper dolls

Take a family, clipped neatly in half after a divorce. They will remind you of a book of paper dolls. You punch the perforated dolls out of a paper booklet, then bend tabs to keep their dresses, trousers and shirts in place. The Mother paper doll goes to the grocery store and buys whimsical ingredients for a fairy-tale cake or pie, the Father doll disappears to the office, the factory, or perhaps the furniture store, and the children memorize poetry at school, with the exception of the younger sister, who cuts school and smokes marijuana.

Is this your nuclear family? “You’re still livin’ in a paper-doll world.” But my friends and I preferred the third dimension, i.e., the Barbie and Tammy dolls. Sometimes we raced Barbie and Skipper up the stairs, or took apart the cardboard furniture in Tammy’s cardboard house and hid the dolls inside the soda bar or the couch. Once my dad bawled me out in front of friends when we were mocking True Romance magazine. “I know why you’re really reading it.” He reduced me to tears. Actually, we’d bought True Romance to make a silly collage, and to this day I have no idea what he thought we were reading.

And then there were the times as an adult when I really tried to be nice to him, to befriend him. He had a long history of being kind for a few minutes and then deciding to lecture or criticize me. So all would be well – he’d tell stories about my grandfather, an anti-Viet Nam war liberal who spent much time at the Elks, or tell me that Little Women (he’d read his sister’s book) was “overrated.” Then at some point he would deliver a sexist tirade: “Women can’t play chess” was a favorite. Well, I didn’t play chess, so this didn’t deeply traumatize me!

Girls and their fathers! We always want their attention. But he never knew how to relate to me. A few years ago, he referred to the time he lived with Mother and us as “the bad old days.” That really stung. Did he know what he was saying and how much it hurt? I believe he regarded it as a joke.

We did have a few nice times: visiting Amish country, visiting a greenhouse that grew only poinsettias, and attending the Planned Parenthood sale the year P. G. Wodehouse was his favorite writer. But he was winded – he had to sit down a lot. And I felt sad. My young, strong father, getting old. And yet he wasn’t very old then.

I do think he enjoyed his life with his second spouse, because they traveled widely and belonged to many organizations and societies. He had a very active social life, which he enjoyed. He had dogs and cats. He lost his first family, though. Did he regret that? It certainly hurt all of us.

And now of course I wish I’d made the effort and visited him one last time. Perhaps old age had simply changed his personality, so that he voiced every thought he had, however inappropriate. Perhaps he left us with a worse impression than he deserved. I do have one very happy long-ago family memory: he was painting the living room, under my mother’s direction, and all the furniture had been moved into the middle of the room. I lolled on the couch reading The Wind in the Willows, happy to be in the midst of my harmonious family. Then we had an impromptu “picnic” indoors, with ham sandwiches from Woolworths – surprisingly good.

He is and was my father, whatever his faults. What I’ll always miss is the possibility of closeness, or at least friendship. We try, we struggle, and then we wonder, Did we try hard enough? But we also have to asks, Did he try?

atque in perpetuum, pater, ave atque vale.

From Catullus 101

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