Sunday, June 21, 2015

Laminated quarter

When I was sixteen, my dad gave me a laminated quarter and told me to keep it in my wallet. This was back in the dark ages before cell phones. There were payphones all over the city. Drop in a quarter and make a call.

When dad gave me the laminated quarter he said, "My buddies and I used to do stupid things when I was your age. Here's a quarter. Call home if you're ever stranded somewhere drunk and you don't have a ride home."

My dad and I have the weirdest relationship. When I was growing up, Dad was both incredibly controlling and surprisingly lenient. I had no curfew. I had no restrictions on what movies I could watch or what books I could check out from the library. I could talk openly about sex if I wanted to around my dad, although I never wanted to. Yuck. I reserved sex talks for my mom.

When I was a little kid I could leave my toys all over the place and Dad never yelled at me to clean up my mess. My friends would come over to our house to play Barbies because we could leave our doll furniture out in our living room all summer long, without having to tear it down and pack it up at the end of the day, only to have to unpack it and set it all up again the next day.

These were the ways Dad was surprisingly lenient. Surprisingly because, by nature, Dad's default mood is controlling. Before he retired, Dad's title at work was "controller". I asked what that means, and Mom explained it means he bossed the other accountants around in the office and made sure everyone showed up to work on time. Yep, that sounds like the perfect job for Dad.

It wasn't just at work. At home, Dad wasn't just a boss, but the king. Dad's the kind of guy who has a temper tantrum if he doesn't get his way. Everything in our daily lives centered around keeping Dad calm. We lived where he wanted to live in a house to his liking, regardless of whether or not it was good for anyone else in the family. We ate at restaurants he picked and saw movies he wanted to see. The first vacation we took was when I was nine and we drove to St. Louis. Dad wouldn't pay for us to go up in the arch. I once asked Dad why we didn't go on many family vacations. I knew he'd been to Europe after the war and that he'd traveled all over the country on road trips with his first wife and daughter. "Why don't we ever go anywhere, Dad?" I asked. "Eh, my traveling days are behind me," is all he'd say.

There were other, sillier, but still controlling things. I wasn't allowed to drink the canned pop we kept in the fridge. That was reserved for Dad's sack lunch. I wasn't allowed to sit in the comfy chair in the living room. That was reserved for Dad's hard working ass. But it was also important, philosophical things. I wasn't supposed to disagree with Dad on anything--politics, religion, how often I should mow the lawn, although by the time I was sixteen I discovered that I could actually hold my own in a shouting match. I stopped running off to my room and crying every time Dad raised his voice. I fought back.

It felt great. Letting my voice be heard improved my self-esteem. I felt courageous and strong. Not like Mom, who avoided confrontation at all costs. Even, in my opinion, at the cost of herself.

Arguing with him did nothing for my relationship with Dad, though. It did worse than nothing. I couldn't wait to get out of the house and away from him.

I used to hate Father's Day. I remember once, in my twenties, I had to leave the store because I was starting to cry. I had spent thirty minutes in the Father's Day card aisle and found absolutely nothing I could relate to, nothing I could buy for my own dad. This one was too sappy. This one too funny. This one made our relationship sound better off than it was. This blank one, even. No. What would I write it in? "Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thanks for waiting until I was eighteen before kicking me out of the house!"

Then time happened, as it does. I grew up. I learned to stop shouting and start voicing my opinion in a calm, rational and empathetic way. Dad and I both went on anti-anxiety medication. The wonder drug that works wonders on our father-daughter relationship. I no longer feel distraught when I visit the Father's Day card aisle.

Today my eight-year-old daughter Katie sat at the table and asked me a question that was important for me to answer, not just for her, but for myself. She was drawing a picture of herself on a card she was making to give to my dad for Father's Day. She asked, "Mom, why do you think your dad was mean when you were a kid, but he's not mean anymore?"

"Oh, Punk. It's a lot of reasons. He had a hard life when he was growing up. And he's experienced a lot of sad things in his life that made him mad. And he didn't know how to not take out his anger on his family. But now we don't see him much, and he's old and he's calmed down. And he takes meds that help him stay calm. And so do I. And I've grown up. And we're just, you know, OK now."

"Yeah," Katie said without looking up from the picture.

We visited my dad and, you know, it was OK. He said some things that annoyed me, but so what? I see my dad a few times a year. Big deal. I can ignore his annoying bits for that short amount of time.

It's just funny to me that my daughter is growing up with this idea in her head that my dad is a pretty OK guy. She didn't know him when he and I would shout at each other in high school. She wasn't there to see him call my mom "stupid" and to kick me and my siblings out of the house. She only knows this calm old man who likes to dance and play bridge and eat pie. He's just some mellow old man who's not so hard to love.

And it's good for me to be reminded of it too. Dad was never all bad. He once offered to come pick me up if I ever needed him. I still have the laminated quarter to prove it.