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Separating Memories

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I think we all remember the first person to break our hearts. Not an unrequited crush, but an honest-to-goodness heart-shattering love lost. For most people it was likely a significant other. Perhaps a first boyfriend, or long-term college girlfriend. For me? It was my father.

Up into my high school years, I had never had a boyfriend. I was the fat kid, always. I wasn’t moribly obese, but fat enough that I was not dating material for the later elementary school years, junior high years, and into high school years. Mostly, the kids got less cruel as we aged. It was no longer a daily routine to be taunted and made fun of, but it was always clear that I was platonic-friend only material. It was sometime around these last few years, junior high and into high school, that my father started giving me “advice”. This advice was pretty simple: If you don’t lose weight, no guy will ever want you. Men don’t want fat women.

To say this aloud… or type it aloud, I suppose… I realize it makes my father seem like a monster. But the thing to realize is that he really WAS saying these things because he thought it would help me. While the words hurt to hear, and I would have preferred he keep his advice to himself, I knew he was saying it because he honestly believed it was helpful.

To paint a fair portrait, I must say that these were not things he said often. Mostly, my Daddy was what seemed to me an amazing Daddy. Some of my happiest memories of my early childhood involved spending time with my dad in his little out buildings, messing around with his hobby du jour. Over my childhood, he built himself a building for a large model train set up, another building as a woodworking area, and set up a remote control car race track in an unused portion of the garden. I remember the brief presence of a kayak, and later a small boat. Once, we briefly owned a Jeep. At another time, a small camper. I also recall telescopes, metal detectors, and all manner of fishing related paraphernalia.

Many of these are small snippets of memory. What I recall with the most clarity is the time I spent with him in what I called his “gun building”. I grew up in rural Appalachia, and gun registration laws were more or less ignored. My father was what he and his pals referred to as “gun traders”. He would go to some friend or another’s house, packing a gun or two, and come home with a different gun or two. His “gun building” didn’t actually house his guns… those were in a safe in the house… but rather his shell reloading and gun cleaning equipment. It was also where he kept, high upon a shelf I could not reach, a small handgun style BB gun. I almost feel as though I were born with a gun in my hand, so young was I when he began teaching me how to shoot it. So small that I held the handgun as though it were a rifle or shotgun because I wasn’t big enough or strong enough to hold it out in proper handgun fashion. I begged every time I found him in the gun building to take it down and let me shoot. He generally obliged me.

As I got older, the guns got realer. And bigger. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I shot a .22 handgun, but I suspect far younger than was appropriate. I was a pretty good shot, and how clearly I remember the pride on his face when I would hit my target. Even if not in the center. I tried to participate in some of his other hobbies as well, but I found fishing to be either boring, or traumatic if we actually caught something. Woodworking I liked the idea of, but found myself too afraid to work most of the machinery myself. So it was always shooting, cleaning guns, or reloading shells that I most enjoyed doing with him.

A daughter who idealized her father would have been the most apt description of our relationship for the first 15 years of my life. No matter how much I idealized him, though, I was also deeply and profoundly afraid of him. He never raised a hand to me, never hurt a hair on my head. But his temper, his rages, terrified me. I was then and am now a very sensitive person. My mom later called them his temper tantrums, and that wasn’t far from true I guess. It was mostly a lot of yelling and screaming, perhaps throwing things around.

As I say, he never hit me. Not once. The verbal sticks and stones flew, though. Many times he told me that having me had ruined his life. He would call me dumb, or “fat and stupid”. I was a smart child, both intellectually and psychologically. I understood that when he called me dumb or stupid, he didn’t mean those by the dictionary definitions. What he meant was for them to hurt, whether they were true or not. So, to some degree, those insults kind of bounced off. Telling me I ruined his life, though… that was rough. And calling me fat wasn’t much fun either, but I had heard it so many times from so many people that it had lost it’s edge.

But these hurtful, cruel things? They didn’t happen often. Most of the time he was kind, loving, and supportive. I always knew the fury lurking underneath, but it was often times easy to lose focus of. The perfect example of the man he was most of the time was the day he came home with the entire set of Little House On The Prairie novels. We were poor, and looking back, I realize that set could not have come cheaply. But when he saw it in the bookstore, he found a way to buy it for me. He had read them when he was a little boy, and wanted to share his love for them with me. I remember diligently reading each and every book, though I found them a little bit boring. No matter, though. My Daddy loved them, and bought them for me, and I would read every last one.

This dichotomy of a mostly great dad with occasional appearances by his monster side defined my relationship with him for 15 years. The good always outweighed the bad, and I would have readily said I was a Daddy’s Girl. But the summer I turned 15, things began to change. My dad’s brother, who was a decade or more older than him, fought and lost against lung cancer. I don’t remember the details of his diagnosis, but I do remember doctors telling his wife and my grandparents that he had a few months left, at most. Both my father’s siblings and their families lived in Florida, and when he was given only a few more months, my dad made his first trip to see him. He left our home in Virginia and went to my grandparents’ place a couple hours away. From there, he rode with them to Florida for his first of several visits. I don’t remember how long he stayed, that time or any of the times. I was 15 and it was summer. I was busy with friends and driver’s ed. I recall he came and went several times before my uncle succumbed to the cancer.

It wasn’t until after my uncle had passed and the trips to Florida were over that I noticed the change in my father. He seemed more interested in being my friend, and friends with my friends, than being a father. As a 15 year old, it seemed pretty cool to me that he would let us have alcohol and things. He became my best friend over the course of the next year. He confided in me that his time in Florida had made him realize all the things he was missing in life. He introduced me to the girlfriends he met online, and knew when I had boyfriends too.

This was before the internet was ubiquitous, 1995 into 1996. In our small, rural town, virtually no one had internet at the time. But since both my father and I were hell bent on getting out of the town, we were looking for people from other places anyway. Our sights were set far beyond our current horizons.

The internet became a drug for me. Since this was before most people had photos online, I could be anyone I wanted. Suddenly I had the attention of more guys that I knew what to do with. Several of whom were inappropriately older. The first “boyfriend” I had online was 29 years old, while I was 15. It didn’t last long, but my father knew about it and seemed to have no problems with it. After that guy, there were many more. Some closer to my age, some decades older.

While I was working my way through the male population of the internet, my father was doing the same with the female. He “dated” a number of women, one only a couple of years older than me. (That oddly liked to pretend to be my step mother. The internet was a strange place, even then.) Because very few of my friends had the internet, and none of them were using it the way my dad and I were, we became even closer during this time. We talked about the people we liked, the people that dumped us, and the people we dumped.

Sometime in the summer of 1996, he began dating a woman on the other side of the country. It might’ve even been early fall before they started dating. It seemed he finally had his mark. My father was a good looking man, and fiercely charming. His new girlfriend, though younger than him by a few years, was overweight, and as I realize now, had very low self-esteem. But she had a good job, and lived in a major city, so my dad was interested. He worked his charms on her, and she flew across the country to meet him in the town where my grandparents lived. They spent a weekend together, and she went back. Shortly after, it was decided that he would move there to be with her.

While he was surreptitiously packing up things he planned to take, we made plans. He was going to move in with her in November. I would finish out my school year in Virginia, and as soon as school was out, move out there to live with them. He promised we would talk every day just like we did then. The day he left, just as he was about to leave, he hugged me. He started to cry, asking me if he was doing the right thing. Saying he wasn’t sure. I remember thinking that it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry and all I wanted was to calm him down so that he would stop. I didn’t shed a single tear. I didn’t think there was anything to cry about. He would go, and we would be best friends, and in just a few months I would move out there with him.

I’ve looked back on that moment many times since then. I wonder if he knew, even then, that the goodbye he was saying was, essentiall, goodbye. I wonder if, when he left, he had already decided to cut me out of his life. I have thought many times that perhaps that was why he cried. Why he asked me if he was doing the right thing. I thought he meant leaving Virginia, leaving my mom… but maybe he meant leaving me.

It didn’t take long for reality to set in for me. The woman that would become my (now ex) step mom flew into the nearest airport, and he took our only vehicle to pick her up and set off for their drive across country. The broken promises began right away. He would promise calls that never came. I reasoned with myself first that it was because they were traveling, and then that he just needed some time to settle in. But a month and a half after he left, when Christmas rolled around, and he didn’t call or even email me, the truth became pretty hard to deny. I received a Christmas package and card, both addressed and signed by the woman he was living with. He didn’t even sign the “Dad” himself.

I soon realized that all the plans we made were never coming to pass. I’m not sure if he intended to keep his promises when he made them, or if he always knew that part of his new life was liberating himself from having a daughter, also. My initial reaction was to be hurt, but the anger wasn’t far behind. His leaving changed me, and I’m not sure it was for the better. The lesson I took away from it was as simple as it was painful: If my beloved father could walk out of my life and forget me, then anyone could. If I couldn’t even trust my own father, I certainly would never trust anyone else.

Over the next years our contact was extremely sporadic, and mostly happened when my stepmom pushed the issue. She would call me, then make him take the phone. Or send emails to check on me. When I received cards for Christmas or birthday, they were always from her with his named tacked on. I resented her deeply. Not for taking my father, but for trying to whitewash the fact he left me and had no interest in having a relationship with me. Looking back, I understand her reasons for doing it were altruistic. She wanted us to have a relationship. But a person in the middle can’t force two uninterested people to care about one another.

I left my hometown on graduation day, a year and 6 months after he left. I spent the summer with my boyfriend, now husband, before moving into my dorm in the fall. When I packed my things, I left behind anything that reminded me of him. I was angry, resentful, bitter, and most of all, hurt. I left behind most things that reminded me of my early life. Nearly every memory involved him in some way and I decided I was better off with no memories than with ones that hurt so much to recall.

After many years passed, a decade or more, my anger lost some of it’s sharp edges. I didn’t talk about my family or childhood to many people, but I began to find myself defending him when I did. I felt like I had to explain that he was, mostly, a great dad to me when I was a child. Sure, he had his moments, but he wasn’t a monster of a father. I often explained it by saying I felt like the man I had known as a father died somewhere on his trip out West, and the man that took his place was a stranger. It seemed so incongruous, the man he was and the man he became, that I didn’t know how else to describe it.

Angry and bitter were still my primary emotions for several more years, but somewhere deep down, I was changing. I wanted to be able to look back on the happy memories I had of him as a child. I wanted to be able to fondly recall time we spent together and things we did, without condoning the person he became. That wasn’t an easy thing for me to do.

One of the things he did gift me was a handful of mental illnesses. We both suffer from bipolar disorder, severe depression, and generalized anxiety. These issues made processing my feelings and memories even harder than they might have been for someone without them. It can be hard for me to hold opposing feelings about someone. I tend to either love them or hate them. Sometimes both in the same day. A manifestation of my anxiety is a fear of abandonment, which I suppose I come by honestly. It makes it very difficult for me to trust anyone, or believe anyone’s intentions are genuine. Add onto that the depression sometimes making it hard to feel good or happy about anything at all.

I would say that, on an average day, my father rarely crosses my mind. At least until I see his ridiculous right-wing propaganda posts on Facebook. I think a combination of him not really being a part of daily life, combined with a bit of psychological self-protection, has freed me from thinking too much about him.

The unexpected effect from years of not spending a lot of time thinking about him has been the newfound ability to largely be able to separate the good from the bad. It has been 23 years since he left. In those 23 years, I have seen him twice. So one can more or less say we haven’t made any memories since he left. The only memories I really have are from my childhood, and in recent years, I have been able to appreciate that they are mostly happy ones. Not to say I have forgotten my fear of him, or the hurtful words that he sometimes said. Just to say that I have reached the point where I can treasure the happy memories I have, and recall the father I loved. I can appreciate those times for what they were, and the man that he was.

At the time, I think I understood the change he went through when he watched his brother die. Now, from a distance of so many years, I realize that I never understood anything at all. I don’t know what he did while he was in Florida. Maybe he had affairs. Maybe he realized he hated his life. Maybe he knew he would someday leave and forget me. In the end, the specifics don’t matter. The result was that the man I knew as my father was lost to me that summer, and we were already headed toward goodbye.

A part of me will always be sad and hurt by the choices he made. But I am happy I have reached a place where, most days, I can remember and appreciate the memories I treasure in a vacuum and totally separate from the reality of the stranger that sends me cards for Christmas and my birthday. I am grateful to have reclaimed those memories from the years of hurt and anger and can now keep them in my heart as something to treasure, innocent and pure, as childhood memories should be.

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