08 June 2010

Father's Day

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved)

I think I've written on this topic once before. If I have, then you can stop reading right now. I won't mind. If you think I'm tiresome on the subject, then go ahead and tell me, I'll feel free to ignore that.

Every year around both Father's and/or Mother's Day, there are glowing tributes all over the place written by people who truly adored their parents. Some of them head directly into what I like to call "The Land of Smarm" because NO ONE is that wonderful. Make no mistake. I've met and know a lot of genuinely wonderful people of both genders and all I can say is that not one of them is as wonderful as hindsight seems to make the parents of some writers. There are, after all, no perfect humans.

I know that it's tempting to editorialize the lives of people who have died. Turning dead people into saints is common and has been for who knows how long. It's natural not to want to dwell on the down side. No one wants to know after the fact that good, kind Uncle Freddy who loved puppies and kittens and gave a fortune to children's charities was screwing his secretary(ies) for the entire length of his 48 year marriage. And managed to knock them up. Or that Auntie Jillian was a compulsive gambler who went bankrupt four times and left her kids alone in the house while she went to win it all back. Families don't talk about these things while the people in question are alive - after they die, all of the nastiness is erased from discussion altogether (at least where other relatives can hear it).

But, and here's where so many people are going to declare me evil and rotten, what if there is no up side? What if the LAST thing someone wants to do on Father's Day is listen to someone blither on about how "special" and "important" all fathers are, and how they're all just fantastic human beings who deserve a day of worship all of their own?

See, there were many, many years when the very thought that I might have to participate in some celebration that would involve my father made me nauseous. I felt ill at the thought that I would have to sit through a dinner where I would be expected to make nice to my father. I distinctly remember being in Grade Three or Four and being made to sit in the hall for an hour because I flatly refused to make a glittery card for my father. I just could not do it.

The man was a rat bastard. He was scum. He was living proof that even violent, verbally abusive (yet stony sober at all times) scum do indeed reproduce. When he died by his own hand in 1997, I was relieved. Those of you who adore all of your relatives can't relate, I'm sure. Save it. Believe me, I've heard the line, "But he's your faaaaaaaaaaaaaather, you have to love your faaaaaaaaaaaaaather" all my life. And no, I don't. I do remember lying awake at night wishing he would die in a flaming car wreck on his way home from work.

Here's the kicker. I'm not the only one who feels that way. Not even close. My childhood was pretty rotten, but what I went through is nothing compared to what other kids experienced or are experiencing right now. There are thousands of us. We don't ask for sympathy. We don't care about that.

At 46 years old, I'm well past the obsessing, the fear, and the self-pity. It's done. My tormentor is long since moldering in the ground and that's the way it should be. He and my past no longer have any power over me. In fact, I'm having fun. Life is good. My father-in-law IS one of the best people I've ever met and his son is just as wonderful. Better actually, but I'm biased. I'm grateful for both of them.

So, you ask, what the hell is this all about? Not much. Just remember, those of you who are tempted to canonize all fathers because your own is wonderful, that all fathers (or mothers for that matter) are NOT worthy of praise in any sense. If you find yourself tempted to yatter on about how there must be SOMETHING to adore about every father, save it. We've heard it all before. And you're wrong.

If you run across someone on either Father's or Mother's Day who is dancing around singing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" buy them a beer and count your lucky stars that you don't have cause to do the same. If you know someone who isn't participating, or is saying the equivalent of "Bah, humbug" leave them alone. Don't make excuses. Don't brag. Don't try and talk them into anything. Accept that not everyone had your experience and leave them alone.

For those of us who are going to get increasingly queasy as we get closer to the holiday - it's just fine to feel that way. Shut off the television when the treacly movies come on. Throw out the newspaper when the poetry about Dad contest finalists are published. Make barfing noises when radio shows featuring the three hairball choker Tributes to Daddy are on the radio. Those of you who go to church can skip it that day without guilt.

It's all right. You aren't alone. In fact, you're still standing, which means you won. Never forget that.


  1. I hated father's day until I was in my thirties. Then there were about five years where I loved it. I no longer hate it, but I don't dread it like I used to and I can't love it.

    My adopted father (who raised me) might've thought I was ok before his REAL daughter was born (when I was four) but after that, he decided I wasn't much value to him and let me (and everyone around us) know that. So I HATED father's day. I hated having to make nice and pretend that everything was cake. Then, one year for Christmas, he sent me an email that he'd have to do Christmas on the cheap because he'd accidentally spent too much on my sister. I didn't care what I got, for chrissake, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back. I haven't talked to him since. Yay!!

    I loved father's day for a few year's after that because I could just call my step-father (which I'd been doing previously anyway) and tell him how wonderful he was (I did that many other days of the week as well but I especially loved doing it on father's day when I WASN'T calling the jackass who called himself my dad).

    My step-father passed away in 2004 so I'm pretty ambivalent about father's day now. The best decision I ever made was to decide that the jackass didn't deserve my time or energy. People do tend to proselytize about the worship of father's day (and mother's day, and christmas, and...) - I'm glad they loved their fathers and had fathers who loved them. Good for them. Leave me the hell out of it and let me celebrate the people who lift me up instead of bringing me down!

  2. Go Robin! I have to say that people seem terrified to admit that they have an asshole or two (or more) in the family. They'll go through all kinds of contortions to "prove" that the assholes "aren't that bad" and they always end up howling, "But you HAVE to love them! They're FAAAAAAAAAAAAMILY!"

    I don't know why this is. Even assholes have to come from somewhere, right? LOTS of them reproduce, too. So why the worship? Just because some asshole has workable sperm it makes them special? Just because our mothers had bad taste in men, we have to make them feel better about that?

    I'm deeply grateful that my father-in-law is the terrific person he is. He raised The Boy, who is also terrific. They are living proof that assholery isn't winning, so for them I say, "Hooray!"

  3. I can't even imagine what kind of people would presume to tell someone that obviously has a reason to hate their father that they need to love him for some specious greeting card holiday reason. Even if you secretly think the person is being an ass, how is their relationship with their family your business? EVER?

    Also, telling someone that they have to love someone because they are family is not only asinine, but so insensitive it makes my head hurt. A lot. Tolerate? Sure, up to a point. But love? That seems to be giving a lot to someone you didn't choose to bring into your life. The rudeness... It's just...appalling.

  4. Thanks for cutting through the treacle. I'm a lot more inclined to believe the people who hate one or both of their parents than the people who worship their gamete donors. And I say that as someone who had two pretty decent parents who were great in a lot of ways, but I could name you at least a dozen things they did that were undeniably wrong.

    I mean, even if your dad was freaking Dr. Huxtable, it would have been extremely annoying to not be able to talk for 30 seconds without him joking or making a funny voice. "Thanks, Dad, you could have told me about economics, you didn't have to get the whole family involved in an elaborate game to shame me and put me in my place."

  5. hbc - I remember that episode. This concerns me. I COULD have been using that cluster of brain cells to remember something important, like the words to the Star Spangled Banner. I mention this because we're taking the citizenship test next week...

    Corey - You'd be amazed at how many people try to force others to behave like greeting cards tell them to. They just can't face that their fantasies are not reality. People who do this have no idea what kind of pain they're causing.

  6. This was a great piece, Messy. I am your polar opposite: we just found my dad's funeral announcement in a desk here and I spent a half an hour fighting with tears because I remember wishing he'd get home soon. Lucky? Nah. Blessed? Nah. Just had a flawed but good dad.

    It's that spirit and legacy that gets me phone calls on fathers day from stepsons who don't call their biological father. I'm kinda proud of that, although I think I suck at general fatherhood much of the time, but that is just my human keeping himself frosty and alert.

    I think people should read your post far and wide and take an emotional snapshot of the black and white of it. My dad, no a canonical figure of epic stature but a pretty good dad, has been real to me since I was in my late 30's, and we saw eye to eye every day from then until the end.

    This Disneyesque over-application of not-entirely-charming gilt on otherwise normal people sells cards and bad ties and fucks up a lot of people, leaving them living up to standards they can never meet, set by standard bearers who couldn't meet them either.

    This was a good thought provoker. Salud, Messy.

  7. I thank you, O Great Cat!

    I think that you're a wonderful father. You treat people with respect, which is one of the best things that any kid could ask. Your stepsons can see that, and they can see that you love their mother more than anything. They respond to that.

    I don't think any parent is perfect, but there are more good ones than bad one. Besides, who wants to be a saint? Saints are boring.

  8. Messy, I feel for you. I suspect we get upset of fathers' or/and mothers' day because they bring out what we've missed when our parents didn't live up to expectations, and actually lived as down to them as possible....

    At the same time, you're right, there are good parents (though no saints!) and well, a little bit of chocolate on those select days for those of us all too failible but well meaning parents does hit the spot....

    The photo is quite intriguing. How amazing those coats hanging as if there was no catastrophe underneath them. It could be a painting by the very realist painter Edward Hopper or, at the other end of the scale, by a surrealist painter such as Magritte who still never imagined anything as intriguing.... You have the eyes of an artist!

    PS: do you ever go to the Chicago Museum of Modern Art? (it's called something else but I can't remember). I was there eons ago and could easily have moved and lived permanently in its galleries and feel no pain!

  9. Ooops, I meant The Chicago Art Institute!

  10. Kati, the Chicago Modern is gorgeous. The building itself is no great shakes, but the museum has a sterling collection that I wish we could see more of. Next time you get here (AFTER you send me a message so I can take you out for lunch) check out their store. It's the single best museum store I've seen in North America, bar none. Yes. Better than MOMA I do a lot of Christmas shopping there.

    We're members of the Milwaukee Modern Art Museum, though. Now THAT is a spectacular building! It's an Eero Saarinen-designed building with a Calatrava addition, and with the lakeside location, it is truly stunning. I don't know who's curating these days, but their shows are excellent.

    The coats have a story behind them. That was the "new" house on my great-grandmother's farm, built in the late 30s/early 40s. Prior to that, they had lived in a log cabin on the property that was built in 1918. It was truly luxurious - the doors and trim you see are mahogany, it had real linoleum floors, central heat and a propane stove and oven. No more cutting wood in the morning.

    When they left the "new" house in 1963, my great-gran left those jackets behind deliberately. She didn't want to move into town. It's a tradition that if you leave something behind in a place, you will always return there. After about 1978, she never went back.

  11. More power to you, Ms Messy. Good luck getting through the period. I think I really must give out vibrations of being some sort of alien from outer space; I can't recall being on the receiving end of the sort of treatment with which you've met. Maybe people have just looked at me and realized before they got started that the concept just didn't exist in my universe. One for good luck.

    Maybe if I were fonder of money, I'd make out a serious case that, being the last person on the planet that anyone in the galaxy would ever want to become a parent, there really ought to be a government stipend for the enormous public service of not procreating. Or maybe it's a sign of some deep moral failing that I cannot hate the world sufficiently to inflict my progeny upon it. But it would be wise to stop now, having given people only half a nightmare.

  12. Messy, the "leaving something behind" story is so interesting!

    Years ago when I was briefly in Chicago I also visited the museum's gift shop and bought lots of gifts to bring back as well as some of the nicest prints for myself....

    I don't think I'll ever be able to go to Chicago again so I'll have to pass on lunch unfortunately but thank you for the invite....

  13. Hrumpole, don't be so hard on yourself. The key to happiness is to be an "optimistic pessimist" (never the other way around though, trust me, I tried and it would make you crazy --in my own case: crazier!)

    Any deeper truth always comes in the form of a paradox...

  14. I like the notion of being paid NOT to have kids! Sadly, kids are so expensive to raise that parents are going to get all the breaks no matter what any of us say.

    I've had enough of rabid parents for one day anyway. I went to clay class and all of the little Britknees and Sashas and Jonathans were racing around with their mothers yelling things like, "But Moniker! You haven't taken your Lysine tablets today!"

  15. That must be the problem with my family. When your parents live long enough to watch most of their kids become grandparents, you're plenty old enough to remember the ugly truths about them when they die.

    It's a shame when the kindest father's day card many people can find for their fathers says something like, "Wake up" or "Don't fart" or "Have another beer."

    Bah humbug.

  16. CoolOne - we should be pouring OURSELVES a stiff one and giving each other cards. I also suspect that there are a lot of fathers who wake up on Father's Day grateful that their kids have finally moved out.

  17. Well said, Aunt Messy. Father's Day is now a holiday which, personally, I use to celebrate my own resilience (or, my own self centeredness). When all the sappiness rears its ugly head, I have the same reaction every year - "Huh?! People have dads worth celebrating? Oh yeah...I guess some people do." EVERY YEAR. Or at least, every year since my violent and insane father left the country to join an Orthodox Jewish cult, around 1984. Then I run off to send an e-card to my nerdy uncle, who helped me become my own nerd and was ten times the "father" my own was.

  18. brilliant - Thanks for coming over!

    I know exactly what you mean about the sappiness. I can't handle it in it's most benign forms, being somewhat of a cynic. No one is that bloody perfect. It's why I loathed Little Creeps on the Prairies.

    I have to say, though, that I've never met anyone whose father ran off with a - well I think they'd debate it - cult before. Clearly whatever the reason it was pretty goddamned selfish of him. Ya gotta love the nerdy uncles of the world, don't you? Without them, where would the kids of the assholes be?

  19. My dad passed away when I was nine, still young enough to grow older and lionize the man far in excess of his merits. It is perhaps for the best, as his values and mine would likely have diverged at some point---everything I know of the man suggests a certain "you sure you're not the mailman's kid" when my values and core beliefs are examined against his. That's a point in his favor though---he was virtuous and industrious where I am mad, bad, and dangerous to know and also lazy as hell.

    My mother, on the other hand, well, she's a whole different animal. When she passes away I will be hard pressed not to sing "Ding Dong The Wicked Witch Is Dead" at her funeral.

  20. I've always maintained that we never really KNOW our parents until we're at LEAST in our thirties. While it's possible that you and your father would have been at odds with each other when you were a teenager, I doubt it would have been disastrous.

    ALL teenagers "hate" their parents in some way, and we all rebel, too. Some of us rebel in nastier ways than others, that's all.

    As for your mother, she is a piece of work just based on some of the things you've written about her in the past. I also agree that singing at her funeral would be fun, too. However, I've concluded that the most telling statement you could make would be to not show up at all.

    (Note: I am the one who has always said that when my maternal grandmother the sociopath finally kicks it that she should be buried face down at a crossroads with garlic in her mouth and her coffin be made of solid steel and weighed down with rocks, just to make sure she can't rise. Since she is only 89 years old, the planet will have to suffer her presence for at least another decade, though. Sigh.)