I think it’s important to remember that your parents were once babies. Children. Tiny people with little to do. It’s important to keep in mind your grandparents were once young and virile, and critical to acknowledge your teachers had lives outside the classroom. Because we tend to box people in, think of them one way, rather than as whole people. We cling to dangerous archetypes and allow ourselves to be shattered when they’re disrupted. I look at this photo of my Dad, as a little boy, to remind myself he was once that little thing.
A memory: It was summer, I was 10. My best friend and I spent the morning with my parents – flea markets, hot cakes at McDonald’s – I have no real memory of that part of the day. I imagine it was a perfectly fine day, my parents always ten paces ahead, my friend and I lagging behind, enjoying an entirely different adventure. If we hadn’t been fifth graders (no drivers’ licenses and forbidden the use of public transit) we surely would have been out on our own.
One of our “new to us” used cars rolled into the driveway. Our day of errands was done. Ryan and I were likely planning the rest of our afternoon: Nintendo and Doritos high on our list of priorities. The car, well-worn and prone to breakdowns, had only two doors. Three, if you include the hatchback, I suppose, though it didn’t even open in the winter when ice would jam up the mechanism. I remember my Dad climbing out of the driver’s seat, bending to release the lever, freeing the passengers from the cramped backseat.
I contorted myself past the seatbelt between the folded seat and the hard metal doorframe, blistering hot from the sun. When my torso was free, my Dad reached under my arms and lifted me. Playfully. Lovingly, I suppose. In the way Dads do things in front of your friends – Acts that have a way of ending up embarrassing, rather than cherished as a gesture of affection. I was 10. I was a boy who, at that point, didn’t particularly like his father. I wanted him to put me down, and quickly. I also happened to be ticklish. I flailed. And my sneaker made contact with his shin.
I knew instantly that our lovely day was over. Like so many days had ended before. Like so many family dinners, summer vacations, camping trips, household DIY projects. I didn’t have a chance to yell “I’m sorry! It was an accident!” I guess I wasn’t entirely sure it was.
My father’s eyes expressed a kind of rage that I can now, as an adult, only describe as clinical insanity, depicting years of sadness and anger. My sister and I still refer to that look as “Dad’s crazy eyes.” I know he didn’t mean to, and he’d be devastated to know, but each time he looked at us with those eyes he chipped away at the image we clung to.
Occasionally time would sort of stop and loop over itself, his anger giving way to that deep sadness. You could see what you'd only heard in bits and pieces; the stories of his childhood that would leak out in fragments during family discussions, fights between my parents, or, what I now know was some kind of massive chemical imbalance, which always involved the purging of closeted skeletons. How he was tormented by his older brother, unloved by his father, expected to work 18 hours a day on the farm. The stories had become like fables to my sister and me, I think we got them mixed-up with our Grimm’s Fairy Tales collection. Memory has a way of folding over itself like mixing dough.
Once when my Dad was 8 years old, his mother bought him his first new Spring jacket. Joyfully (though I haven’t decided if she was happy to present it to him or proud of herself for a well-chosen item) she led him into the rarely-used living room and offered her purchase. It was blue nylon, it fit perfectly. He stood in awe of a brand-new jacket, all his own, and marveled at the grandness of it. He was 8 years old. Small, but strong. Muscled and tanned, like a sturdy little workhorse, his hands, though, belying the utility of his body. They were small and gentle, unlined and soft; he ran them down the length of his arms, over the metal zipper and into the pockets near his hips. I find myself telling this story as one would tell a joke: adding details no one can be entirely sure of, but created out of images and stories, the history of your family, all placed neatly into one concise recollection. I imagine he turned and spun around the living room – or maybe that was me as a boy. I imagine he smiled and laughed a little, unsure of himself. I imagine he hurried to find a mirror, to drink himself in, and to savour this moment while his jacket was still at its newest, a boy proud and unsure and delicate.
A boy kicking out as he was held under the arms. Wriggling and writhing, unwilling to let himself be held me in that intimate way. A boy who was 10 years old who didn’t much like his father.
Standing in his new blue jacket, spinning, perhaps, smiling and laughing, maybe. His father appeared from nowhere, his voice arriving in the room ahead of his boots. The little boy had left open the door to the grain elevator or the feed stall, vulnerable to coyotes or cats or rats. As he stood reveling in this new blue jacket he had neglected something far more important. His father lurched forward and tore the coat from his body. Stripped it into long strands from his small frame. Frayed edges of blue nylon hung from his shoulders. I imagine there was yelling. I imagine there was some kind of explanation for this, as it happened. I imagine this small boy fought to avoid direct eye contact. I imagine my Grandma focused on the muddy boot prints dragged in by her husband. I imagine her staring there, at the carpet, rather than at her son, layered in strips of blue.
Any variety of events caused my Dad’s eyebrows to fold into dangerous slashes. Chores left undone. A tent peg not held at the right angle. A presumed-dirty finger grazing the lemon-yellow wall of the kitchen, balancing to slide into a shoe.
His father, nylon threads clinging to his fingers, stormed out of the house, leaving a boy in shambles and his wife to go to her knees, scrubbing at her muddied carpet, muttering angrily about a grain elevator or a feed stall or a boy who didn’t deserve new things if he didn’t do his work properly.
He released me from his grip, after I kicked him in the shin. His anger came instantly and my friend and I scurried from the hot tar to my bedroom, that sinking feeling in my stomach that this incident was far from over.
My parents came in the house, and I could hear my Dad’s anger, I could hear his teeth clenched. I could hear his eyebrows etched into fierce angles. My friend and I sat behind my bedroom door, and then he said it. In the kitchen, as he stomped around searching for neglected errands: “I wish I had a little boy instead of a little girl.” My shame was immediate, my sadness irreversible. It would be one of those defining moments in my life, one that would make a great indie film. One sentence would encapsulate our relationship, even if, years later, I would joke about the incident telling him I'd put it behind me.
I climbed to the top bunk of my bed. I waited until Ryan went home, awkwardly slipping into the hallway, out into the kitchen, and through the door while my parents had their backs turned. My shame had become his. I often wonder if that was as significant a moment in his life as it was mine. He had actually said those words out loud, within earshot of the boy in question. I always suspected he felt that way; I never wanted to play catch (mostly because I resented the lack of originality in his notions of father-son-bonding), I preferred Barbies to power tools, and I lacked the physical coordination required to scale a ladder or climb a tree. But I never thought he’d say it out loud.
Hours later, I was still on that top bunk. I could still hear him seething, although he was asleep. He collapsed there, on his bed, mostly a boy in a tattered blue coat.
I am of a generation that seeks out closure and forgiveness. An overly communicative, self-actualized, Oprahfied generation. But I vacillate, often at odds with that kind of hatchet-burying, like I was born out of order, like I belong, rather, in the days of spite, anger, and resentment. And to be honest, I wasn’t waiting for my Dad to come to me, weeping, desperate to explain his rage. I didn’t need him to do that. I hoped he wouldn’t. I preferred he silently bought me a new Nintendo game, leaving it near the TV with the price tag still attached. At the time, shame still flushing my cheeks, I think I'd have been okay with never seeing him again. Luckily I let myself get old enough to see him as a boy. Shame and memories, like dough, folding over each other, that firm grip, a fistful of blue nylon.