Ghost parents tend to march into our consciousnesses when capitalism reminds us we’re supposed to be buying them things. My friends whose mothers have passed dread mothers’ day. I dread fathers’ day. I dread it not only because my own father died almost 25 years ago, but because it’s a reminder that social expectations of what a father is supposed to be would mainly have failed in his case. Often I think this is generational; having been born in 1938, my parents don’t come from the school of parenting where children are hugged and squeezed and told they are loved. My father had trouble expressing emotions other than anger and resentment and occasional bouts of sentimentality, but that too is probably a coincidence of timing. By the time I was born, he was fairly deep into the alcoholism that would play a significant role in his death at 52. There were whole cascades of other health issues and a bad car accident involved as well, but booze was a key. Booze killed his father as well. Booze points a finger at some of the men in my family and says, “sorry, buddy, but you’re mine.”
He wasn’t cruel, just frustrated, a lot of the time. He wanted to write, and couldn’t (or didn’t, I don’t know). He found being home with his five kids difficult, and the fact that four of us were girls didn’t help. My father was old school Irish American macho: the favored only child born late in a marriage, probably he had grown up rather spoiled, and could get away with things, and we kind of ruined that. Often he’d just pick up and leave us, but I see from adulthood this was to keep him from losing it further. He worked very hard and resented it, and we never had enough money, which lead to fights between he and my mother, fights that seemed from my childhood vantage to be epic and circular, always coming back to the same things. I have been living with the guy I share a home with for 16 years total, so I do understand that happens in marriages: things go in circles. In my parents’ case, the circles got ugly, but instead of divorce he would just go, and come back, and go again.
He wasn’t a bad father, but he wasn’t the loving, supportive father, the effusive father who cries on the sidelines at sports events (because, as passionate as he was about baseball and hockey, he was no athlete, and excepting my younger sister, neither were any of us). He came to my cello recitals and theatre things, and when I began writing he read the little things I published in high school, but never said anything about any of them. He was present, which is more than many parents of kids I knew, but it was a different presence; in Berkeley, where I went to high school, the other parents swooped in with hugs and kisses and extravagant praise, and there was my silent father, off to the side, arms crossed, with a lot of grey in his beard. One of my friends spotted him in the back at my high school graduation, puffing on his pipe, and said “your dad is such a character.” That’s not really what a teenage girl wants to hear. She wants her dad to be awesome, fun to hang out with, entertaining. Instead, I had an oddity.
He used to talk at me a lot, rather than with me, but the things he talked at me about turned out to be the biggest pieces of the person I am. Shakespeare, Catholicism, poetry, classic films, growing up poor in Oakland, his fascination with Samurai films. I still recall the Christian Brother who spoke at his funeral talking about Leo and the Samurai films. He talked at me, and like any child and later teenager, I pretended not to be listening, but I listened. All the time. I recall nights when his friends would come over and they would talk and talk and drink and talk and drink and the room would be a fug of cigars and some music playing, Miles Davis or Bach, and I would lie down on the sheepskin rug on the floor and fall asleep and they would keep talking. And they talked about books and art and philosophy. Like a small, girl shaped sponge, I absorbed it all.
He gave me fathers, though. My godfather, his oldest friend, who calls me sometimes from New York, a night owl, a guy who’d swoop in during my childhood wearing a dashiki, bearing gifts from all over the world. I recall a box of candied dates from his time in Syria (he worked for the UN) and a Joan of Arc medallion from Paris that I lost in college when the chain snapped. And there were the other friends of my fathers’, one of whom sent me Thomas Merton’s Sign of Jonas when I had two toes in Catholicism and helped me turn back, even though the Church hurt him badly. And another friend who drove this ancient VW Beetle even though he was rich. And the Christian Brother who told me that years after my father died the Brothers would sometimes meet and have a “Leo Club” where they’d drink and talk about my dad. And all of the fathers I have in books and art and film and music. He seemed lonely to me, a lot of the time. But, as it turned out, he was loved. One of his coworkers told me that people loved him because he could tell stories. I suppose I inherited plenty of that.
My father showed love. He didn’t tell it. He insisted all of us go to college, and private high schools, even though paying the bills was a struggle. He insisted on educating his daughters even though he complained about women a lot. He was there when we did things even if he didn’t say much. A month or so before he died, when he was sick and frail, he called me on the phone, and talked to me for an hour about Shakespeare in a moment when I was ready to drop out of college. And a few days later I got a postcard from him, with just these lines from Hamlet written on the back:
If ever thou didst hold me in thy heart,
absent thee from felicity a while
and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
to tell my story
Hamlet tells Horatio this, Horatio the Stoic, Horatio the student, Horatio who holds the story and will unfold it to Fortinbras and whoever else will listen. So I am my father’s Horatio, and I am a stoic, and a student, and I tell stories. And like my father I often show love rather than telling it and wonder, sometimes, if people see and understand that. Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. From some angles, it looks like love. From others, it looks like a means for an inwardly fragile person to survive. And from others, it looks like both.