My father was always late. He visited us twice each year, once in the spring and once during the Christmas holiday. Twice each year he kept us waiting. With childish impatience, I’d lean into the glass window of the flimsy storm door that fronted our modest, Midwestern split-level. I’d scan the road for incoming vehicles and come up empty.
In December, the door’s glass clouded over with chilled condensation from my breath. I’d sometimes draw a heart on the windowpane before quickly wiping it away.
If Dad told us he’d arrive by noon, inevitably it was 1 p.m. or later before he’d finally pull into our driveway in his annually upgraded company sedan. He drove a Buick, usually some shade of deep maroon. His was the automobile of a salesman in the ’80s. Of someone wearing wide lapels trying to make a good impression.
“Why are you standing there?” my mother would ask me, her mouth a hard line. I ignored her. I was his loyal sentry. I waited for him because I needed to believe my father could be punctual, despite her muttered comments to the contrary. Even though I understood by the time I was 7, 8, 11 and certainly 13 that he simply couldn’t be—would never be—I stood there, motionless with hope. And not just at this house. At all the cheap rentals we’d skipped through since the divorce before finally landing here.
Nearly 40 years on, you’d think I’d give up this waiting game. But you’d be wrong.
We’ve been talking recently, my father and I. He’s asked to visit me in New York and stay in my home for three or four nights, spend some real time with my family—my husband of 15 years and our two school-age daughters—for the first time, ever. My father is in his 70s now, far from the younger man who once hummed the songs of his youth from the Belfast Boys Choir in his sweet Irish soprano, or pretended to listen to my preschool yammering as he trolled the morning papers at our Formica breakfast table.
We haven’t slept under the same roof since 1979. My siblings and I visited him one summer, a month or so after I’d mailed him an expertly coiled basket I’d made for him in art class. After snooping around in his new wife’s décor, I found it stashed on top of their refrigerator, already dusty and filled with afterthoughts: a few paper clips, expired coupons, pens that no longer worked. He feigned confusion over why I was so moody. He pretended not to see how I, too, felt put away.
While my mother eternally casts her ex as a Pygmalion Sonny to her naively moldable Cher, I could never give him up as she had. We now better understand the pull of DNA: I could no more denounce my father than I could disown my own teeth or eyes. My gnarled smile—later fixed through orthodontia—and pearl blue irises are all him. I was him, I wanted to tell her. At our front door, I waited to retrieve some part of myself that had gone missing.
I found I was quickly mislaying my memories of him, too. The imprint of our years together faded fast; I was so young when he left. Some days I couldn’t picture his face.
I retained a few mental snapshots to which I clung: my father painting the trim of the house a medium brown, with me sitting at the foot of the ladder, looking up at him adoringly while dodging flying pigment. A picnic at the park, with Daddy doling out drumsticks to my siblings and cousins from greasy buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, each piece more delicious as it grew cold. And me, running through the sprinklers in the backyard on a hot summer day, followed by my father smiling and shaking his head, refusing entry to his dripping-wet daughter in her plaid bikini.
And then he was gone. He gave my sister and me furry teddy bears during one of his early visits. I immediately named my bear his first name so I could hold my father close to my chest each night as I feel asleep.
Now, when I see my husband gaze helplessly at our two daughters, so obviously besotted and at their behest, I wonder how my father could not have felt the same. How did he walk away?
There is my mother’s serving up of their nine-year marriage, a dish we kids chew on endlessly like calves on their cud. Now grown-up and then some, we still taste it. It flavors our memories and our identities, too. How he spent all the cash on his cars and his clothes while she toiled, a hausfrau in a bad frock. How he had other women in other ports. How he was a good-looking good-for-nothing. How she heroically managed. How we were her little love soldiers, propping her up with shoulder rubs after a long day, because our errant father had left her holding the bag filled with steaming and inescapable piles, of bills, of needy kids.
Lately, I’ve been learning his account. He didn’t ask for the divorce. She did. Barely over 30, he was not the ideal husband—there’s little doubt of this—but neither, then, was she the ideal wife. He didn’t disappear, not exactly. He was told to leave, my new stepfather already lined up (and also waiting, ironically, just for my dad to drive away).
And then there’s this: In the 1970s and ’80s men weren’t given much credit, were they? TV ads openly mocked their incompetence with cleaning products. No one imagined one could change a diaper, much less manage a Baby Bjorn, or, tougher yet, the oozy onset of puberty. Fathers were martini swillers. Briefcase carriers. Absent authorities. Punishment deliverers. Sports fanatics. Maybe sage advisors, too. But not the objects of sloppy, unchecked, parental devotion. They were not men who cried in near-empty, white-walled bachelor pads over their painfully amputated children, their abruptly fractured lives.
He vanished from our view, yes. He didn’t share custody. She didn’t want him around. She would not address him at our front door, nor deign to speak to him at all unless she was calling for the child support check, which, too, was always late.
With each visit we were more and more lost to him. Sometimes we called him by our stepfather’s name by mistake. He acquiesced to this agony, took the coward’s way out. He moved far away, void of reminders of his three starter kids and their countless freckles. For a long time, I blamed him solely. But I understand now how he also lost his gnarled smile—his own snaggled teeth were fixed before we were born—and the reflection of his pearl blue eyes when he could no longer look into mine, or into the faces of my siblings.
I wait now for his answers. I imagine he’ll tell me when he visits how difficult it was to kiss his pretty, younger second wife goodbye before taking his biannual trek back in time to visit us. Alone in his Buick, listening to sappy Barry Manilow songs on eight-track tapes, singing along to “Mandy” and blaming his wet eyes on the overly sentimental lyrics. He was a singular man on the interstate for hours at a stretch driving a family sedan large enough to comfortably seat five. There was likely too much time to think….
And while he knew he could easily make it to our house by noon if he stayed at the Ramada Inn on the outskirts of town—the one right near the fast exit back to the freeway—he might find a reason to linger in the foyer at the all-you-can-eat buffet. Maybe sip on another cup of coffee. Bolster his waning spirits with a drink at the bar. Something, anything, to make these contrived play dates less hard.
We would walk the local mall in endless, sterile loops. Stop at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour for a sundae. Suck on the sugary striped butterscotch sticks on our way out as he paid the bill. Sometimes we’d catch a movie, sit in the dark for a few hours, kill time. We meandered through a small-city zoo during warmer months, and sometimes during colder months, too, desperate to place our attention on the ratty camels—we named one “Friendly” until she spat at us with unchecked hostility.
There was nowhere to go, nothing to do.
How does a grown man reconnect with his offspring without some kind of home base? When all the signifiers of being a family—breathing the same air in the same space with ease and no agenda—disappear, how does a family survive it? How does a family, even a broken one, ever breathe easily again?
As the years passed, as they inevitably do, his April visits, timed to Easter break, discontinued. We were too big for chocolate bunnies, he reasoned. And our mutual love for, and discomfort with, one another was just too much to bear. What did we have to chat about after another absent trip around the sun? Or after the birth announcement of his new son, his second chance and redemption?
When my father comes, I will ask him if he remembers our trip to Niagara Falls when I was 8. Impressed by the vast power of the place, the constant roar of the water and the depth of the drop, I asked him if he’d hold onto me as I climbed the railing’s lower rung to get a slightly higher, slightly better look. Leaning gingerly against the guard, feeling a sweet spray against my face when the wind shifted, I remember being exhilarated and not at all afraid because my father’s arm was wrapped around my middle. I knew I was safe. He was not going to let me fall. Not now, or ever.
Of course I did fall, many times, over the years. I picked myself up, too, and without his hand for leverage. As my stepfather—a man who fed, clothed and housed us kids yet complicated our lives immeasurably—walked me down the aisle at my wedding, I caught my father’s wrecked expression from the church’s pews. I wanted to ask you, Daddy, I longed to say to him, right then and there, as I wore my mother’s simple satin bridal gown, the same dress from his wedding to her decades earlier. It should be you up here, holding my arm. I wanted to give him the honor, but I didn’t. I’m plagued by the thought that I should have done it anyway.
Because I love him. Still. With a daughter’s exacting love, which is burning and eternal and also blasé. Do we love our limbs with expressions of sonnets, with flowery language? No, of course not. We tap our arms and legs as extensions of ourselves. They lift us up, carry us and support our ability to stand tall. We only speak of missing them—of loving all they mean to us—when we lose them for good.
I love my father. He’s coming to visit. I’m waiting for him now. And like a good daughter I intend to make him comfortable. I will make up a fresh bed in the guest room. Fluff the pillows. Place small touches, such as lavender soap wrapped in thick paper, on his bathroom’s vanity. I want his room to smell welcoming.
Because he is welcome—to love me in return, as I know he does. As I know he never stopped doing. As I know he always will.