Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Father Dearest

You may recall this post in which I described my recent opportunity to reconnect with my biological father after a nearly life-long estrangement.  In the three weeks since then, we've gone out to lunch and had a few brief phone and letter exchanges.  This Monday he picked me up on his BMW motorcycle and we rode all the way around Lake Winnebago, about 90 miles. 

You know, for a 75-year-old with a pacemaker, he sure can hit the gas on that bike. 

Afterwards we went back to his country house, which he shares with his girlfriend of 20-some years, Shirley.  Shirley seems really cool, very spunky and fun and easy to talk to, and we three had a nice little supper filled with groans over my dad's punny sense of humor.  Shirley then had to run into town for a few hours, so my dad and I lounged on his living room floor and went through a big box of old family photos.  A handful of them featured his 53-year-old son--my half-brother Edward--whom I have never met and who has no idea I even exist.    

"So...why doesn't Edward know about me?" I asked. 

My question was answered with a long, rambling explanation about how Edward has his own problems and how he and my dad have not always had the best communication.  In the shuffle of pictures, I was then handed a 1950s photograph from my dad's wedding to his first wife, Edward's mother.

"I want to know about your first marriage," I said.  "Who was this woman?  How did you meet her?  What was she like?  Why did you marry her?  And what happened to make it end?"

"Ehh, we'll get to that later," my dad said, slipping on his huge bifocals and rummaging through another pile of pictures.  About 20 minutes later, after we had gone through dozens more photographs, I said, "So now are you going to tell me about your first marriage?"

He hemmed and hawed a bit more, elaborating on the rift between him and Edward, then added, "I was involved with his mother's death.  Or rather, I'm directly responsible for her death.  I will be carrying some very heavy guilt to my grave."

Well!  That certainly wasn't the answer I was expecting, so I didn't say anything.  I just watched him and waited for some kind of clarification.

"I'm not going to get into this anymore today," he asserted definitively.  "Not so soon after we've just...reconnected." 

My insides melted with disappointment.  "Well, that's kind of a big bomb to drop and not--"

"I want to wait," he interrupted, a little bit of an edge creeping into his voice.  "There are a lot of other things I'd have to get into first.  And I'm not...right now."

"Okay," I nodded quietly.

"It's something that is farther down the road and that I'll tell you about another time."

"Okay."

We came to the bottom of the large box of photos, and he started putting them all back.  "And you thought this [family history] would be simple!"

"I didn't think anything," I said. 

There were a lot more tough, pointed questions I wanted to ask, but trying to phrase every question in a considerate, non-confrontational, neutral way was getting exhausting.  I want to get to know my father and find out where he's been all these years, what he's done with his life, and what he's all about, without seeming like I'm pointing a finger or assigning blame or judgment.  Especially since he's been so generous since our reunion.  He's bought me lunch, ice cream, two birthday gifts, has driven me all over the place, and hosted me at his house for dinner.  He's doing his part to try to mend our relationship, and the last thing I want to do is be a whiny, demanding asshole.

This is why I didn't challenge him as he drove me home in his newer-model Lexus.  To get a feel for where he stands spiritually, I asked if he was religious.  He said yes, then immediately launched into a loud, angry rant against atheists and how irrational, nonsensical, negative, horrible, worthless, and evil they are.

I figured that wasn't the best time to mention that I've been an atheist for most of my life--or that, despite my apparent evilness as such, I've somehow managed to avoid being responsible for anyone's death. 

I'll save that for next week's dinner. 

"So where do you want to eat?  What do you want to do?" he asked as we pulled into my driveway.  "Italian?  Mexican?  Chink?"

"That's not very nice," I frowned. 

"What's not nice about it?  'Yankee' is often shortened to 'yank' and no one says that's offensive."

That's because "yankee" isn't an ethnic slur, Dad.

Clearly, my father is a man of his time.  He was born during the Great Depression and came of age in the 1950s, and holds many of the beliefs common to that generation.  I, being a woman of my time, happen to disagree with most of those beliefs.  Although on the surface we have so much in common.  We're both devoted writers, are creative, dislike sports, tend to juggle several projects at once, do things our own way while bucking authority, and are, as Shirley says, "cookie monsters."  I suspect that our relationship will not be one of kindred spirits, so to speak, but more like what most adults have with their aging parents: messy, complicated, rewarding, civil, strained, and funny.  

But at this early date, who can say for sure?