6.18.17 On poker, ghost dads and fashioning your own father figures
Here is possibly my most enduring memory of my father:
We are sitting around the kitchen table in the house I lived in from around age 8 until age 11 – the one that’s fixed in my long-term memory as The House. Everyone has a Memory House; it’s the one our imagination goes to when we’re reading a book and someone talks about a house and then there we are back in it, our living rooms and dining rooms and bedrooms standing in as sets for the house the author has already carefully described for us, but we can’t help it.
In the real house that is my memory house, me, my brother and my father are playing poker. He probably has a cigar poking out of one corner of his mouth, or it’s carefully smoldering in an ashtray nearby. Cigarettes are actively disgusting, and I know cigars are really no better but the smell of a cigar is soothing to me. It’s masculine. It’s part of the memory house, and when it comes to my father I try to gather up whatever positive sensory memories I have of his time with us. So, the cigar is probably there.
My father doesn’t have his hair on, almost certainly. Dad went bald in a classic Phil Collins way early on – sides and back preserved, landing strip of skin running from his forehead across the crown of his head save for a bit up at the very front – and in all of my memories, he was bald but had “hair.” A toupee, a wig, with a permanently-suspended swathe of bangs that swept across his forehead like a visor, an accessory he loathed and required. His hair, when not being worn, lived on a blank Styrofoam false head on top of his dresser. I thought it looked lonely and vacant, so I took my dollhouse furniture paints and painted a semi-realistic face on it once. This was not appreciated. At all.
Dad had a few old-timey dad skills that we picked up from him over the years: the “I’m going to count to 10 and all of that cooked spinach had better be eaten or there’ll be trouble” dad skill, the skill in which when he came home that’s when dinner happened and not before, the skill of if he’s cranky and tired we tiptoe around him and avoid any problems. The skill of believing that when your daughter asks you about the football game on the TV – who’s playing, what’s the score, who do we want to win (if it’s not the Redskins, because if the Redskins were on they were the only team that mattered) – she’s being annoying and cloying, as opposed to attempting to forge a bond with someone she already has a pretty clear picture isn’t interested in her in the slightest.
He also had some more fun ones, like shaggy-dog jokes that have no purpose. The one that sticks in my head most strongly is this: “If it takes a chicken and a half a minute and a half to lay an egg and a half, how long will it take a monkey with a wooden leg to kick the seeds out of a dill pickle on a rainy day?” It was an accomplishment to even memorize the joke. A person was supposed to say, “I don’t know,” and the joker was supposed to say, “A minute,” or something like that. Then the person was supposed to say, “How do you know?” (If not, the joker had to prompt, “Ask me how I know”) and then the joker would say, “The monkey told me.”
That’s the joke.
The other thing I remember learning from him was poker: how to play it, how to sound like you know what you’re doing, how to “bluff” and “call” and “raise,” all skills I have used throughout my life. He was usually in a good mood if we were playing poker, and my favorite thing he would do when dealing came when he tossed out cards and an 8 came up, or a Queen. Then he’d say “an 8-er from Decatur” and “a lady.”
That’s what I got for you, by way of Good Times with Dad.
Except that’s not entirely fair: Memory is a tricky device and I don’t doubt that at least early on there was a certain amount of good parenting going on. I have early photos of me with him and there are smiles and cuddles and apparent playing with toys. But if the memory doesn’t hold that as tight as what came in later years, it’s almost as if it never happened. By the time my photos show me around age 10, he’s just not in them. It’s a different kind of ghost dad.
Father’s Day isn’t something I really celebrate. My husband’s dad is a great guy, but they’re not sentimental and it’s not a card-and-cake-giving day. (It’s the same on birthdays and other major celebrations.) Father’s Day was a mixed celebration in our house – it fell near or on my Dad’s birthday of June 16, which meant he’d get cards and we’d all get cake (most likely an Entenmann’s single sheet, the one kind of cake you could literally peel the icing from the top of). It was one of the few days we could expect he’d be in a good mood; Dad’s roller-coaster emotional state was the rocket fuel on which our house often ran in those days. If he was tired or pissed, we were advised to be in another room. If he was present in the house, there was a good chance he was tired or pissed, so the best strategy was to just not be around him a lot. We saw him as this human land mine who shifted positions and had an outsize amount of power in the household, so we all adapted. We figured out when to call, raise and bluff.
Our current president reminds me a lot of him.
At some point, I threw in the towel. I think there are all kinds of ways a person adapts to a volatile, yet ignoring parent, and mine was to just look elsewhere. I already had a ghost dad in my past: the biological father’s name that doesn’t appear on my adoption papers. So now I had a second, who as I learned years later wasn’t all that keen on having a kid in the house who wasn’t related to him by blood, so – second ghost dad, with a bit more ectoplasmic residue. Instead, I glommed on to my mom’s father, who we called Pop-Pop. It was a good decision: he was a good man, if far from perfect. I learned algebra and the value of quiet from him. He’s gone as well now, so in that way he’s a ghost dad, too – but when I think of fathers, I think of him. Often, you have to find your own if one does not appear in the natural course of things.
Of my brother’s experience with his father I can’t speak, exactly. When Dad fell ill my brother did his best to forge a stronger relationship with his father and the way I see it he either picked up traits that went beyond me or decided at some point to do the opposite of what he experienced, because he’s a terrific father. I marvel at it, frankly: he’s a single dad with challenging girls and he deserves a good Father’s Day every year.
Talk Talk once noted that life’s what you make it; I think fathers are, too. Most of us don’t get to choose the hand we’re dealt; we get the dad cards and we figure out what to keep and what to throw away. There’s a fair amount of bluffing, some calling and sometimes raising. What I decided to do was – to stretch this metaphor possibly beyond its breaking point – re-draw. I decided early on that I didn’t have to take the hand I was dealt, and I could go make my own.
I started writing stories, and in those early ones parents were absent. As I got older, though, dads started taking on a greater importance to the story. One of the great things about having all these words inside you is that when you dig down for the important, difficult stuff you occasionally hit a nerve and that’s how you know where to go next. You end up exploring what really matters in your heart; you take it out and hold it up to the light and examine it all over again.
Unintentionally, subconsciously, fathers are all over my stories. Mothers rarely make an appearance; there’s no need for me to plumb that well, because my mom and I are in a good place and have been pretty much my whole life. But the unresolved, unexplored areas – the ghost parts of my past – they crop up again and again in the stories. The dads in my stories aren’t monsters – they’re wayward, misdirected men who had a good idea once and lost the plot. They are complex, detailed, essential. They are hurt, they are made well, they die, sometimes gruesomely. They are the fathers I fashioned for myself out of memory, imagination, spit and clay.
Early on in our relationship, my future husband wondered why I didn’t seem more screwed up by my ghost father past. I’m sometimes surprised he thinks I’m not. I guess I don’t fit into whatever psychological stereotypical pigeonhole that’s expected of someone who decided to deal a new hand in her adolescence. But maybe it doesn’t bother me because I basically created the fathers in my life. I tagged my grandfather and said, “you’re it!” Then after he was gone I went back to my stories and I tagged all of those characters and said, “So are you.” I got to invent what was missing. I get to pour my imagination and my real-life experiences into them, and make them walk around.
So maybe they’re not ghosts at all. Maybe what I’ve done instead is create a golem. Every time I start a new story, I take the bits that matter – maybe a House memory, the scent of a cigar, the notion of a volatile power running loose in the living room – and I start again, with the head, then then body, then the arms and feet. And soon enough, there he is: no longer a ghost but a golem, staggering forward through a story yet to be written, a hand yet to be dealt.
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