My childhood memories of my single father and me are like a montage reel from a silent film: the two of us crashing in the waves at Stinson Beach; whorls of jasmine and chlorine-scented air at the College of Marin pool stinging my nostrils as we swam the summer away, followed by indulgent frozen yogurt treats; me, camped in a corner of the auto parts store with a book while he wandered its mystifyingly interesting (to him) aisles for what seemed like hours. We didn't have long conversations; we were quiet comrades in the weeks when I was at his house, constant companions often in sync without need for words.
But suddenly, in my 12th year, we became three. My father
brought home a blue-eyed, blonde-haired travel agent whose youthful beauty and
tendency to crack dirty jokes made her feel more like an older sister than
a mother-figure (and of course, I had a mother, thank you very much, a fact I
rubbed in her face perhaps too often). And not even a year after her entry into
our lives, she cheerfully pulled me aside. "I'm carrying," she said, pointing
at her stomach. It took me a minute to interpret that she was pregnant.
I barely had time to vie for footing on the teeter-totter of
this new family when my baby brother joined us around my 14th birthday.
By the time I was 16, I had two siblings under the age of 2. The stress of my
father's rapidly expanded family revealed itself in constant arguing between him and his new wife; their bickering joined with my new siblings' noisy cacophony,
a patter of feet and shrieks thrusting themselves into my bedroom when I was
trying to study or brood in teenaged privacy. Once I could drive, I sought
refuge in the child-free space of my mother's house, where, though she was
often under the influence of alcohol and my stepfather's temper was a volatile gas easily exploded, I could hole up in my room and be left
(My dad) would touch my arm and ask, "You'd tell me if you weren't OK?" and "You seem sad" at our few visits. I took these half-hearted questions as pleas to never tell him any such thing.
I missed those easy special days when it
was only my dad and me. I missed being his singular sidekick. No longer just the two of us, we became strangers bound by blood who
spoke only about garbage that needed taking out and settling allowance sums. With
little outlet to talk about my mother's addiction or my stepmother's tendency to tell
me inappropriate stories, I hoarded my jealousy and took it away to college.
Distance and fatigue, raising two kids and struggling in the
marriage that would eventually come apart, my father was too preoccupied to worry
too much about me. While I lost 30 pounds in an emotionally abusive
relationship my freshman year, he'd touch my arm and ask, "You'd tell me if you
weren't OK?" and "You seem sad," at our few visits. I took these half-hearted questions as pleas to never tell him any
such thing—he clearly had more on his plate than he could handle.
A decade flew by. I left that bad relationship, and my
father and his wife's relationship shredded apart. No longer jealous and a married 20-something by then, I'd grown protective of my siblings, teens who now suffered
the aftershocks of a family splintered by divorce, which I understood too
I was 33 by the time my son was born. The pieces of my
father's broken second family had started to settle, and I'd all but forgotten
about those special days when it was just the two of us. I was too busy anyway
with the preoccupations of this constantly nursing infant and the shock of
postpartum depression that had me constantly weeping and often unable to take
good care of myself.
I recognized, in the easy way between my son and my dad, the echoes of my own childhood.
Suddenly, my dad showed up on the weekends, driving two hours to expertly
tuck his grandson into the crook of his arm, shushing him with a long finger.
My father was the one who found me supplements to help repair my
hormone-shattered sleep, to bring us bags of groceries and toss food on the
Whereas once we had seen each other mostly for birthdays and holidays,
not a month went by that he didn't make an appearance or offer his own bed for
us to come up and stay. As my son grew, my father always found the perfect gift, could tell the right joke to stop a tantrum or elicit a laugh. I recognized, in the easy way between my son and my dad, the echoes of my own childhood.
I don't know quite when it hit me that things had changed
between us for the better—somewhere, through showing up for his grandson, my father and I had found our rhythm again. Only this time, the man I couldn't speak deeply to in 20 years had become one of my most trusted confidantes.