Our Dad liked to hold court with his hatchlings sitting on the floor around his feet. For the record, these were not wholesome Paw Walton kind of moments. I think you’ll agree.
Believe it or not, sometimes he would sing to us and while that sounds very cozy and “Sound of Music,” it was more awkward than anything else. His voice wasn’t bad, but his attitude was so expectant and “cool cat,” we just sat with plastered smiles, wishing it would end. But his mini-concerts were the most benign examples of those pow-wows. When you get a load of the two most memorable sessions from my childhood catalog, you’ll see that at times we probably wanted him to break into a tune, any tune.
I was somewhere between four and six years old when one of these little meetings was his forum to inform us that he was God. I don’t mean like something your drill instructor would say, “I’m your Mother, I’m your Father, I’m God for all practical purposes,” you know, a great movie line, scary stuff to troops, but audiences and G.I.s don’t think the hard-nosed sergeant means it literally. Dad, however, presented it as a statement of fact and not in a kind, loving, biblical sense either. Even as a very small child, I sensed the underlying threat and something I later qualified as egotism. Sadly, I was so little, I was a bit in awe and was instantly “god-fearing.” I recently checked with my two remaining siblings and discovered they were old enough at the time to know he was full of crap, and also old enough to have known to absolutely not suggest that idea to him. They likely just smiled and nodded as I sat gaping at our own domestic deity.
Before you whip out your DSM (diagnostic manual for mental disorders) and declare him a poor sick man, please know that none of us believe that he believed what he said. A lifetime of examples boiled down to our conviction that he was not delusional but was a first-rate narcissist. He was also a shameless opportunist with his children in the emotional sense and in countless physical instances with the other three kids. Oops…did it again, dragged you down a rabbit hole! Let’s move on to the slightly more disturbing second memory and, yes, I said more disturbing. To me, anyway.
I was in the sixth grade when he called us together to congregate on his bedroom floor. After we were all in our places with big smiling faces, he announced with sad and saintly deportment that he was going to commit suicide. Boy, we really could have used a couple of rounds of “Sound of Music” that afternoon – even a rousing rendition of “My Favorite Things” would have been bitchin’. But, instead, we watched him (I say watched as opposed to listened because it was a performance deluxe) calmly explain to his offspring we’d be better off without him, and that we’d be happy as clams with his survivor’s benefits (which I now realize were few to none). I remember our mom sitting dutifully next to him, exhausted and crying. For me, that was the hardest part. She just didn’t know how to counter this strange man whom she loved and served with a loyalty that only a woman of her generation and background could.
The scene could be considered a cry for help, could be seen as the ramblings of a crazy dude. But I guess you’d have to be there to see, to feel, the cool calculation. The composure. The this-ain’t-rightness of the whole thing. And here’s the worst part: I think deep down, my siblings just wanted him to do it so he could never lay a hand on them again to siphon away what was left of their innocence. And me, being the naïve sucker that I was, took the bait and pondered that maybe it would be cool to have money instead of him. I was old enough to acknowledge we were not among the privileged and I understood the only reason we were on Welfare from time to time and always broke was because he quit working as his mood dictated. Mom worked as long as I can remember, but her wages were barely enough with four kids and a husband to house and feed.
Alas, because he was unreliable in all things, he randomly changed his course of action within a few days of his grave announcement, after we had all walked around on eggshells wondering when “it” was going to happen. That was a weird time, I’m telling you. This was pre-suicide hotline; it was when families kept their dirty little secrets. I hope I speak accurately when I say we all felt a degree of guilt that we were not relieved when he didn’t follow through, when he had the nerve to stay alive. Hard to blame kids when he, a natural salesman, made such a compelling pitch for his own demise. For years I felt secret guilt at my own disappointment over his survival. It was dark and it was confusing.
But then I realized what a cruel thing he’d done to us, that I was actually not the most awful and selfish human alive. It’s pretty pathetic that what he really wanted was for us to beg him not to do it. But we didn’t beg him not to do it and if he had gone through with it, we would have cried because Mom cried, and we would have been sad because we really did love him. But deep in our souls, we might also have been singing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
Basically, he transferred his demons to us, or tried to, and I suppose in some senses it worked. But in the long run, not so much.
Crazy? You betcha! Severely mentally ill? We think not. Certainly not mentally well, but he was always able to make choices and did so with brilliant and manipulative forethought. To quote my older, although not necessarily wiser brother (I put that in there just to see if he actually reads these things, and because it’s true), our father was the perfect storm between cowardice and selfishness. And we were just the poor schmucks caught in the storm.
The good news, and this is important, is while we all had to acclimate to the real world, we turned out fine. It took longer for a couple of us to figure things out, but we emerged from that very long weather phenomenon known as “Dad,” fully armed to face any storm life had to offer. We are smart, adaptable, reasonably successful, and at least one of us is pretty damn attractive and was also Mom’s favorite. And with that line, I’ll hit “publish” and wait to see if either of them reads their kid sister’s blog. Ready, set…go!