I've read enough books about dysfuntional families (the latest two being Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Merrill Markoe's It's My F--ing Birthday) to know that a. there is no such thing as a "functional" family, that b. somehow, we almost all manage to function in life anyway, and that c. I am very lucky, because I come from a family that is mundanely dysfunctional. I have parents who love each other. I have parents who love their children. My parents did not decide to fight battles with each other using their children. They did not use their children as punching bags or as substitute lovers/spouses. They did not decide to conduct experiments in which the whole family was forced to scrounge through garbage for food or to live in a jungle in the middle of nowhere. We weren't running from the law, moving around from city to city. I did not wake up one morning to discover that my mother had left my father for another woman who hated me. No, basically, I have two parents who are big-hearted people who raised four kids, hoping only for the best for all of them.
Tomorrow is my father's 80th birthday, and I am headed down to Charlottesville, VA later on today, so I can be there to celebrate with him. This seems like a perfect time to devote a blog post to him, to tell everyone how lucky I feel to have had such a father, to say that, I know you others who are also from mundanely dysfunctional families may think your father is the best, but no, really, mine is. He isn't merely a good father; he's a Great father, someone who didn't just give lip service to family being important and then was never around. He really was there for us: from tickle fights to reading Kipling and Graham aloud to feeding ducks as young children, to long games of Backgammon and Hearts and listening to music and watching movies together as teenagers, to extravagant father/daughter dinners together when he'd come to visit me in my early years of struggling to make it on my own without any help from my parents. He's still here for me today for long walks and telephone conversations, and he's a fantastic letter-writer.
This does not mean that life has always been perfect between us. People who love each other hurt each other. I know I've hurt him in the ways that only children can hurt people: barely allowing him within 100 yards of my high school for fear of embarrassment among my peers, choosing to hang out with friends or boyfriends over him when I was home from college, ignoring advice he's given me, and one moment I remember vividly when I was a senior in high school yelling at him that I couldn't wait until August when I'd be going away to college and would finally be out of his house. He was smart enough to yell back that he couldn't wait to be rid of me. What an eye-opener that was for me, to discover that maybe it wasn't all one-sided; maybe my parents and their rules and the way they expected me to live weren't the only ones that were unbearable to live with. Perhaps I, too, was sometimes unbearable to live with. The poignancy of the story is that he, of course, didn't mean it, but that I did. Parents are never racing at the same pace their children are towards that moment at which their children can strike out on their own. Luckily, however, I had parents who encouraged me to go. I've seen what can happen to children whose parents don't let them go, and it isn't pretty.
Sometimes, I almost feel as though it's a role children play in their parents' lives: the "I'm-Going-to-Hurt-You-More-than-You've-Ever-Been-Hurt" role. I'm sure that during the past 45 years, I've hurt him much more than he's hurt me. Many parents can't handle it, but one of the things that makes my father so geat is that he's never told me. He doesn't harp on those times. I never hear "you've been breaking my heart all your life" from him. He has allowed me to be who I am, free from criticism, heartbreak and all.
How can I not feel fortunate? When I think of my childhood he looms large. I suspect all fathers do. Luckily, I have a father who was looming large with love and affection. I know so many people who had distant, hands-off sorts of fathers, fathers who would say to them, "I don't need to say 'I love you.' I show it," and would then go on never to utter an encouraging word, always to criticize what their children were doing, so that their children were never really told nor shown that their father loved them.
My father tells me he loves me, and he always has. He believes in me and lets me know that. He tells me I'm smart and beautiful. I don't believe him, but I'm glad I have a father who doesn't shy away from telling me such things. Some people (especially of his generation) seem to think that telling their children such things is somehow harmful, but I can't imagine what harm it does. I may not have believed it, but at least when everyone else in the world was making me feel stupid and ugly, I could always come home where I was smart and beautiful.
As I write this, I'm beginning to realize I can't even begin to do my father justice in a mere blog post. I have so many memories, so many examples, so many pictures I could paint that still might only give you a hint as to what he was and is as a father. I like to think that if you know me (either in real life or through this blog), you do somehow know him, because he is so much a part of me. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have the sense of humor I have. I wouldn't be the writer I am. I wouldn't have the courage to stand up for what I believe. So, let's just all raise virtual champagne glasses together and say,
"HAPPY, HAPPY 80TH BIRTHDAY!"
(And now, I will be away for a few days and will continue my interview with Mandarine upon my return.)