Last week was the anniversary of my father’s death 15 years ago. Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and the week before that my friend Gilda and I did a reading in honor of fathers from our memoirs. I read a story about dancing with my father. This morning, after seeing a Facebook message and a friend’s blog about difficult father experiences, I thought again about the incredible impact these men – whether absent or present, broken or worse — have on our lives. Compared to both of my friends, it would appear that I’ve had it good… a Daddy who loved me. But the truth is always so much more complex.
My father was broken in many ways – distant emotionally and easily angered, a man who I now realize suffered from PTSD. Even though I was “the apple of my father’s eye,” according to my mother, and I knew he adored me, a part of me also feared him. He was a big man who made the house shake when he walked, and I was the youngest and smallest in our family of six. I watched his anger flare at times, saw him use the yardstick on my siblings.
Born in 1920, Daddy had fought in World War II and Korea, lived through the Depression and perhaps hardest of all, lived with own father’s drinking and occasional volatile behavior. He never did say much about these tough times, but instead repeated the lighter, positive stories: “Every week, Dad walked to the Bay to Bay and bought me ice cream on a stick,” “He took us kids to the big department toy store and we all got to pick out something.” It was as if my father didn’t want to tarnish the family name with negative stories about his own father… and I feel the squirminess of guilt as I dare to touch upon this now, as if I’m opening up a Pandora’s box that I learned by his example should stay locked.
But I remember my mother’s hushed voice sharing snippets from her early visits with her new in-laws. My father’s father, who I never knew, had a short fuse. As an animal lover, Mom was abhorred that he kicked the dog under the table while they were eating, that he could speak harshly. There was also my father’s matter-of-fact report that “Dad had a nip every night.” And there were rustlings that my grandfather and maybe his father used to slap his wife.
My father’s family was affluent when Daddy was a boy. They lived in Canada during the summer months and Florida during the winter. They owned two Bentleys and drove them up and down the East Coast. My grandfather had a chauffeur named Jarvis. But all this ended one day, during the Depression. My father, walking home from middle school, lifted his head to discover his home had turned into a square of charred earth. The story goes that all the money had been stored in their mattresses and it had burned up with the house. My father saw his mother on her knees, the tracks of tears on her face as she sifted through ashes searching for her diamonds.
From that day on, life changed for my father. He took on three paper routes to help support the family. They ate “mush” for meals, twice a day – or three times, if they were lucky. My father and his family had been unceremoniously dumped from the lap of luxury. I can’t even imagine the shock the whole family must have experienced.
When I look back at these beginnings, I can only be grateful that my father – the next-to-youngest of nine children – grew up as responsible as he did. My father didn’t drink, except for an occasional glass of sherry or an Old Fashioned to celebrate a Christmas or a special holiday. I never saw him drunk. My father worked hard. He became a colonel in the Army, worked as a civil engineer leaving the house by 7 or 8 a.m. and returning after 5. He saved his money conscientiously, perhaps obsessively.
He loved the water and spent holidays packing up the family and taking us out on the boat. I’d grip the hot plastic seat cover as we rode waves, watching my father sit or stand at the wheel, his hair blowing back from his red forehead. My father was present physically. He loved his family.
But despite all of this, at times I had the sense that something was missing. I wished that my father would talk to me about more than money and sports. I wondered if he felt things, if he knew that I had a world of feelings inside me. I yearned to understand his heart, for him to understand mine.
To survive in my family, I learned to be like him. Someone who was responsible, good with money, someone who could be counted on. Whether he wanted this or not, I also learned to be someone who hid her feelings.
While I carry an ache inside me for what we didn’t share, I don’t blame my father. I couldn’t possibly. It’s easy to see that his own history was challenging and painful, that he had no role models (nor perhaps the capacity) for the kind of heart-felt communication I desired, that he rose above extremely difficult circumstances and grew into a man of courage, a man of dedication, a man of integrity and strength. I am so very grateful for all that he was and all that he gave me…and he was more than generous. Perhaps as I’ve become a parent myself, I’m learning just how impossible it is to serve all the needs that our children have.
I’m also learning what a mixed bag each of us is…a bundle of contradictions. So much to love, so much to loathe. My own standards are incredibly high. I’m an idealist that at times can morph into a perfectionist. Who could ever live up to that? And would I want my loved ones to judge me by my own incredibly taut standards?
So there are lessons for me here…. Lessons of appreciation and gratitude for what was, lessons of letting go and giving grace for what will never be. My father was a good man, and I was blessed to have his strength and his love in my life. It was foundational and a tremendous gift.
But I don’t believe I was wrong to yearn for the sacred intimacy that can exist between a Father and a daughter. Perhaps within each of us, deep down, no matter what our experiences, there is a similar tender yearning. It has taken me years to realize that this intimacy has been available all along, I just needed to lift my eyes.
Mornings are some of the most peaceful times on the farm. Here’s a little peek at what I see most mornings when I head down to the barn with Sydney. How can you not love these horses?
One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing over the past several years as a homeschool mom has been teaching a writing class to Sydney and her good friend Lauren-Kate. It has been amazing to see what these girls have been able to accomplish at such a young age. Sydney has worked hard all year in order to finish Mystery at Camp Lakeside, her third and final book in her mystery series. Matt and Teresa, her wonderful brother-sister team, attend summer camp and find themselves in the midst of another mystery. As always, their rambunctious golden retriever Rusty joins in on the fun.
As a writer myself, I can’t help but be proud of the work Sydney has done. It has been such a pleasure sharing my passion and the joy of writing on a weekly basis with my daughter. Watching her develop her unique gifts has been fascinating. I am a memoir writer — someone who records real life and attempts to make meaning out of it. But Sydney writes fiction and has an amazing ability to create characters and stories out of thin air. She has a knack for plotting, adding interesting and fun twists and keeping an entire story line in her head. And she’s incredibly conscientious.
Over the past several years, I watched her sit down at her computer and dream up chapter after chapter. Her characters became as real to me as family members: Teresa, the thoughtful older sister; Matt, the spontaneous and fun younger brother; Grandpa with his funny southern sayings, and Rusty with her lovable hi-jinks. I will miss listening to the latest adventures of these characters, and I will miss my time around the writing table with Sydney.
With the publication of this third and final book in her series, Sydney is closing out a sweet and special period of her life. She is ready to move on to something new. Will there be more writing in her future? Who knows? What I do know is that she is entering an exciting time of exploration and growth, a time where she needs space for the new stories that are taking place in her own life.
I trust the gifts of story telling and creating wonderful characters will stay with Sydney. I hope she’ll look back with fondness at the worlds she fashioned and the hours we spent in our weekly writing group. I know she already appreciates the bonds of friendship that formed and deepened over the years as she and Lauren-Kate shared this journey. The narrative will continue always…in one form or another.
With a week of temperatures in the high nineties and record heat for mid June, we’ve been watching the horses closely. Sydney has been giving them a few extra baths to keep them cool. Thankfully, yesterday afternoon, we had some storms blow through and there was a slight break in the heat. We’re hoping for a little more rain today to cool things off and keep our pastures from burning up. But next week’s forecast looks just as warm as this week’s, so we’re in for a very hot June.
Smokey had the pleasure of some more visitors today: Adelaide, Clara and Wyatt. Sydney showed the kids how to brush Smokey, and then she led them each on a pony ride. The kids did great, and, afterwards, they fed all the horses carrots and apples. Smokey was in heaven, and Foxie and Misty were pretty happy too.
Unfortunately, after the ride, we discovered that Clara is allergic to horses. We hope her itchiness goes away quickly. 😦
After losing about a month to illness…a sinus infection (hidden deeply behind my right eye) and perhaps a touch of bronchitis and/or pneumonia, I am returning to the land of the living. Out of necessity and lack of energy, I had to pull inward, drop out of many of my normal activities. As I sat with myself for so many uninterrupted hours, I couldn’t help but ponder the transitions that have been and are afoot around our place. We’re caring for horses again on our property after a good decade of having the barn empty, and six years of homeschool are coming to a close. Both of these things feel major, and one is the beginning of a new (and old) venture, the other is an ending (at least for now) and also a beginning. And as someone who likes to put things in order, this tangle of beginnings and endings has been confusing.
One of the startling things to me about bringing horses back to the farm is how familiar and different it feels at the same time. In some ways, I’ve stepped into old roles, often without even realizing it. As I’ve been teaching Sydney and Lauren-Kate about horses and giving them riding lessons, words come out of my mouth that I had long forgotten were even in me. I even find myself standing or walking differently…a stance and a pace from my 20s and 30s, the days when I taught a dozen or more kids and kept five horses at our barn.
What is also startling is that my daughter has suddenly (seemingly overnight) become a responsible horse woman. She brings horses in from the field, feeds, grooms, checks water and does every other barn chore without needing to be reminded. She seems to have a sixth sense about how to handle horses.
My last memories of having horses at the barn a decade ago were somewhat dreary – me, childless and exhausted from caring for my mom, feeling as if the day-to-day chores were endless. And so, although, I love horses, I was in no hurry to have several in my care again.
It has been such a sweet surprise to see how Sydney (and our friends) have happily taken to barn chores. I pinch myself almost daily as I walk down to the barn and am suddenly transported back to my own teenage years. I remember how I “did it all” as my mom stood to the side, and now I see Sydney doing the same thing. Not only does she not need my help, she likes being independent and showing me her new-found skills. And, of course, this is a little confusing too and requires some adjustments on my part. While I am “the professional,” I must take care to step back and give my daughter the opportunity to be “in charge” of certain things.
At the same time as barn and horses are shape-shifting in my mind, so is Sydney’s schooling. She is no longer (and hasn’t been for a while), the child who needs me to oversee each project. She has been taking the reins (pun intended) and setting her own course. And next school year, she’ll be stepping into a new situation, one where my presence will only be necessary in a peripheral way.
Most parents, who don’t homeschool, probably experience this change much earlier or perhaps in a gradual way as their children move through the grades of traditional school. But the shift from homeschool to traditional school is more abrupt, and there are bumps, even though both Sydney and I are excited about what’s ahead. She’s looking forward to fun social opportunities, days full of activity and new experiences. I’m excited to hear about her new adventures, encourage her through these transitions and have new pieces of time for myself.
But navigating these new situations will be a challenge. Figuring out my new role and respecting hers will no doubt cause friction at times. Change doesn’t occur in a straight line. We’ll both no doubt slip into old patterns and stumble our way into new ones. Learning who my daughter is becoming and what she needs and doesn’t need from me is somewhat daunting.
I’m sure that on occasion I’ll miss the toddler who ran into my arms for comfort. But at the same time, I celebrate the changes that Sydney is embracing. She is an amazing young woman who both challenges me and expands my awareness of what it means to be a loving parent. I adore her and look forward to this new stage of life! It has been the most incredible gift to be Sydney’s mother. As always, I pray for God’s grace as we travel the path ahead.
One of the things Sydney enjoys doing is introducing young children to our horses. We had some dear friends over the other day and they brought their kids. Smokey is the perfect size for the little ones — small enough not to be intimidating. I think Smokey enjoyed the attention as much as the children enjoyed being with him.
The two moms who were here (and their younger sister) used to babysit for Sydney when she was little. Now, Sydney helps take care of some of their children. We love these families!