I never really had a father figure in my life. Mine left my mum and my sister and me when I was two. We went to live with my Nanna soon afterwards and Mum didn’t remarry until I was eight.
While I still call the man she married Dad and she did get him to sign adoption papers for me and my sister, the Dad equation never fully took off. I suspected long ago that he really only went through those processes to please my Mum. He was a year younger than she was and just 23 years old when he took our family on. It’s not like he was really mature enough to know what he was getting into!
I have this extraordinary birth certificate that shows him as my Dad, because apparently that’s what happens when you get adopted. All past history gets erased and his name and birth date are all that’s visible in the details of Father. What’s extraordinary is that my Mum was only 16 when she had me. So my birth certificate shows my Dad was only 15. I have to laugh, it’s so weird. Makes it all sound like some serious shenanigans were going on. Which I suppose they were, given that my Mum pretty much had a shot gun wedding at 16, (but my real Dad was something like 22 at the time. Not a young lad).
When my adoptive Dad was supposed to be becoming a father of me, he had already spent a year at sea on his first ship as an able seaman. He ran away from home at 14, lied about his age and became a sailor. So I suppose he really could have been that precocious to have sired me, but that’s neither here nor there because he didn’t.
He enjoyed being a sailor even after he was married to my Mum and spent most of the early years of his marriage away at sea, working his way up the ladder of a naval career. When he was home, my parents were too absorbed in each other and the power plays of youthful marriage than the young girls they were rearing.
I don’t blame them for that. Now I’m older myself, I understand those ages better. I understand the difficulties of marriage that most people have. They did their best. It’s just that when you’re a kid you don’t see that point of view. It’s not till you’re a grown up that you can look back with a new perspective. As a kid, you feel left out or unconsidered, or even like the meat in the sandwich when the power plays are going on, and there were some pretty mighty all night tussles in those power plays back then…
I did meet my real Dad well after I had kids of my own. I wasn’t very impressed. It was easy to see why my mother was disillusioned. Hell, I felt disillusioned myself, especially after he used contact with me to try to renew contact with my Mum and promptly stopped having much to do with me when she wasn’t interested.
Sadly, there was never going to be enough time to get to know him better because he died at the not so ripe age of 52. He got bowel cancer but died of a heart attack. So that was that.
I tried to be a daughter to my adoptive Dad but the bottom line is that I was put up with rather than acknowledged as being family. I honestly can’t bitch about not being accepted, though, because I’ve seen too much of the world by now and have had my own problems with child rearing, It’s not easy being a parent at the best of times. It couldn’t have been easy as a young, ambitious man to take on this ready made family.
I ran away from home myself at 16 after I met my future husband, which was probably not a very endearing thing to do. So it’s not like I should really expect there ever could establish anything deeper, from such errant beginnings. That said, I did admire many things about him and in a way he was sort of a father figure – just not in the way I wanted a father figure to be.
I do appreciate that his intelligent and curious mind enjoyed showing and teaching me things in the earlier days of his marriage, that made me look at the world around me in different ways. He passed on that curious observer mode to me – or perhaps just embedded it more deeply, since I really was just such a character from birth, anyway. (Perhaps he knew that and was helping me expand on it).
He did also try at times to be more of a father to me, like when he gave me his coin collection – which I ended up selling when we were short on bill money. (We were having another ‘time out’ from the relationship, then, but I have regretted that action ever since).
(It’s that latter tale that has made me pause for thought every time my adult kids did something similar with the gifts I gave them. I get that gnarly voice of conscience that says, “I have no right to object since I did that to my own parents…”)
If I look at how my husband and I have managed parenting, in comparison, I’m not sure we fared much better when it comes to engaging fully with our kids. We tried to be what I felt my parents were not, and what my husband felt his parents were not, but in the end our kids judged us the same way we had judged the people who brought us up.
We did our best. By golly, we did more than our best. We were the sort of parents that we really wanted our parents to be. The trouble is that our kids didn’t know that. They hadn’t experienced the sort of parents we had and they only had us to go by.
We were full on parents, hands on parents, parents who were there for their kids in every way possible and more, and parents who absorbed boomerang adult children who left home, came back, left home and came back with a spouse, left home and came back with spouses and children, until they finally grew up enough to actually stay away permanently.
Our parents had instead expected kids to pull their weight, to be seen and not heard, to be if not respectful then at least fearful, and especially who put kids on the peripheral of their own interests.
It was difficult to understand when our kids got along far better with their grandparents than they did with us. When we tried to get to the bottom of where we went wrong, we discovered that we were apparently smothering, whereas Nanna and Pop were fun and interesting and no pressure. (Well, let’s face it, they are today, but now they’re no longer trying to be parents).
We got a shock.
Yada, Yada… We’d done so many things, made so many sacrifices, gave them priority over our own interests, put aside our own endeavors to live the unselfish life of service to family…
Assessing what happened, we were taken by surprise by how things panned out. We shook our heads. We thought – It wasn’t like we really ran the show. It was the kids who snapped their fingers and we came running. It was the kids who said no when we asked for help. We were the ones in service and they were the ones doing the serving – up, that is…
Sounds bitter, but these were the processes. You go through all that. Your choices rebound on you. You think you were doing the right things but you were doing the wrong things. You examine it all over and over and still come up short.
Such is life. A cycle of change. Even when you think you are doing the right things, you are doing the wrong things. Or take that vice versa, you can think you are doing the wrong things but discover they were actually the right things, Where am I going with that? There is no right or wrong in such matters. There is only the best you can do at any given time, with the resources and skills you have to deal with them, then.
We had expectations. We thought that if we put in service, service would be reciprocated. We thought that if we were loyal, loyalty would be returned. We thought that if we put up with all their stuff, and kept opening our purse and emptying our pantry and making a bed for them in our home, that they would be around when we got old to do the same for us.
It doesn’t work out that way. Today’s world has changed dramatically. Kids no longer seem to connect to the concept that family is a community that has to be worked at and maintained.
The young people of today have so many choices that mean that when the going gets tough, they often get going (whether they are tough or not).
Let’s face it, they’re encouraged to depart, not by us but by society. Today’s society says that if you feel snooty about the people you’re hanging with, then leave. There’s absolutely no necessity to be patient, to wait things out, to see how things evolve, or to give anything a chance. They seem to have become highly individual free spirits with no investment in the concepts we grew up with at all, and I blame prime time television for that being so shocking to us…
Yes, television. We watched happy family shows through all our years of growing up. That propaganda machine kept rolling out the platitudes and the sugar coated candy concepts of loyalty, consideration, courtesy, kindness, service, gentility… I do go on. “Happy Days”, Fonzie, “The Waltons”, “Little House on the Prairie”, “The Brady Bunch”, and even “Lost in Space”… Smiles and hugs and people working things out… It all sounded so great but where was the real world in all that?
My husband and I felt we were duped. We felt we’d been brainwashed. That insidious schmaltz got deep inside our heads and hearts to make us oozy.
Hell, we grew up in the space age. We watched astronauts walking live on the moon on our black and white televisions. We listened to songs by Simon and Garfunkel promising to lay down as a bridge over troubled waters for us. We were the secondary phase of the hippy revolution – the 70s kids – and today, we’re reaping the results.
I did wish someone had been serious with me back then. I wished someone had told me that life was not all sugar cake if we hang in there long enough, that not everything works out, and that even the people closest to you can betray you.
Actually, if I think on that I know I chose to be a believer. My parents were very good at confronting me with the black and white facts of life. They thought I was too dreamy for reality.
I could have listened better. I could have let that harshness embed inside me. It just didn’t seem to go well in my heart.
Who would I be now if I had let that darkness get inside me then? It’s the ‘hippy in my heart’ that enables me to pick myself up off the floor right now, dust myself off, put sunshine in my hat and a smile on my face and look for another wall to paint flowers on.
Today, my eldest kids have finally left the nest. They are far away and have moved on to other lives. That’s actually the natural law of the universe. Only human beings keep families together for so long. Animals split up much earlier.
My husband had a quiet Father’s Day with the one kid he has left in the house, the one who can’t run away because he is disabled. He never even heard a pip from the others. The one kid did cook him breakfast, though, and gave him a soppy card with a bottle of beer picture on it. He gave him a packet of choc-coated caramel slices and a Beach Boys CD that he promptly put in the machine and danced to for his Dad, and later they played computer games together.
My two men in the house are both Dads. My son was without his girls on Father’s Day, too, this year, but at least he will be seeing them next weekend.
I think back to my husband changing peanut butter nappies so long ago, of how he gave his kids aeroplane rides on the ends of his arms and was their horsey even when his back was bung. He fixed their things, read them stories, and took them on the scarey rides at the fun park that I was too chicken to get on. Where are these things in their memories, now? Where are all the good things?
Why do people so often focus on the pockmarks and potholes in life and never on the rest of the beautiful face or the scenic road they’re found on? It seems that they get bogged in a few pitfalls and then give up. They want an easier path…
(Again, I’m not in a position to make an example. Thinking back, I did run away from home myself. I was probably lucky that my kids stayed as long as they did…)
We have our pets, who are as much family to us as any humans. Why do we discount them because their lives are shorter? They do all the most meaningful things. They give cuddles and kisses, eat our food, worry when we’re sad, listen to our problems… Human beings don’t necessarily hang around long enough for you to experience the full extent of their lives, anyway, whereas dogs and cats are here every day till they’re dead.
In the end, you smooth out. You mellow down. You get on with living. Work still needs to be done. Bills need to be paid. Other people fill in the gaps. There is plenty of activity, of other roads and directions, of inspirations and aspirations to live the rest of your life with. So why is it that deep in the heart, even as I think I have accepted it all and moved on, there remains a quiet hankering for the possibilities that never had a chance to make it into the light of day?
I miss my kids. I miss the dreams and hopes that never came to pass. I miss the times we actually were having fun just hanging out. I miss the cuddles and kisses. I miss them enjoying the meals I cooked. I miss helping them out. I miss… ah, well, you get the picture.
For now, we are getting on with life. We’re busy and creative people. We have plenty to redirect ourselves with. Actually, I’ve realized something important in all this. I’d spent so much of my life in the past decade or so convincing myself that who I was and what I did in the past no longer mattered, that what mattered were my family and that we were a family. I gave up a lot of things to serve them, and I told myself that was okay.
I once felt sad that my father-in-law had given up on his own talents to be just a husband and a father, and there was I doing the same. You just tend to accept that you are older, that you are a Nanna, now, or Pa – that you don’t have to prove anything or be anything any more, and that the kids dreams are what’s most important now. It seems natural to draw back, to let them shine in all the places and all the ways you once did, so they can think that what they do is unique and only they can do it. You put aside everything you once lived for, and it actually doesn’t seem to matter, so long as those you put it all aside for are still around.
Then they are gone. You flounder.
Change does that. In every swing of a pendulum, there is a moment of pause, or realization that things are about to change. That’s the transition zone. I know I went through that. My husband doesn’t talk as much as I do, but I think he is going through that, too.
What I do know is that now they are gone, we feel like we have permission to shine again, in our own right. It’s like we are the young people who began our own paths of talent so long ago, only this time our bodies are older (and have a lot less stamina). It really feels good to express so many of the things that we’ve suppressed so long because of concepts that said, “It’s the kids turn now…”
You begin to wonder – did destiny have a hand in this?
Now, I’m back to being the artist I always was, but much more fully. My kids are artists, too. As I’d grown older, I’d let their activities override my own. I’d wanted to see those elements blossom so they weren’t afraid to express because of any idea that they couldn’t compare. I’d seen that happen with others in my past and I didn’t want it to happen to them.
I believe all art is good, and each is unique. If putting my own art into the background so they felt comfortable expressing that uniqueness was the cost, I thought so be it – but now it’s like destiny is saying, you shelved it too long… Time to come out of the closet again… And destiny knew that wouldn’t have happened while I was so set in my ways… It knew it had to shake me to my roots for any real change to happen, now.
I can’t blame my eldest kids for not sending greetings to their father. I didn’t send any to my adoptive father, either. I did think of it. I also gave up on the idea. That’s the result of a history of past efforts that failed, not just laziness. There comes a time and age when you just stop trying.
I wish our eldest kids had not stopped trying with us, but if that’s their decision it must be the right one for them. At least, for now. We are, however, still keeping a place open in our lives for them. We’re flexible enough to rearrange the seating at our meal table if they suddenly turn up. We’re still plying our business as if they had never left. In our minds, it is still their future as much as it is ours.
One day, the boomerangs may bounce our way again, if we live that long. In the meantime, life is still very good.
C’est la vie!
P.S. I gave tribute to my parents when my adoptive father turned 70, by creating the poster, shown below, in their honor. (The poster doesn’t have the copyright warning on it). It depicts them as the young people they once were (taken from original photos and stylized).
He is the Chief Petty Officer he one day became and she is in the pink dress she wore for their wedding. (I was a flower girl with my sister, then). The ship on the ocean is the H.M.A.S. Vendetta, which he served on for many years.
We may not be speaking much today, but I hope that picture shows them that I cared enough to make it.