The first Shakespearean quotation I ever learned was from Marc Anthony's funeral oration for Caesar in Julius Caesar. ``The evil men do lives after them; the good lies oft interred in their bones.''
April 17 would have been my father's 92nd birthday. He's been dead three years now. And what I am finding is that as the days go by, It's harder and harder for me to recall positive memories of him. Instead, I'm hit with a rush of the negatives that I find myself chewing over, and wondering once again, why he had to be that way. That quotation from Julius Caesar continues to resonate
It's not that I need to dwell on the hard times. Rather, it's that I find so much of what happened to be almost impossible for me to understand, particularly in the light of the way I feel about and try to treat my own children. Sometimes I just sit here and puzzle about it.
A great deal of the problem was my father's upbringing, although his older siblings seem to have escaped relatively unscathed. For Dad, though, the combination of the immigrant experience; of being the stay-at-home baby when everyone else went off to school, quickly assimilated and became Americans; losing his mother when he was 10; and having a brutal, deliberately cruel father all left their scars. I can be sympathetic about all of those factors.
What I cannot forget or forgive is what he visited on his family, that is to say, his wife and children. Funny thing, though, I don't think Dad ever thought of us as his family. For my father, the word ``family'' meant only his family of origin. I remember the first Christmas after our mother died. Dad abandoned us because he had to go ``spend Christmas with my family,'' namely his older siblings.
And years later, when we had a terrible terrible confrontation in which he told me he hated me, wished I'd never been born, and was sorry I hadn't died at birth, he made such a telling statement ``because of you I can't hold up my head around my family.'' I don't think he ever ``got'' that his children -- including me -- were his family. Instead, he was, to his dying day, a motherless child who could not live without constant female nurturance and approval from either of his two wives, or from his elder sister who was a surrogate mother to him. His own children didn't fit into that picture.
Alcohol played a significant role. Dad grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran family that eschewed alcohol. But once he got to Boeing and the hard-drinking fast-lane life in flight test, he had to be one of the boys. I can't remember a time in his life when he wasn't drinking, except for when he was in his extreme old age and incapable of getting anywhere to get his hands on alcohol.
As anyone who's had an alcoholic parent can tell you, living with someone with a drinking problem means a life of walking on eggs, never knowing what will set that parent off into a rage, a crying jag, verbal abuse, whiny self-pity or physical violence. A friend of mine once wrote a book about what happens to children in an alcoholic family, and I've always thought his title was particularly apropos: The Opposite of Everything is True.
I truly never knew what to believe, or what to expect. A remark that was deemed harmless one night would get one of us a fierce verbal attack or worse the next night. Dad used to lay Draconian punishments on us, and then, an hour or two later, would rescind his own orders. I used to want him, just once, to follow through even if I suffered serious punishment as a result, just so something around our house would be consistent.
There was often psychological warfare too. He would work us against our own siblings, playing favorites, teling each of us bad things about the others or how favored the others were. And when he had grandchildren, it was just as bad. He didn't hesitate to harp on all of what he perceived to be my children's failings, and those of my sibs' kids, too. Perhaps it was for the pleasure of getting a rise out of one of his kids, but this mean-spiritedness was unacceptable and unnecessary. And so much of it was lies. My friend who wrote the book about alcoholic parents had a line I'll always remember: ``How can you tell when an alcoholic is lying? His lips are moving.''
I've worked very hard to gather some measure of self-esteem, but oh how difficult it's been! I heard the constant mantra from him from my earliest days: ``you're so awkward, you're so clumsy, you're so unfeminine, you're so ugly. No man is every going to want you. You're so worthless that the best you'll ever do in life is work in a 10-cents store in Cocoa, Florida.'' The first time I ever sewed a dress for myself -- I was about 14 -- I donned it to show to him, and he said ``it looks like an English riding saddle on a Clydesdale.'' And my kids wonder why I have no fashion sense or self-confidence about my appearance! Even now it's a big struggle to avoid self-sabotage because, of course, I don't feel entitled to have good things happen to me.
He did the same thing to my mom. She was movie-star beautiful, with bright blue eyes, long blond hair, and the kind of cheekbones a supermodel would kill to possess. She was also smart. She majored in chemistry in college, graduated with honors and went on to do graduate work in bacteriology. But she never worked outside the home once she was married, and in his worst rants, Dad used to say ``Mary, you don't even know the formula for Mercurochrome any more.''
I suspect Dad was probably bipolar, and self-medicated with alcohol. And he had very very low self-esteem, despite his considerable achievements in his professional life. I think, on some levels, that he was so filled with self-loathing that there was no way that anyone who had descended from him could be worth anything either.
When he was in his most self-pitying state, he'd sit at the table and cry, ``I'm no good, I'm no damned good Mary (my mom), I'm no damned good.'' But the idea of therapy was out of his realm of possibilities.
It's odd because Dad could be so personable to those outside the family. He often treated outsiders far better than he did his own family. It almost was a joke in the later years of his life that he'd be surrounded with photos of the various health care workers who took care of him and of their children. And he was always buying them presents and sending them cards. There was not a single photo of me in his house for years, but he gave pride of place to my a photo from my ex-husband's second wedding. Go figure.
Once we were out from under Dad's roof, he shoved each of us as far away as he could. Whenever we wanted to come and visit or bring our children by, he'd always say no. He ``couldn't stand it,'' was what my stepmother would say. He missed birthdays, baptisms, recitals, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and graduations. Or he'd be so falling down drunk -- the way he was the night I graduated from high school -- that he was off the hook.
I got married in June 1965, two weeks after my college graduation. He arranged a business trip to Spain so he wouldn't have to come to the wedding, insisting that the entire U.S. space program couldn't move ahead without his making another trip to the tracking station right then and there. My mother, for once, stood up to him, called his boss and managed to have Dad sent home in time to attend.
The wedding reception was ``dry'' because I was afraid of what would happen if there was any alcohol . I needn't have bothered for Dad laid in a supply of liquor at the house for after the reception and proceeded to get good and drunk that day anyway.
Holidays were always a nightmare when we were growing up. Invariably Dad would decided to cancel Christmas because of one child or other's misbehavior. The only way we could ever get it back was to engage in intense self-abnegation, promising over and over that we'd be good. I think we all grew up disliking Christmas intensely, and couldn't really celebrate the holidays with any joy until we had our own children and had developed our own traditions. I'm positive none of us has ever threatened to cancel any holiday for our children.
The last few times I saw my father, he was in a nursing home. Osteoporosis had shrunk his Viking frame until he looked like a small gray gnome in his wheelchair, slouched and curved like a shrimp. He was angry that he couldn't live on his own anymore, and wanted all his dispersed possessions back again. He was lonely because no one but my brother -- who was his primary caregiver -- and one of my mother's brothers would visit him regularly. I don't think he ever realized that he pushed everyone so far away that most people just gave up.
He was still quick to judge. He always asked me when was the last time I'd been to Mass, even though he hadn't been inside a church for decades. He always had something bad to say about what I was wearing and how terrible I looked. And for some odd reason, I think he suspected that I was a lesbian. He was always asking me about why I was ``hanging around with all those women all the time.'' He looked askance, even when I told him about my boyfriend in New Orleans.
The other day I was talking to my friend Thalia and mentioned that all these negative memories of Dad were driving out anything positive I could recall. She suggested that maybe I was finally realizing that I could stop trying to please him, and was accepting that despite my best efforts, he was not pleasable.
Perhaps that's the case. I'm the eldest of Dad's four children, and it's true that the eldest child in an alcoholic family often tries to make things better no matter what.
At Samhain three years ago, I tried to make a candle for my dad for the Dia de los Muertos altar. After this many years of decorating these candles, I've gotten pretty good at it. But no matter how hard I tried, Dad's was totally messed up. The photo wrinkled, the paint smeared, and it was altogether an ugly mess. I saw it happening and it reminded me of how I used to burn dinner by accident when I was mad at my husband. I guess my hands know what's in my heart, even when my head isn't willing to consider the possibility.
Several years ago one of my mother's brothers died, and, within the year, his wife followed him. As I was writing this, I found myself thinking of this aunt and uncle and remembering attending their 25th wedding anniversary celebration many years ago. One by one their children got up and talked about how much they loved their parents, and all happy times they had with them and the many kindnesses with with their parents treated them.
I can remember sitting there, puzzled. My cousins genuinely loved and respected their father (and their mother, too, of course). ``They really do love their father,'' I kept saying to myself in disbelief. ``A father is someone you can love and respect? And he clearly loves his kids.'' What a strange and radical idea that was! More's the pity this story could never have been told about my father.
My kids don't have most of these bad memories of their grandfather. When they were young and he was doing some of his worst drinking and acting out in the years after my mother died, I wouldn't let Dad see them if he was drinking. I didn't want them to become targets, too. So their memories are, I hope, largely benign, unlike the memories my sibs and I have.
And of course, the story's mixed anyway. I'm proud of what Dad accomplished in his professional life. I love my Norwegian heritage that came from his side of the family. I'm sure my love of travel, and my desire to be competent at my work come from him. I wanted to make him proud of me and hoped someday he'd find a way to approve and love me back. But that was never to be.
We Pagans always say what is remembered lives. I only wish more of what I remember could be positive. But there we are, back to Mark Anthony's speech again.