Two days before my mother died from cancer she asked, "You won't be contacting your father, will you?" They had been divorced 37 years but their animosity toward each other never waned.
"Really? This isn't important right now mom." I was out of my mind with stress and grief. I wanted her to die with a sense of peace and the topic of her ex-husband was not going to get us there.
"Well, he never loved you like I did." Okay, that was true; but it's not easy to show love from 1,700 miles away, which was the distance between us for most of my childhood. Between the ages of 4 and 19 I saw my father once, for a visit the summer I was 10.
My mom went on to say she didn't want me to contact my father because she was worried I would get hurt. She mentioned that I was "messed up," upon returning from that one visit. I told her I was messed up because I missed my father terribly. The topic of my father was never an easy one. I felt I had to take my mother's side against half of myself.
During that visit I would say to anyone, even grocery clerks, "That's my dad." Many times a day I would call out, "Dad?"
He'd answer, "Yes, sweetheart?"
"Oh, nothing." Anything to get his attention. The word dad -- strange and new and mine.
Some facts: my parents were divorced in the 1960s when I was quite young. My father paid $50 per month in child support, which wasn't a lot even back then, and sometimes he didn't pay at all. Needing both financial and family support, my mother moved us from Montana, where my father lived, to Michigan. What took up that space where my father might have been; that terrible yearning for love, is another story. Heart breaking. Life changing.
My mother never remarried after the divorce. She worked very hard; sometimes working two jobs to make ends meet -- as a manager at a bank during the day and even as a hostess in a restaurant some evenings. She advanced in her career, and the pressures of being poor relented. Eventually, she even purchased a house. I'm so grateful for the work ethic she taught me. But us kids home alone, it was hard. Since I heard only her side of the story, saw only her struggles, it was easy to join her against my father.
As with everything, it's more complicated than that. My father remarried twice more, had new families. Stepfamilies. Of the few gifts I received from him as a child, one was a framed portrait of him surrounded by his new family. At Christmas time we often received generic cards with copied Christmas letters containing news about "their children," which neglected to include anything about his biological children. It seemed to me my father didn't fight to have a relationship with his kids. I became angrier and angrier, an emotion so much easier to live with than hurt.
My father was a working class man with no legal options and it's not his way to stand up for himself.
But all parents, regardless of gender, need full parental rights, the opportunity to nurture. Women's rights, men's rights, children's rights, human rights; it's complex and interdependent.
Although it wasn't true, I absolutely believed my father never thought of me. I just wanted him to want me.
I was a girl raised without a father and all of the things that come with it -- wanting attention from men, low self esteem, unreliable sense of self. I internalized this into my own messed up patterns and made mistakes. Who I am is all on me; my parents are not responsible for my decisions.
I did call my father after my mother died. That was eight years ago. He invited me to meet him at a family reunion. I can only imagine how scary that was for him; to arrange to meet his daughter who had shown him only anger for years and then cut off all contact.
The day of the reunion I walked up to the grange hall full of people, it was crowded with family; my dad is the oldest of twelve. I saw my father right away; tall, a little stooped over, grey hair, pressed shirt, bright blue watering eyes. I was surprised by the tenderness I felt for him.
My father is 82 and has some dementia. "Who was your mother?" he asked me during a recent visit.
"Susan." My mother was his second wife. He's been married to his fourth wife for about 30 years, but his memory touches down like a skipping rock.
"Oh, what happened to her?"
"Dad, she died years ago." I could feel anxiety in my body, tried to breathe it out.
"Good! She was awful..." He's even compared her to Eva Braun in a previous conversation, completely missing his own affiliation to Hitler. It might be funny if it were on TV.
I had to stay calm. "Let's not talk bad about her, she's dead and it hurts me. Anyway, she never had a good thing to say about you either." Thankfully, the subject changed.
That conversation did bother me, but he's ill, he's older, and their war wasn't really about me. I don't care to assess blame. It's been 47 years; I am over my parent's divorce, but when they keep bringing it up, what's a kid to do?
It's been a very long and imperfect process but I have both forgiven my dad for abandoning me, for not giving me all I thought I deserved, and forgiven myself for carrying years of self-righteous anger and abandoning him. I've had to keep forgiving us both for all of the things that have come up since; like the conversation about my mother. I forgive again when who he is falls short of my ideal; forgive myself when resentments linger in me and I pull away.
It will never be what it could have been. There is distance -- 40 missing years, and there are still 580 miles between us.
What I have now, almost too late: a big wonderful family, moments of grace, our easy love, the unexpected freedom in my heart, which is a sort of self-love.
A woman with a loving father, a woman like that might just choose the company of a partner who is kind rather than one who shows a lot of superficial attention; one who loves her for who she is rather than what she looks like. A woman like that might take risks, believe in herself. She might walk a little taller in the world.
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