"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Songs of the Fathers

Back when I was working as a Guardian ad litem, I regularly dealt with divorced parents or parents who had never wed in the first place. More often than not, the children ended up living with the mother but that was primarily the decision of the parents more than the court.  Even in custody cases where the courts ruled in favor of the mother, it was usually because the mother had been the primary caregiver, by the choice of the parents, long before the case ever ended up in court.  Courts hate to rock the boat.
In my opinion, some of the the most painful custody cases involved parents who were both strongly engaged with their children, often sharing physical custody until one or the other married and moved away.  The friendliest, most respectful ex partners had their hearts shredded under those circumstances, and the one moving away was typically outwardly defensive while inwardly burning from guilt.
Usually, the mother was the parent who had married/remarried and was moving away, leaving a father who had done everything "right" in terms of fatherhood, but was still losing his children and his dreams of a long term relationship with them.  They thought of all the ballgames and scout meetings and holidays they'd miss.  All the dance recitals, all the parent teacher conferences, all the lost opportunities to teach their children their individual family traditions and values.  All the casual times with their child they wouldn't have.   They'd torture themselves with images of their beloved child turning to his or her stepdad, instead, or, even worse,  just being left with no father to guide them, at all.  If they'd done something selfish or cruel that ended the marriage, they thought of the price they (and their child) was paying  and what a fool they'd been   They'd think of relocating to the mother's new area to stay close to their children but that would feel so weird and bizarre.  And if they had built a different life, perhaps had a wife, good job, or other children in the original location, moving simply wasn't an option. 

My heart broke for these fathers.
My own parents divorced when I was two months old.  They lived in Houston, Texas, and my mother moved back to her parents 90 miles away.  For a number of years, my father religiously came to see us every weekend.  He never skipped a child support payment despite being hard pressed to afford that check.  He tried his level best to be at least as involved in our lives as fathers were in those days.  He was one of the "good" ones. 
There was some tension with my parents on his proper role.  Mom believed he should take the kids and entertain us for the weekend.  Be a PuttPutt dad.  She was convinced that he came, not to see his kids, but because he still carried a torch for her.  In contrast, he believed just being around as often as possible was the healthier route.

I agree with my father.  But I think my mom was right - he was still in love with her. 

Never having lived with a father, I took it in stride and didn't feel deprived.  Not really. 

Maybe some. 

Maybe a lot, depending on what was going on at the time. 

Mostly I tried not to think about it. 
When I was three years old, my mother moved two states away, effectively ending my father's weekly visits.  Back in those days, a single father had few legal rights and he didn't protest.  He remarried within a year and they spent their honeymoon visiting us in Alabama. 

My mother was bemused. 
We moved back to Texas after a year and my father, despite his marital obligations, did his best to regularly visit us and stay a part of our lives.  I adored my father but months would go by and I wouldn't even think of him.  He was not a part of my day to day mundane life.  Instead, he was an event, like the coming of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. 

I took him for granted which, I suppose, is better than fixating on the loss.
My mother remarried when I was four, then divorced within a year.  From time to time, my father would visit and because I was a child, I didn't even consider how difficult that must have been for him and how he had to juggle his obligations to do it.  As an adult, I look back and am humbled at the effort he continued to make to be a part of my life.  To be my dad.
When I was eleven, we moved to Oklahoma.  It was not until I was a young adult, in a moment of weakness, that my father bitterly told me that he first learned we were moving from a casual friend who mentioned it, assuming that my father must have already known.   Even as a young adult and parent, I wasn't really able to comprehend the level of horror and heartbreak he must have felt.  In essence, the people he loved the most were being taken from him and he not only had no say in the matter, he was considered to be so inconsequential that he wasn't consulted.
Children are remarkably resilient and able to adapt to situations that strike their parents as fundamentally wrong.  But it doesn't mean the parents don't suffer simply because their children are oblivious to their pain. 
Over the years, I visited my father a couple of times a year.  Sometimes once a year.  We fell into a life where this was normal and I believe my father eventually moved on to be more emotionally invested in his wife, new son and stepchildren.  For the most part, I didn't mind but my mother said of all the kids, I was the one who missed him the most and wanted him in my life. 

My mother was right.
But all that being said, notwithstanding the problems, my father was an enormous influence on my life, my heart and my soul.  Despite the difference in time and space, I "got" my father.  I understood how he went from "A" to "B."  I never had a clue how my Mother made decisions but my father's were crystal clear.  It was like our brain waves were on the same channel.   I understood, without effort, his values, his dreams, his disappointments, his triumphs and his joys.  Like all adults, he went through evolutions of how he viewed life and for some reason, no matter the stage, it made sense to me even when I wasn't at the same place in his life.  I am not sure he ever knew that but I hope he did.
My father always sang to us and until recently, I never heard a more beautiful voice.  He would sing songs along with the radio. He'd sing, "My Darling Clementine," "Patches,"  and "The Green Beret."  I told him, once, that he should have been a professor singer and he seemed taken aback but pleased. 

He taught me to bait a hook and shoot a rifle.  He told me about wildlife.  He told me tales that haunted him from his time in the Korean War.   He was simply the best at telling ghost stories.  When he drank he got maudlin but for the most part, he was about looking at the good in things and doing the best you can, no matter what.  In his younger years he was a hunter but as he aged, the idea of killing became abhorrent - for him, anyway.   He became a conservationist.  He loved his cat.   He was good friends with his bookie.  He kept a running list of things he wanted to ask God about when he got the chance. 
My father gave me hope that with age comes wisdom.  I watched him evolve and it seemed "right" to me.  He never became hardened and set in his ways.  On the contrary - as he aged he grew supple in his spirituality, more focused on the essence of what he believed god to be, and grew in kindness and tolerance. He was never "churchy," rather, he was a man on a spiritual journey and enjoying all the things he learned along the way.  I never saw his deepening spirituality as being hypocritical.  To me, it seemed as if his steps were being guided by something bigger than he was and, in small part, provided for my benefit.  I watched him face adversity with dignity and with growing spiritual strength and faith as he aged, faced financial ruin, interpersonal tragedy, and loss of his health.  My father demonstrated to me the ability to experience life with a sense of profound gratitude and an ability to seize upon the small things to bring joy. 

My father demonstrated, to me, the secret of happiness.
I wish I'd had the wisdom or foresight to tell him what he gift he'd given but I didn't.  His death came before I expected it and I was so comfortable with his relationship with his god that I didn't think it was any of my business to ask him for an introduction.  

Sometimes, when I think of my dad, I think he was born under an unfortunate star.  He always said he hoped he left the world a better place by virtue of being in it.  I think he did. 

So when I was a guardian ad litem dealing with a distraught young father, I used to tell them that although my father was not around all the time when I was growing up, I KNEW he was my father and I was connected to him as any daughter would be.  I knew so much would depend on how hard they tried to remain a part of their child's life but it seemed to offer them some comfort.  And it was honest.  It was simplistic, but honest.  There was no way I could tell them how complicated it all was.  All I could give them was the bottom line. 

My father used to sing to the kids.  He had a pleasant voice and I don't think of my father without thinking of him singing a song, usually with a beer in his hand, generally after drinking too much.  To this day, nothing makes me feel more safe, than that memory.  And I think that is what fathers are for.  In that, he succeeded.  And that is no small thing. 
It is a delight, to me, to listen to my own son singing to Grandson Charlie. 
I thought my father had a lovely voice but I KNOW my son's songs are from the angels.  When I hear my son sing to Charlie, I am taken back to my own father.  I think how he lives on in my heart, and am so grateful that my son, while he has had his share of heartache, was not born under an unlucky star.
 Happy Quilting, Penny, Evelyn and Pearl


Miriam said...

It is Father's Day here in Australia on Sunday. A very appropriate post for this time of year for us. I have been thinking of my father quite a bit lately too.

Sewing Junkie said...

My son has lived the path your Father lived. Being seperated from his children. He loves them more than life itself and yet the pain is always there. Making sure your Father's memory is intact is very important to you and your son is following in that frame of mind. We are not given instruction books when we have children, but someone was looking over your Father to raise a lovely person as yourself to help others in the painful path of a single parent. Thank You for sharing. Chris

Anonymous said...

Penny, I had tears in my eyes reading about your Father. I had a Father around all the time and didn't receive the love from mine that you did from yours. Just sayin------

Florida Farm Girl said...

Sweetness. Pure sweetness. And grace.

Shirlwin said...

Such an emotionally beautiful post. A Dad holds a special place in the heart of most daughters. I was lucky in that I lived with both my parents, but it was my Dad who formed a lot of me ... I too went fishing and learned to scale and gut a fish, how to be a person who cared for family, and others. Thank you for the memories.