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.
His response: Was I a lesbian?
And bingo! My "limp" was back. I couldn't even voice an opinion without feeling undermined.
Things never changed. Not until 1990 when he was 62 and diagnosed with cancer. He was given three months to live. One day he took me aside and with tears in his eyes, apologized. At first I didn't get it. Then he repeated his heartfelt words, in a voice I'd never heard before, and suddenly I understood. He was expressing regret for a lifetime of verbal abuse. He was sorry he hurt me, he confessed in a shaky voice. He thought he was doing me a favor because he knew, from personal experience, that it was a tough world out there. He had wanted to protect me by raising me to be strong and resilient.
Just the way he was raised.
Of course I forgave him, because I know in his own misguided way his intentions were different from his messages. Rather than spoiling me with affection, he thought that by acting tough he was creating a survivor. But negative words can have a powerful impact on trusting young ears that look to parents for unconditional love. To this day, although common sense tells me otherwise, my shaky confidence is unable to fully believe or accept a compliment. Not surprisingly, my relationships with men have suffered, too. Once a man expresses interest, I can't help but wonder...what's wrong with him if he likes someone like me? And I walk away.
But with my limp come many strengths gleaned from my dad. I am a survivor, strong and resilient, just as he hoped. From him, I learned how to be spiritual and considerate. He showed me how to appreciate the simple things in life: weekends with my friends, a soft armchair, hot latte, good book, loyal dog. And above all else, he taught me the importance of treating others the way I would like to be treated. Because at a very early age, I learned that words can hurt no matter how well they are meant. Like my dad, I don't always succeed in saying the right thing. But like my dad, I always have the best intentions.