When I was little I defined myself by the love I saw mirrored in my father’s eyes. I measured the depth of that love in the breadth of his shoulders, the deep bass of his voice booming out “oompah, oompah,” as he danced me in sweeping circles around our living room, my stocking feet planted securely on top of his.
There was no need to question my identity: I was an artist’s beloved (and only) daughter. When I played rambunctiously with my three older brothers and scraped a knee, it was my father I ran to for comfort. Snatching up one of the sketch pads he kept laying around, he’d sketch goofy-faced characters: men in rumpled hats, mouths gaping open stupidly; men with huge noses, buck-toothed, with rucked up hair. Giggling uncontrollably, I’d forget about my injury. Mom applied the practical touches: a damp washcloth, a Band-Aid if skin had broken and blood spilt. Dad, never practical on his best of days, supplied the humor, the whimsy. I absorbed his love like the little sponge I was, even as the washcloth Mom pressed to my knee absorbed my blood.
We lived in many rental homes during the first seven years of my life. Dad, never one to stay at a job long—so quick to resent a boss’ authority—went through a variety of employments. When I was just a baby myself he was a fireman, rescuing babies from burning buildings. When one of my older brothers was about to make his entrance into the world, Dad escorted Mom to the hospital in the little ice-cream truck he used for his daily route. The bell stuck, and dinged all the way to the Emergency Room entrance, causing Mom no small amount of mortification.
For years Dad was a professional drummer, playing mostly in Country/Western bands. At home his drum set dominated our living room, back grounded by the scenic murals he painted on the walls of just about every home we moved into. Watching his cool dexterity with the drumsticks, I sat in awe, wonderfully proud to be the daughter of this colorful man.
While Mom puttered around in the kitchen, applying her deft touch to feeding a family of six on next to nothing, I curled up into a corner of the couch, Dad’s biggest fan. I didn’t see—or seeing, didn’t understand—that Mom’s puckered brow and less than enthusiastic response to his never-ending creativity was the inevitable result of her being in the position of having to play the grownup to his little boy ness.
When bill collectors pounded on the door, it was Mom he sent to face them with some lame excuse. And it was to her mom she’d resort time and again for grocery or rent money until, exasperated, Grandma would exclaim, “You’re going to nickel and dime me to death!”
When Dad came stumbling in at 3am after playing a gig, I had long since been tucked into bed, dreaming of innocent things, uncomplicated by the reality of Dad’s excesses and Mom’s worn-thin patience.
There is one vivid memory that stands out regarding Dad’s drinking. The year I turned five, I was awakened out of a dead sleep in the wee hours of the morning, by a horrible grinding noise. Jumping out of bed, I ran into the living room where I found my mom and brothers already peeking out our gauzy curtains. As the noise got closer, we saw sparks flying from a car making its unsteady progress toward our house.
“Hey, it’s Dad!” someone called out. I glanced at Mom to gauge her reaction; she wore a thin lipped look of sour disapproval, her brows puckered with annoyance.
“Come on, back to bed,” she said in her brisk way. Something in her tone of voice kept any of us from arguing. Shoulders hunched with disappointment (for why was Dad’s car making that awful noise, anyway?), we silently obeyed.
Later that day, a disheveled and hung-over Dad was summoned to the door by two policemen who had followed the trail of rut marks to our driveway. It seems that while driving home three sheets to the wind earlier that morning, he’d hit a telephone pole, which caused several flat tires (as well as a power outage for several blocks.) Driving home on his rims had caused both the horrible noise, and the sparks we’d witnessed. The policemen had followed the rut marks all the way to our home, where they informed Dad, in no uncertain terms, that he would be paying for that telephone pole. (He did, and for decades afterwards, whenever he drove past it he’d brag to whoever was with him that he owned that telephone pole, having paid $120 for it back in the fifties.)
In keeping with my earlier post of Things That Pleased Me This Week, I wanted to write this little sketch of my earlier childhood, as a sort of acknowledgement to the good things I once experienced. Those years may have been cut short, and much to my sorrow, but at least I had them. While so many abused children grow up with absolutely no parental love, or a sense of being cherished, I did have that for the first 7 years of my life. Though my mother and I never bonded, I knew without doubt that I was the apple of my dad’s eye, and that my older brothers adored me (when they weren’t trying to shake me off their trail so they could play “boy” stuff.)
For so many individuals, there is nothing in their childhoods worth remembering—nothing but rejection, abuse, and a never-ending sorrow. I don’t want to take for granted those early years when life was good and safe and serene. My wilderness experience had yet to happen, and so I had the luxury of believing in typical childhood myths: The Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, and the biggest myth of all: that everyone always lived happily ever after.
Because I had what so many kids can only dream of, it was a cinch to take things one step further in my imagination and believe heart and soul that God loved me just as much as my dad did, and what a delicious feeling that was! Oh, I knew if I kept writing this blog long enough, I would get around to this, to this whole subject of how the abuses of my childhood affected my perception of God.
I suppose I should warn those of my readers who, for whatever reason, do not want to hear about anything God related: it’s coming, the subject I’ve been tippy-toeing around for months. Soon I need to get into all that. For without sharing the spiritual aspects of my life, there can be no true heart honesty. There’s just no point in having a blog in which I can’t be honest.