The Difference Between Real Fathers and REAL Fathers
Real Fathers vs REAL Fathers
My step-father was a truck driver – lured by my mother’s beauty to stop at Avalon Road and abide with my siblings and I. I was just six years old when he started parking his 18-wheeler on the curb. I cannot recall my 'real' father other he sought me out once at age 16 only to find me at the skating rink. He had little to offer other than I looked like my mother. I wondered how long he'd been watching before he got the nerve to come up to me and say so. Moreover, I wondered how he knew I was there.
When I think of my REAL father, I think of my step-father. The image is vivid. He is sitting at the kitchen table in our tiny kitchen – his few grey locks roused by a hard sleep, coffee mug in hand. Dressed in solid white boxers, his hairy chest exposed, he would sit with his legs crossed, one brown slipper hanging by a toe that could pinch a blood blister on you the size of a dime. When he wasn't wearing boxers, he wore navy blue Dickies. I had a matching pair just my size.
He left far too early for work each day to read the morning paper, so he subscribed to the evening news. It never bothered him to be behind. In fact, he was perfectly content with behind. Very little riled him in my view - other than my mother when she was drinking alcohol and undone chores.
I was usually the first to join my step-father each morning, and consequently I learned to love the smell and taste of percolated coffee. Mornings, aside from working, is when he didn't drink and this is where I got to know him in a way that my siblings never did. I called him "Paw" and he called me "DD #1," which stood for Darling Daughter Number 1. I admired his originality but I think my sister secretly hated being DD #2.
Our life was comfortably simple and frequently chaotic. The six of us lived in a shingled two-bedroom house with one bath. That is, one sink, one bath tub, and one vanity for 4 teenagers reaching puberty at slightly staggered intervals. The bath adjoined the hallway which contained a floor furnace that heated the entire 2 BR 1 BA abode. The yard was twice that size and hence this is where my siblings and I spent most of our time, playing kick ball, digging, or telling stories from the crypt. Mother and Paw slept on a couch that extended into a bed when the living room furniture was shoved aside. My sister and I shared one bedroom, and my two step-brothers shared the other.
Times could be hard but we had a roof that seldom leaked, relatively warm beds, and we were fed. I can see how my siblings came to view the alcohol as a spoiler but there was a lot of good. Good came in surprises like a new pair or shoes, a case of M&M's from a truck haul, or mom leaving the car in the driveway and hitching a ride to work. We all had bicycles and friends and our various hobbies but alcohol was something none of us were able to avoid on an emotional level.
Paw was chock full of antidotes, many of which it took me years to fully appreciate. He liked to sit on the front porch and pontificate. Once he said, "the only colors men use, are the colors that men see." It took me years to recognize this was his way of saying "we never see the whole picture" or "we are more often followers than leaders." His words always had multiple meanings. He would then blink both eyes and quickly jolt his head forward like a genie. His eyes glistened like Santa Claus and I was a believer.
Once he took me to buy shoes. The straps on mine had broken and the soles were tattered, a pre-requisite. At Charles Conerly’s, the floors were lined with men’s and women’s shoes. The moment we walked in the door, the showcase caught my eye. A pair of the most beautiful shoes were spinning on a pedestal in the showcase but I quickly darted by, scarcely glancing back at them. I knew our budget did not include these so we ambled along each isle looking at every fashion of shoe in my small size. I settled on a pair that would do when paw said, "what about the pair in the window?"
Surprised, I uttered, "we can’t afford those, Paw."
Then another of his Confucius moments riddled me. He said, "The cost doesn’t matter. What matters is how much they are worth to you."
As riddled as I was, I knew that I was torn between doing the 'right' thing and doing what I wanted which was obviously to get the more expensive shoes. I had no idea how it happened or where the money came from, but I do know that at 14, I wore those shoes like a stallion! When they finally ripped to shreds, I saved them for years just to savor the lesson my step-father tried to teach me. I was 26 when it happened. It didn't matter what his urn cost; what mattered is how much it meant to my mother.
The Navy, The War, and Mother
Paw was a navy man and I both loathed and respected his attention to detail, whether it was cleaning detail or how he could fix almost anything. Naively, I admired the way he managed a car under-the-influence. A car was a boat to my paw; he just sort of guided it in the right direction with the slight stroke of a finger or palm. The bow was the front of a car and the stern was the rear. To be consistent, he used nautical terms when teaching me to drive. That landed our boat in the ditch one afternoon and it took an hour to get it back to port.
He and mother sat every night critically analyzing the days events at the kitchen table. This was always under-the-influence and I always wondered if it was the day's events or each other that led to the violence that always seemed to follow. In any regard, beer was Paw’s addiction and he seldom felt a six-pack was enough to take him to that place he was searching for. And then the boat would need to leave port again. Suddenly at the kitchen table he would stand and say, "Let’s go DD No. 1!"
We vacillated between rides to the Minute Mart in one direction, and the Junior Food Mart in the other, perhaps to avoid the law? We probably weren’t fooling anyone but ourselves, but what harm was there for two hearts traveling such a short distance. His reward, the beer. My reward, a Mickey Mouse ice-cream bar. What I would give to have one of those today?
It was the Navy that made Paw tough on housecleaning and confusing as hell about driver’s education, but it was something altogether different that made him what he was. I think it might've been his first marriage, his sons whom he never saw again, and the war because he rarely talked about either. My two step-brothers and sister never forgave him for the alcohol, but I stood fast. In a cosmic sort of way, I understood him. We stood on mutual ground. It wasn’t solid ground by anyone standards but on our own, but still we stood – unmoved and unaltered - father and daughter.
Mother drank too, in part to escape her crisis, part of which I think was my 'real' father and my brothers' 'real' father. But Paw didn’t see a victim in my mother. He just saw strength and I guess that's what made him think it was acceptable to hit her. Eventually, the hitting stopped and the marriage started, but it was far too late for any childhood to reckon with. As a family, I often thought we were better suited tenants for a pool hall than a house on a road named Avalon.
It has never been tempting for me to emphasize the trials and tribulation at Avalon. There are crutches and there are catalysts. I have always chosen to remember my REAL father as a kiss to give me away on my wedding day, a pair of new shoes in a color men have never seen before, and a slightly misdirected boat that finally found it's way to port.