Grumpy love – loving an irascible father
“Never let yourself get outnumbered.” — My father
My father Rob, 91 this June, is an irascible man. I don’t remember when he wasn’t. He was 34 when they adopted me and the pictures show my handsome father grinning with a fat little human slug creature
held close. (The ones of my mother and me are particularly sweet as well.)
It didn’t last long. I got bigger, I got opinions, and I became myself. That did it. They were both so damaged that neither had a clue how to parent and frankly, my father is terrified of happiness. He has every reason to distrust it. Of course he does. They put him in a #@$*@(#$ boarding school at age TWO and didn’t let him come home but once a month until he was 5. It wasn’t even in the same freaking country. They were in Seattle and the school was in Victoria, B.C. His parents, famous academics, were brilliant, accomplished and acclaimed. They were also critical, sarcastic, clever narcissists. Such people, should they reproduce, should simply foster their children out and visit at intervals.
I would love to go back in time and sucker-punch the both of them. And then hug them. I have doubts about the parenting they received.
When does abuse start in a family? When and how does it stop? When do parents stop ham-stringing their children for reasons of their own insecurity or vainglory – or both? I have tried to improve as a parent, and now grandparent, and believe I have (it was hard). My daughter is a better parent yet and my granddaughter knows with her whole heart that she is loved. She has no fear of happiness.
My father has done a lot with his life. He taught anthropology from 1947 to 1987 and then went on to teach honors students survival from an anthropological standpoint. I saw him knock out an obsidian arrowhead in about 20 minutes using a rock to do so. Give him a sealed package of matches (or better yet, a lighter) and a Swiss Army knife and my father would emerge from the woods a week later looking good.
But yeah, he’s irascible. He terrorized me as a child. I have blocked this, but my late brother told me he used to tease me until I was screaming, record it and play it back for me. Did he think that would help me stop? I had PTSD already from his rages. When my brother was trying in his struggle to survive AIDS to reduce his stress, he somehow got our folks to a counseling session. At the close, the counselor asked “Steve, is there anything more you would like to ask?” “I want to know what she was thinking when he was downstairs tormenting my sister and me.”
The counselor turned a bright gaze on my mother, “Yeah, I’d like to know that, too.”
Without turning a hair, my mother replied, “I was concerned about the effect it was having on your father.”
You go, Veva.
And yet, of the two of them, Rob was the one with the most honest and authentic feelings. Sure he was explosive, but I could make him laugh until he nearly cried with my Clouseau “it is not my dog” imitation. He’s the one who patiently taught me to pick out recognizable words from nearly any foreign language and get the meaning. He sat me down and taught me to balance a checkbook. He let me use his ancient typewriters and gingerly try out his ancient and deeply personal fountain pens. He even graded the anthro exam I took for his 101 class when I was 12, just to see if I could do it. I barely passed, but by gum, I passed.
What my father was born to do was teach. I believe he could have taught anything. Ask my father a question and you’ll get a 45 minute answer and be glad you did. It was clear, walking by an anthro classroom, that it was my father at the helm. The cackles, whoops, giggles, moans and wheezes meant that he’d dropped another pun, but they were engaged. To peer through the window was to see students sitting up and even forward in their chairs. A local friend was his student and when she realized who I was, her face glowed as she told me he was the best teacher she’d ever had. I guarantee it.
I believe he loved anthro, but no telling if that would have been his true calling. He spent so much of his life trying to be the perfect son to parents so vastly imperfect that they never could have recognized it. He was worth ten of each of them, but he won’t believe me when I tell him.
My mother, the Southern belle, herded me away from her men. It was only when she passed that my father was finally able to meet me without the filter of her calculation, strategy, possessiveness and disdain (mixed with honest love, though). It took a year of unremitting, unrelenting and unconditional love to introduce him to the idea that he might actually like me. Another few years – and a truly inspirational stepmother – took us to the relationship we have today. This love is sweet, supportive, tender and it fills my heart and heals wounds I don’t always know I have.
Nonetheless, this is still the man who followed a dirt biker a good 10 to 15 miles to chew them out for ripping up the landscape. You go, Rob!