My dad and I had a problematic relationship.
He wanted a son, and I was a daughter. When I tried to do boy things to please him, he thought I should act more like a lady. I imagine he was torn. I imagine he would have liked to share auto mechanics and woodworking with me, but didn’t want to turn me into a lesbian.
My father was an angry man throughout my childhood. After he and God became buddies, he liked to say I never spanked you kids, but the reality was he never spanked my sibling who cried easily and rebelled in quiet, subtle ways unlike my loud-mouthed sassy backtalk. I was spanked more than once with a wooden paddle that came in my Christmas stocking, a ball tethered to it with elastic. When the elastic snapped and the ball was lost, my toy became my torment.
Even when my dad wasn’t spanking, he yelled, and if any of us complained, he’d get even louder and shout, You want to hear yelling? None of us did.
As an adult, I once asked him why he’d been so angry during my childhood. He told me he didn’t even know. I suspect it was some combination of an abusive mother, a teasing father, a child-molesting brother, unfulfilled potential, and over-abundance of testosterone.
My dad liked to tease, to “pick at” as we called it back then, like his father before him. Nothing was too embarrassing for my father to joke about. Once when I was 12 or 13, he mortified me in front of my cooler older cousins by saying the reasons I had pimples was because I used my wash cloth down there (he mimed washing his crotch) before I used it up here (he mimed washing his face). My cousin Larry, bless his heart, came to my defense and calmly reminded my father that most kids my age had zits.
My dad was a conservative while I was a liberal, then a radical. I was a feminist while my dad was the patriarchy. I wanted to be free, while my dad wanted to “protect” me (suppress me) into being a good little Catholic girl.
But sometimes my dad got things right.
He taught me to ride the banana seat, hand-me-down bike his boss’ daughter had outgrown. He ran behind me holding the back of the seat to keep me from losing my balance and falling. He made sure I knew how to roller skate in time to attend a skating party I’d won an invitation to by selling a ridiculous number of boxes of Girl Scout cookies. When all the other girls (Kristi and Angel and Yvette) were wearing necklaces with their names on them, he went to the mall and got one specially made with my name. And when I was in seventh grade, he showed me the eclipse.
I was in U.S. history class when it happened.
The teacher was an old bat still wearing a 1960s bouffant style hairdo even though we were living in the 80s. Sometimes she’d stick a pencil into that pouf of hair to scratch her scalp. She didn’t treat her students very nicely. She yelled a lot and berated kids and ruled the classroom with an iron fist. I made good grades and kept my mouth shut, so I wasn’t one of her individual targets, but her classroom was not a pleasant learning environment.
The crackle of the intercom interrupted the day’s lecture. The disembodied voice of the school secretary called me to the office, but said I should leave my books in the classroom.
I walked over to the office and found my father standing there holding a yardstick with an index card attached to it. He said he’d taken me out of class so we could see the eclipse.
He explained we shouldn’t look directly at the sun, even during an eclipse, so he had assembled a viewer. How did it work? Did we stand with our backs to the sun, extend the yardstick in front of us and watch the shadow of sun shrink? Were there two index cards, one with a hole punched in it for the sun to shine through, the second on which the shadow was cast? I don’t remember that part clearly. What I do remember was my dad took time out of his life to assemble this apparatus, then came to my school and got me out of class so we could watch the eclipse together.
After we looked at the eclipse, my father escorted me back to the classroom where he performed an amazing feat. He introduced himself to my old bat of a teacher and charmed her into letting her students go out with my dad one row at a time and look at the eclipse. My dad got to explain the apparatus and how he made it and why it worked. He got to tell all the kids why it was dangerous to look directly at the sun. Best of all, he let each of us escape U.S. history and the mean teacher for a few precious minutes.
This was my dad at his finest.