The other day I was picking up a few items at the grocery store, walking through the produce aisle, selecting some bell peppers here, a few (overly) expensive mangos there. Coming towards me was a middle-aged man and what appeared to be his two children–a boy and a girl. Nothing unusual in that. If anything, it’s always good to see the continued debunking of the media myth that men don’t contribute in the home.
As I selected a few lemons, I couldn’t help but notice the father. Slumped over his cart as he was, it was clear he wasn’t entirely comfortable in whatever “this” role was, probably a new one for him. Seeing that, I started paying a bit closer attention to the situation surrounding him and his children.
I caught one of the kids talking about the apples and I heard the man say something like, “But do we really need them?”
I didn’t catch the rest; probably because I was immediately swept away into a memory from my childhood. One that included another middle-aged man–my father–also with his child–me–and also clearly not entirely in his element.
I was probably 13. After 11 years of what seemed to be a stable, if perhaps uneventful, marriage, my stepmom announced she wanted to separate from my father for a while. As usual, my father seemed caught completely unaware, a trend that he appeared to have ignored much of his life. But, it being the 80s and divorce trends on a steep trajectory upwards, while I wasn’t unfamiliar with divorce, I didn’t know what a “separation” meant and I found myself at a complete loss as to how we were going to make it without her at home.
Even at that young age, I recognized that it was very selfish of me to immediately jump to concerns of self when my parents were clearly having problems. But the last time my father had to care for me (and my brother at the time) by himself, he was not good at it and it only last about a year because he quickly met someone who stepped in and took over everyday home-making.
At 13, I needed little supervision. I got myself up in the mornings; made my own breakfast and got myself out the door with no intervention from my parents. Dad was gone to work long before I even got up and my step-mother stayed in her room getting ready for work until after I left.
My father was not a “household chore” kind of guy. He was a builder. Tell him something needed fixing and he was on it. Tell him he needed to cook dinner, however, and he was at a total loss unless it meant cutting up and boiling some vegetables.
I very clearly remember our first trip to the grocery store. It had probably been two weeks since my stepmother had packed up her things and moved out. She had rented, and furnished, a nice apartment about 30 minutes away. Any hopes I had that her moving out was just a temporary thing were dashed the first weekend I spent at her place. I remember looking around thinking, “She has every piece of furniture someone who is single would have.” It didn’t occur to me then that she had clearly been planning this, if not actively setting it in motion without anyone knowing it, for quite some time and was planning on it lasting more than a few days. I also saw a pack of cigarettes sticking out of her purse. So far as I knew, both she and my father had quit smoking years ago, so this was (also) a new development.
But, “visiting” your parent is awkward. There I was, a pre-teen and a middle-aged step-parent stuck inside a nondescript apartment for two days. No money. Nothing to do really. And frankly, if we were at home, we wouldn’t have much day-to-day interaction anyway, so suddenly being forced to interact just because it’s “your weekend” made for some awkward moments. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end.
Back at home; after a couple of weeks of my having to come up with meal ideas for my father and me, not to mention that I’d not had anything to pack for my school lunch in days, a grocery-run was unavoidable and so I broached the subject with my father one Saturday morning. He was not enthused.
Now, I had no idea of my parents’ financial situation; not really. We had a comfortable house, but there were little things that led me to believe we weren’t doing all that well. So, I was very cognizant of money. Much like the children of the Great Depression, still today I’m a saver “just in case” and I’m confident much of my tendencies stem from the lean times of my youth when I spent my school lunch period pretending to study in the library so I didn’t have to explain to my friends that I wasn’t eating because my parents always “forgot” to give me any lunch money. And other small financial crises.
We drove to the store together. I’d shopped with my stepmother enough to know the drill. I grabbed a cart and headed right. In truth, I don’t remember much about the actual grocery store, but one particular selection impressed itself in my memories, again further cementing the fact that money was tight and this whole “on our own” thing was not going to be easy.
With “mom” gone, I had picked up the bulk of the housekeeping duties. I lightly cooked and cleaned up the kitchen. I dry-mopped the downstairs floors and vacuumed the carpets in all but my parents’ room. I did our laundry. In short, I did most of the housework.
I remember that the dustpan we had, had seen better days. The edge was chipped and dulled and it was difficult to get fine dirt and debris into it and so as we passed the aisle with household cleaning supplies, I told my father we needed a new dustpan. Of all the things we needed, why a dustpan? It’s one of those things. One of those battles upon whose hill you know you will die on while defending. But it needed to be done.
The dustpan selection ran the gamut from a super-cheap aluminum pan, similar to the crap-tastic plastic one we currently had, to a more expensive glossy white plastic unit with a small brush attachment. I picked up the latter and my father immediately said, “Why do we need that one? This other one (the cheaper alternative) is just fine.”
l remember making the argument that the cheap one is just going to get brittle and break like the one we already had, so we should buy the more expensive, but durable, one. I remember the look on my father’s face before he put the dustpan in our cart. For a brief moment, a pained expression passed over his eyes. I remember seeing him about to argue and then immediately change his mind. And I remember the resignation that fixed itself on his expression as he placed the shiny, white dustpan with the attachable broom into the cart.
That day, upon that hill, I’d won and he’d given up. Maybe that was why my step-mom left. Maybe at some point, he got tired of fighting and just stopped trying, or caring. And I guess she did too.
Like the dad in my recent shopping experience, my father was just as uncomfortable playing the homemaker. Back in the present, while watching the dad at the grocery, I experienced a momentary pang of empathy for what he was having to deal with. Whatever situation led to him being there, he was doing what he needed to do despite his inexperience and discomfort. For that, I gave him credit. Maybe, like my father from long ago, he too was going through something in his relationship. Or maybe his wife just had other plans that day and asked him to do this thing he didn’t normally do. I hope for his kids’ sake that’s what it was.
I don’t know what all happened between my father and stepmother back then. She did eventually come home, but it was six months or more later. When I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, less than a year later my step-mother divorced my father, and once again, he claimed complete ignorance of any issues and was completely taken by surprise by the whole thing.
She will tell you she divorced because he ignored her despite her trying everything to get him to pay attention to her. If the never-opened bottle of Jack Daniels that sat in the back of their closet my entire teen years, or the nearly-pristine, lone Playboy I found in the back of my father’s dresser drawer, which surely my step-mother knew about, are any indication of the lengths she went to, none of it worked.
My dad was many things. And he was NOT many things. But of this about him I will admit, he was loyal. Perhaps too loyal. Once he committed to something, it was a done deal, for better or for worse. At 40, he adopted two young boys–one with documented mental issues–and when he and his young wife, who was 11 years his junior, divorced a few years later, he took us with him and did the best he knew how.
But my father’s Achilles’ was women. So far as I can tell, he never told a woman in need, “No.” The bigger the hard-luck story, the harder he pursued them. Lord knows I wish he hadn’t. I’ll never stop regretting the last time he couldn’t stop himself from getting involved, and never walking away, even as the relationship cost him quite literally everything. But he was loyal.
Not too long after his death, we found out something that turned everything we thought we knew about my father on its ear. And the more I think about it, perhaps that is the reason he turned out to be so loyal later in life.
Maybe that’s all any of us can or should ever try to be. Even when life goes sideways and things aren’t ideal, maybe the best you can be remembered for is having always being there for the people who needed you most. Even if it ends up costing you your own happiness.