This is Father’s Day, when thoughts turn to fathers, so I’ve given a rain check to my pontifications on politics, whoh are currently beyond-depressing, to muse upon fatherhood.
Two thoughts. First, the nature of the role is (a) enormously important, and (b) a total crapshoot. Of course there are utterly horrific fathers who do much more damage than, say, horrific auto mechanics or chess players. But I would guess that most halfway-intelligent dads call up memories of utter incompetence, bafflement, guilt, the whole squad of demons that tweet in your head. And there’s an awe that the kid survived. It starts with the terror that you might drop the baby or let the head fall off, and it never ends. Most of us try to do our best, and “best” is like the shifting floes when Eliza’s crossing the ice.
For myself, I’m grateful to my own dad for deserting the family when I was two. My mom painted an honest, very objective portrait of him as I grew up; she still loved him despite his huge flaws, especially booze, but I think we wouldn’t have gotten along—he wanted no kids, and I was inadvertent.
It’s a roll of the dice whether you acquire someone to model yourself on or model yourself against. For me, he served as the latter: above all, as a role model for responsibility—in his case the self-serving LACK OF.
When I met him at the age of 29—he just showed up—I realized how much we had in common and how differently two folks can play the same bridge hand. He was addicted to alcohol, I to work. He had a travel bug that led him to a lonely trailer in the Arabian desert, I to a career touring across the USA with a mate who liked the itinerant life. He had an artistic instinct with no outlet whateoever; I made a career of writing & performing. He was a loner who found company in bars: I was a loner who found it in theatre.
And the issue of responsibility. He retreated from it so much that when his second wife was diagnosed with cancer, he tried to reconnect with his first, my mom, whom he left because she was pregnant. Reconnection was a real possibility, but she was a very practical lady and saw the old question marks.
By his second wife, he had four daughters. But very little fathering: his work was overseas in construction and oil installations, and he’d come home just long enough to start another baby. According to his sister, he made every one of his daughters swear on a Bible not to have a child. When I met them briefly at his funeral, none of them did.
This wasn’t a wild-haired hippie; this was a guy from the “Heartland.” What I have to thank him for is (a) a negative example of fatherhood that’s made me try harder, (b) a sense of the immense complexity of simple human beings, and (c) for his part in giving me life.