How I figured out how father figures figured in (or not)
As a woman (let alone a man), you never stop factoring in your father.
If you were one of the lucky few who had a great one, you actually began the human process of growing up during your growing-up years. You felt loved, attended, respected, encouraged, and understood. You’d probably witnessed capital-R-Relationship working between your parents, and had a pretty good idea of what love was all about.
You might have seen some quietly spectacular things in motion — things like affection, acceptance, union, compromise, and conflict resolution, without even knowing how fine and rare they truly were.
In short, you went into life sensing the heart’s true potential.
For the rest of us (which is pretty much most of us) who had more normal challenges, we entered into our adult lives trying to sort out the hand of cards our parents had dealt us. What raw materials we had been given from which to build the vessels of our lives. Muddling along, occasionally and through some beautiful and mysterious acts of grace, we forgave those who had hurt us — we forgave the expectation, the dysfunction, the aloofness, whatever it was.
This process? As it turns out, it’s not just a process, it’s our lives–
We never get to get over what our parents “did” to us — we simply get to start realizing it was all they could do and then shove off from that stolid, sandy bank of stuck into the river itself.
I had a career military officer for a father. He was an only child, raised in the depression by his mother and grandmother because his own father had run off one day, just like you read about in books.
The matriarchs spoiled their blue-eyed golden boy, and he grew up yearning to be better, to be seen as better, to have more. He switched from the Presbyterian to the Episcopalian Church, went to military academy on a football scholarship, and then joined the Army. Rules. Structure. Advancement. An engineer.
He met my mother in Paris in 1945 at a New Year’s Eve party at the celebratory end of WW II, and, in a thunder clap, they forged a union that would presumably remove her from her own family’s poverty and whatever the war had done to her country. She got on a boat with 300 other war brides.
Really, they had no idea what was in store, and how hard it would be. They just knew they had a thing for each other. (Right?)
They had three children in quick succession, then I came along about 8 years after that. Actually, I never even saw The Man until I was two — he’d been in Korea. When he finally showed up, I asked my mom in French who the big man was; and people, things changed overnight. The big man was back, and he was in charge.
At some point, I realized I could never please Jim “Let’s get crackin” Curry, however much I tried — that I could not get the love I really needed in the way I really needed it.
Mostly what I did and did very, very well was to perform for love, over and over offering up my version of good academics and good behavior. And, predictably, it was never enough. After college, and after four years in New York, I rebelled just enough (dropped out, moved west, and lived with a man) to be excommunicated from the family for a few years, right up until the time dad got very sick and died. Esophageal cancer.
We did have a reunion of sorts before his death, but he never really forgave me for not turning out the way he felt I should have turned out. #suchpotential #whatawaste. To me, the empty look in his eye said it all.
If I’d had more understanding at that time, I might have had some compassion for a man who not only felt his life force ebbing away but felt betrayed by his own daughter. He didn’t recognize me. He no longer recognized himself in me. My own sense of abandonment was so massive, all I could do was tamp it down, down, way, way down. It didn’t really even register until years later.
He died before he had the chance to meet my future husband, or my daughter. He left four dizzied adult children in their little boats bobbing in his wake. And he left my mother heartbroken. I’ll get to her story later.
In the meantime, in the very long and protracted meantime of this lifetime to date, I have populated my script and stream of consciousness with numerous and far-flung father figures. Mentors, teachers, boyfriends, husbands, all of them attempts, as I see it, to heal what I could not heal with my own father. Mostly, this drama played itself out in attempts to win men over, but really, fundamentally and over time, I started seeing it was just about trying to heal the scar of having had to “win” to receive love. To feel worthy simply by virtue of being a human being with a beating heart.
I’m still trying to heal this one — prying pieces off the emotional suit of armor with veiny, wrinkled, sometimes arthritic hands. I’m not giving up.
Anyway, back to Chapter 2, The Professor, and where I was when I was writing it at the age of 28.
In college, I had two father figures with whom I was embarrassingly infatuated. I don’t know how else to say it. Both were professors with very fine minds; and, more alluringly, they were friends. One was a youthful bad boy and writing mentor, and one was a dashing Victorian who needed help researching a book.
For whatever reason, they were interested in me — in my experiences in college, my love affairs, my family, my life. Or maybe they were really just doing their jobs, who knows. I was so filled up inside with the richness of a liberal arts education and this idea that two enormously charismatic mentors cared about me, I could hardly stand it.
So when I finally graduated, I had these father figures firmly planted and blooming in the overly active garden (and weed plot) of my psyche. I did write them letters. I did keep in touch. Probably longer than I should have, probably more attached than I should have been. Theirs was a world of orbiting students, whole star systems of them. In time, many of us became dying stars — because there were simply brighter and brighter stars in their orbits all the time.
Of course, I’d just fade away. Of course.
Some years ago, moving out of a house I’d been in over 20 years, I found a box of letters, among them a handful from these two persons. Onion skin and fountain pen ink from one. Type written and signature from the other.
Staring at the words and handwriting, I tried to figure out why they had written to me at all. Politeness? The guilt of leaving my letters unanswered? Maybe. Probably. What I’d needed was to be known, appreciated, accepted — fathered in a twisty sense. I’d needed not to be forgotten, not to have been someone who’d gotten less interesting with time. In short, I’d needed not to feel abandoned. It was such a set up.
I threw all the letters away that day. It felt weird doing it — partly because I’ve always been so drawn to handwriting, riveted by its intimacy. For years, I’ve plastered it into my paintings. But I just couldn’t think of why it was appropriate to keep these letters any longer, where I could possibly “file” them. It was all just evidence, really, part of a massive case I’d been mounting for years to prove before whatever judge that I had won men over, affected them, been loved by them. That I was worthy. Curry vs Father Figures, Inc.
But the story continues. With me and the man in my life. With my daughter and the man in hers. With every woman and man, daughter and son open to healing the scars of childhood.