When Father Doesn't Know Best

Growing up I didn't have the best relationship with my dad. But he did teach me a valuable lesson in how I should treat people.

In Anne Lamott's book,

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

, there's a chapter where she expresses animosity towards her deceased mother. Oh, Lamott loved the woman, that's clear. But their relationship is pretty well captured in the sentence, "...she was like someone who had broken my leg, and my leg had healed badly, and I would limp forever."



Not an easy thing to admit. And difficult to read, especially since I shared the same disjointed relationship with my own father, gone now for 15 years. He was a good man, my dad: considerate, compassionate, generous, hard-working and as the old saying goes, the salt of the earth. He was a blue-collar man who enjoyed simple pleasures: weekends with his family, a cold beer, soft recliner, good western, loyal dog. He was probably the kindest man I've ever known.

Except towards me.

And that's tough to reconcile. Because I know he loved me, just like Lamott knows her mother loved her. But to some people, the parenting business doesn't come naturally. It certainly wasn't inherent in my dad. Maybe he merely mimicked the ways in which he had been raised. Maybe I mirrored qualities he didn't like in himself. Who knows? Whatever the reason, I can relate to Lamott. Because I too, walk with a "limp".

In 1958 when I was born, my 30-year old Irish father was obviously befuddled with this creature before him: a daughter. And so he treated me the only way he knew how, as he himself had always been treated--whether in the boarding school he was sent to as a youth, his stint in the Navy or his career as a teamster --with boot camp love.

He expressed gruff affection towards me with childhood nicknames like Dum-dum, Jelly Belly, Satchel butt, Big-headed kid and, because of my thick, curly hair, Cousin Itt. In my teens I was counseled to hang around ugly girls so I would appear better looking to boys. Unlike most parents of teenage girls, he constantly encouraged me to wear more makeup. The implication being, of course, that I wasn't pretty enough. Despite decent grades, he discouraged me from attending college, telling me it would be a waste of money since I would only drop out after snagging a husband. Instead, he suggested I work as a cashier at TG&Y, a local variety store, until Mr. Right came along. That is, if I could find a husband, because what man would want a woman who was so damned independent?

No wonder our relationship was strained. As a result, I was always uncomfortable in his presence, constantly poised to fend off the next insult, attack or zinger.

After working three part time jobs (none of which were at TG&Y) to save money for tuition, I did end up attending an out-of-state university, where I continued working during the course of my studies. In 1980, I returned home to temporarily live with my parents and save money before getting my own place. Dad and I immediately reverted to old roles. This time, however, as a young adult I gave as good as I got. That meant we kept butting heads, frequently over issues so incredibly stupid they can't be made to sound credible no matter how they're positioned. Like one colossal argument we had over whether women should be mail carriers because after all, he argued, the job title is called mailman, not mailwoman.

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Eileen Mitchell
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