You Don’t Have to Like Him

"You’re right. I’m just no good. I’m such a bastard.”

This Father’s Day I won’t send my father a card. I won’t see him, I won’t call him. I probably won’t think much about him. I’m being paid to think about him now. It’s not that I don’t like my father, I’m just disappointed that he never once protected me from my mother. From the time she pointed the rifle at me in the bathroom when I was 13 and said she was going to kill me, to years later when she threw a huge scene at Taco Auctioneer in Cardiff and I told her she would never see her grandchildren again. (“Don’t you threaten me!” she responded.) There was the time my mother beat me up at a cast party (for a musical that I had written). She threw me to the floor and ripped out my hair. There were 15 people there, but no adults other than my parents, for whom the word “adult” doesn’t qualify. My dad tried to pacify her, but my mother isn’t a pacifist.

I try to be funny in my daily life. Tell jokes. Laugh. Be silly with the kids. I don’t like to think about my parents because there’s nothing particularly humorous about them. I forget their birthdays. And I’m noncommittal about Mother’s Day. I’m tired of explaining to people the very specific torture my childhood was. There was the time they reported my VW Dasher as stolen because they wanted the police to arrest me. (They had given it to me for college, but their names were still on the pink slip. In the ensuing phone fight, my father accused me of being crazy. That L.A. or my therapist had done it.) I finally left the car on a street in Santa Monica, collecting parking tickets, until it was towed. It wouldn’t start anyway. I was about to get it repaired, but why repair a car that isn’t yours?

There was the time my mother said she was going to kill my cousin and my cousin called the police. When the police showed up at our house, my mother told them that the dishwasher was broken — like that explained her wanting to kill my cousin — and yelled at all the neighbors to get back in their houses. It’s hard when you realize that the world sees your mother as a nut case.

My father’s mother died when he was three. She died in childbirth, having twins — my aunt and uncle. Just because they call it “natural” doesn’t mean it can’t kill you. In those days, sex for women was like Russian roulette. So here my grandfather was: Four kids under the age of 7. He’s 36. He marries an 18-year-old who hasn’t a clue as to what she is getting into. My dad’s younger sister, one of the twins, ran away from home at 15. My dad went to at least four different high schools. Maybe more. I can’t ask him, though. Years later, the evil stepmom made my grandfather live in a trailer outside their stinky home in Yucca Valley. When I say stinky, I mean like the smell of B.O., like the stench of rats when they’ve lived a long time in one place, a salty, oppressive smell. No one knows why she suddenly made him move. She still cooked dinner for him. But it was clear he didn’t share her bed.

She had two children — my father’s stepbrother and stepsister. I remember visiting one time when all three of them — my stepgrandmother and the teens — were going to baby-sit a dog. (My mother talked about it for years. It’s imprinted on the sulci and gyri of my brain. There are several million neurons dedicated to remembering these relatives who baby-sit dogs.) The teens were ten years older than I but hadn’t gone past the sixth grade. They were taller. Sweatier. But we were mentally the same age. The family made money ironing clothes for people. One time my family spirited my stepuncle away from his family and went to a hamburger joint. He didn’t know what to order. My parents got him a hamburger. He wouldn’t eat it because he said he was allergic to tomatoes. My dad said, “Your mother told you that. You’ve never had a tomato.” My dad also said, “Take the train up sometime and visit us.” “Oh,” he whispered, “I wouldn’t know how to do that.” He was 18 years old. My stepgrandmother had put all her claustrophobic obsession into raising her second family. Her real family.

It’s clear, if you’ve had any psychotherapy — and I have — that my father suffers from lack of a mother. And my mother functions as his mother. He reveres her. He is afraid of her. He will do whatever she wishes. He would always say, “Oh, you’re right. I’m just no good. I’m such a bastard.” (When I was little, my swear words were “babber” and “dummy mouse.”) But you know, I don’t want to psychoanalyze my father. It bores me. It wouldn’t do any good. Anyway, my mother does it for him. She got a master’s in psychology. Why else would you go into psych but to better understand yourself? You have to know that crazy exists to even want to examine it.

I’ve had two decades of therapy, the last 11 years with a psychiatrist who says you don’t have to like your parents. You don’t have to have anything to do with them if you don’t want. So many people, when they find you’re estranged from your parents (and hey — I didn’t disown them twice), make that face, like “Oh, it’s such a shame,” and “No matter what your parents do, they’re still your parents.” I think of these people as smooth brains (a favored expression of my mother’s). They’ve lived simple lives. They know nothing of the complexities of a tormented family. The multiple ways you can kill a relationship.

I don’t need my parents. They hold nothing over my head that I would want. My family — the one I made myself, my husband and my two children — reminds me that I am the luckiest person in the world, even if I have no parents. If no one had a father, we would never wax nostalgic about a father who was never there for us. I always say, too, you could have been born a slave. Be thankful for what you have, don’t whine about what you don’t.

But of course, I’m still scarred. Well-adjusted but fragile. These days, when I feel like ranting — or seething — about some inequity in my scope, I remind myself to create, to paint. Or to play my French horn. If not me to turn this horrible childhood into a work of art, who else?

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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