There But Not There

Celebrate Father’s Day? That’s not the word I would choose, but I do remember my father.

I remember what he looked like, not as the old man he became but the one I knew in childhood and the one he grew into when I was in my 20s and 30s. He always seemed strong and confident, even in the wrongness he sometimes believed in. He was about 5’7” and very thin, but physically strong. Always doing something. I thought him handsome in a Humphrey Bogart sort of way. I loved him.

I remember how it felt to sit in his lap, one arm around me and the other holding up the newspaper so he could read it. I felt safe in his arms.

And I remember that he didn’t often get angry with my sister and me, but if he got mad enough to start unbuckling his belt, it was too late for “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

When Dad was present in our lives, there but not there. I remember him asking me where Mom had hidden the money. He loved to gamble, and we sometimes went hungry when he fed his desires instead of his family.

I remember the night he left us. I was standing in my bare feet beside my parents’ empty bed, watching my father wordlessly pull a couple of heavy cotton, gray workpants and a pair of faded jeans from the closet, bending their wire hangars in the process. They squeaked back and forth in the silence. Grabbing some underwear, socks, and several white cotton t-shirts from the drawer, he left my mother’s neatly folded slips untouched. Picking through a basket of dirty laundry in the corner behind the door, he removed three plaid, flannel shirts and stuffed them, and everything else, into a brown-paper, grocery sack now serving as his makeshift suitcase. I heard Mom’s panic rising in the straining timber of her voice as tears streamed down her cheeks.

I remember seeing the woman he left us for sitting in his car. Waiting.

I remember stopping for late night visits when I was older and having conversations with him about esoteric things: the universe, astronomy, the afterlife if there was one. He would ask how I was, sometimes how Mom was, but he often forgot to ask about my sisters or my children.

But sometimes he was there.

He would come infrequently in the middle of the night and wake me up to spend a few minutes with me. He didn’t know how devastated I was each time he left again or that I cried for days afterward.

He was there to take photographs of Ronnie and me at the homecoming dance when I was in the 9th grade. I still have them. I look stiff and uncomfortable. When I put myself back there, back then, I realize I was, though I’m not sure why.

But Dad was not there more than he was.

He wasn’t there when I was chosen for the Major Work Class at the end of 4th grade.

He didn’t know the fear that ruled my life after watching Bela Lagosi’s Dracula at the movies with Mom. He didn’t know that I was so unnerved by that experience that I became ill and for months was terrified to go to sleep at night.

He wasn’t there for the music programs in the 5th and 6th grades in which I participated, nor was he there to help with or to see my 7th grade insect collection, how neatly the bugs I so feared were pinned and identified in tight rows on posterboard. He didn’t know how a super scaredy-cat like me could have accomplished this.

He wasn’t there when I dissected a pig’s heart either and didn’t know I couldn’t choke down ham for almost a year after that.

He didn’t know the thought of hot dogs made me sick to my stomach after I read Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” He didn’t know how much I liked to read, what I read, or what I thought about those stories. He didn’t know how much time I spent at the library.

He didn’t know I sought solace in my Slovenian grandmother’s company and cried for weeks when she had to leave to go home after a two-month visit. Every train she came to us on was “Grandma’s train.”

He wasn’t there for my high school graduation nor for the next two graduation ceremonies at the University. He didn’t know what kind of jobs I had. What kind of a mother I was, or wife. Who my friends were.

He never knew how much I missed him, how much I needed him. How much I loved him. He didn’t know. He wasn’t there. He didn’t ask.

I had a father – and I didn’t, and today I want to remember that, even if it’s not a cause for celebration. He was the only father I ever had, and he did have an impact on my life. I wonder how he’d feel about that.




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