Childhood taught me many conflicting things about life — things I found impossible to reconcile.
On the one hand, I recall my mother’s gentle, nurturing, loving presence as we baked together in the kitchen of my childhood home, our hands in the cookie dough. I can still see myself at seven years old, wearing an apron that matched hers, and I can see my mom, Cheryl, like it was yesterday—tall, slender, beautiful and fair skinned with green eyes. She was the picture of elegance and grace and a true lady.
Being beside her in the kitchen, baking, made me very happy and contented and, in those special moments, I felt loved and nurtured. I also have memories of my mom brushing and curling my hair. She always took her time and was very tender with me.
In my favorite childhood memories of me and my dad, I was very little. I loved it when he would let me stand on his feet and hold on as he walked. Or sometimes he would lie on his back and I would stand on his hands and then he would put his feet up and I would transition to his feet. And I loved the times when he was driving with me on his lap, allowing me to help steer the car.
I also have a very fond memory of going fishing with my dad when I was about five years old. We were fishing in a big canal that ran through the center of town. (There were many canals in our town.) It was just the two of us in Daddy’s little boat and I made a misstep and ended up falling into the water. He quickly jumped in after me, fished me out of the water and got me back up onto the banks of the canal.
After making sure I was okay, he said, “Let’s pack up and go home now. And next time we go fishing, you’ll have to be more careful!”
I could sense that my fall into the water had scared my father. Knowing I had this kind of impact on him was gratifying and made me feel loved. I thought to myself, Okay, Daddy does love me.
The fact that Daddy was worried about me was endearing. I didn’t even mind that I was cold and wet as we drove home. I knew that my dad wasn’t really angry with me. It was the first time I noticed the difference between him being truly angry with me and scolding me out of concern and I thought about that all the way home. My dad’s hair-trigger temper always left me feeling uncertain and afraid. It was vaguely threatening and that undercurrent pervaded the entire household.
I grew up in a small rural town in the desert of the Southwest. My dad, Larry, grew up in the tiny town of Pinkney, Michigan as one of four children. There was his older sister, Claudia, his fraternal twin, Gary, and his younger sister, Judy. His home life was not particularly harmonious, given his mother’s depression and his dad’s heavyhanded, harsh punishments which tended to be disproportionate to the offense committed. Daddy had a difficult and strained relationship with his father and was closer to his mother. I only met Grandpa a handful of times before he passed away.
Daddy owned a plumbing contracting company and would spend long hours outside. In the heat of the day in the summertime, the temperatures would routinely climb to 118 or 120 degrees and the need to be finished working before the arrival of the scorching noonday heat would drive Daddy out of bed sometimes as early as three o’clock in the morning. He would creep through the house in the dark, getting dressed, and slip out the door long before the sun came up. While the rest of us slept, he would be getting his trucks and piping ready for the job site.
I rarely awoke in time to hear my dad getting ready for work. Usually, I got up in the morning knowing that he had already left for work. When I would hear him coming home around three o’clock in the afternoon, my ears would perk up. I could hardly contain my excitement to see him and I couldn’t wait to give him a hug. I would jump up on him, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!”
To have this little girl bubbling over with exuberance was too much for my dad, who was always tired, sweaty and hot from a long day on the job. He would push me off of him with the command, “Goddammit! Get off of me!” He never returned my embrace.
Why won’t Daddy hug me? I wondered. I needed to be close to my dad and his constant rejection hurt me deeply. As an adult, I understand that he was always exhausted from work but all I knew as a child was that my dad didn’t seem to want to be around me, a fact which I found profoundly confusing, disturbing and heartbreaking.
I always knew that I could approach my mom. She was the soft one. “Daddy’s being mean to me!” I would cry.
Any time I went to her for an explanation of my dad’s behavior, she would encourage and comfort me. “Sweetheart,” she would say, “Daddy’s very tired! He’s been up since three in the morning. Be patient and give Daddy time to unwind from his day and he will come find you when he is ready.”
I clung to the belief that Daddy just needed a cigarette and a cup of tea before he was ready to interact with me but my patience didn’t change anything. Time after time, even after my dad had finished a smoke and had his tea, the most we would share would be a brief conversation. I never did get my hug. I adored my father and was starved for his affection but he was simply not going to hug me or show me any affection.
When my initial attempts to get my dad’s attention would fail, I believed that maybe if I just tried harder, I would get a different result. So I pushed the envelope. Whenever my dad needed his space and I wouldn’t back off, I would get rewarded for my efforts with a spanking that left me asking myself, Why is Daddy always trying to get away from me? What is wrong with me?
It was very difficult for me to understand him. The one constant I could always count on was his temper.