Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thinking About My Dad

When I was around four, my dad, whose clumsiness I inherited , somehow managed to give himself a black eye in a mishap involving our garage door. For someone like my dad, who reveled in attention, this wasn’t entirely unfelicitous, as it made everyone notice him. When one particular neighbor asked what had happened, my dad said I’d dropped the garage door on him. The neighbor understood this to be a joke, and pretended to scold me. Far from amused, I was filled with confusion and shame. I wouldn’t have been able to reach the cord for the garage door even if I’d wanted to hurt my own daddy, and why on earth would I have wanted such a thing?

A few months before his death, he dictated a sort of goodbye letter, in which he spoke briefly of all the people who had mattered most to him. My mom, his wife, topped the list, though she’d hadn’t been anything other than viciously contemptuous of him for the preceding 40 years, with my sister and I also prominently mentioned — if no less prominently than the young woman who took the dictation, whom he’d probably known for 10 minutes.

That the approval of complete strangers was as important to him as the affection of his own family was one of the things about my dad that hurt and infuriated me.
Nearly 18 years after his death, I haven’t forgotten the maddeningly frustrating aspects of being Gilbert Mendelsohn’s son. But the older and wiser I become, the more I see how blessed I was to have had him as my dad.

When I was 14, I got a paper route, delivering the Westchester News Advertiser. Geographically, it was the wackiest paper route ever; I’d have had to get up two nights before to cover the whole of it on my bicycle. But there was never a millisecond’s question that my dad would get up at five two mornings a week right alongside me, and deliver to the farthest-flung of my customers while I attended to the distant western half of the route.

My dad could no more conceive of spending money on his own pleasure than of walking fly-like on the ceiling, but there was never a moment in my life when I’d have expected him to refuse me a “loan” that he invariably wouldn’t allow me to pay back in full.

When I was 37 and a new parent, I told my parents that I intended, because of my hatred of LA, to move to northern California — that is, to take their new granddaughter 460 miles away. It must have broken their hearts, but do you suppose either of them hesitated for a heartbeat to urge me to do whatever I thought would make me happiest?

One of the few psychotherapists who’s actually done me some good over the years was a San Francisco-based specialist in the problems of adult children of alcoholics; my parents might have gotten through half a bottle of Manichewitz Concord grape wine (absolutely the worst wine in the history of the cosmos) in a year, but lots of the problems were the same. In the course of my therapy, he told me I needed to, well, vent the enormous anger I’d felt toward my parents since my largely miserable childhood.

While my mother had been a volunteer at a counseling center. my dad had been mortified years before, when I’d first sought psychotherapy, at the mere thought. Thus, I’d expected he would try immediately to change the subject when I told him how some of his actions (and lack of action) had hurt me, but it was actually my mother who went immediately into denial mode, my dad who listened patiently and apologized.

All kids give their parents a certain amount of shit; it’s part, I think, of what psychologists call individuation. Because I blamed him for a lot of my immense early unhappiness, and because it was how I saw my mother — the dominant member of our household — relate to him, I’m deeply ashamed to have given my dad enough shit for 20, but he never stopped loving me, not for a moment. The more time passes since I lost forever the chance to tell him how sorry I am, the more I miss him.

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