Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fun and Lively

My dad is generally not generous with compliments. He was born in 1927, grew up during the Great Depression, and was drafted into the army during World War II where he helped with the cleanup of Europe. Then, to top off a tough early life, at the age of twenty-two my dad discovered his dad dead in the shower after my grandmother left him for another man.

The only two stories I recall my dad telling me about my grandfather were not flattering. Once when my dad came home from school, when he was just a small boy, my grandfather found out that my dad didn't fight back when a bully attacked him at school. So my grandfather decided to "teach him not to be a coward" by beating him with his belt in the front yard in front of the whole neighborhood. The second story involved the local bar owner calling my dad at the age of fourteen to come pick up his dad, who was too drunk to drive himself home. My dad recalled this story as he was teaching me how to drive when I was sixteen. I remember driving down the road, my dad in the passenger seat explaining to me why he got to learn how to drive when he was only fourteen.

Yeah, I know, most of us had rough childhoods and many of us still manage to be nice. But I'm always reminded of my dad's early years whenever he's being a jerk.

When I was in junior high and my dad informed me that it would from then on be my responsiblity to cook and clean for the family since both my mom and dad worked full time, I wanted to retort, "Hey, my friends don't have those kinds of responsibilities on top of school work," but I knew if I did, Dad would once again remind me that my life was easy compared to his.

So I cooked and cleaned without complaint. But I longed for some kind of reward. I sought validation and was often denied. When I'd dutifully serve dinner, I'd wait for Dad to miraculously turn into one of those caring fathers featured in Father's Day greeting cards or old black and white movies. He'd take a couple bites of dinner. I'd wait. Finally I'd give up and ask, "How is it?" Mom would always say, "Oh, it's delicious." The most I ever got out of dad was "It'll do."

It's funny now. Who says, "It'll do?" But at the time I couldn't understand why I couldn't please my father.

Will likes to tease me now. At 41, my culinary skills peaked in junior high. I think it's psychological. Just as the probablity that I hate math is great due to the rebellion I felt against my two accountant parents, I learned to view cooking as an unrewarding chore. But since I've gone part time at the library, I feel like I need to earn my keep and save the family money by cooking more. So when I do make the effort, as Katie and Will and I sit at the table, we often go through the routine of my asking how it is and Will joking, "It'll do."

I gave up fishing for compliments from my dad years ago. So it was a tremendous surprise when he paid me one on Thanksgiving. He was an hour and a half early, sitting there at our dining room table. I was trying to help Will, the real chef in our family, get our feast together. Will was in the kitchen peeling the potatoes, the one measely task he'd given me after he assigned himself the bird, the gravy, and the stuffing. "No, no, Babe, I'll do that!" I said about five times while I kept getting distracted by the guest.

My dad was talking about his new girlfriend, describing her daughter, "She reminds me of you. She's fun and lively."

Not quite sure I heard him right, I put my hand on his arm and said, "Wait, so what you're telling me is I'm fun and lively?"

He laughed and said, "Yeah, I guess I am."

I have a vague recollection of Dad once telling me that I am smart like my mother. You'd think I would remember more vividly such an unsual thing, my dad paying me a compliment. But it's a murky memory so maybe I'm just making it up.

From what I recall, it was right after Mom had left him. I'd spent as far back as I could remember wishing my parents would get a divorce. When they finally were, I felt oddly sorry for Dad. His temper, his tightwaddery, had always made me side with my mom during their fights when I was growing up. But at that moment, when he finally admitted he had nice things to say about my mom and me, I forgave him for all the times he never did.

After this second compliment, as he sat at my dining table, I gave him a hug. I was startled at how boney his shoulders are. When I was a kid, my dad seemed huge and intimidating. Now he felt small and vulnerable.

I'm happy he's finally realized my good qualities. I'm even happier he's finally learned I won't turn into a coward if he pays me an occasional compliment.