Tag Archives: divorce

Lunch with my old dad – part one

Lunch with my old dad – part one

“A happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life.” – Kinky Friedman


When I was nine years old, on a day very near Christmas, my father loaded the last of his belongings into the car and gathered his children to say goodbye. I don’t recall if we stood stairstep in age order but most likely we did as pictures from that time often showed us oldest to youngest, sister, sister, brother, sister, brother in the order of our birth. I was the oldest. The youngest barely six weeks. Did he say goodbye to the baby? I can’t remember. Most likely he didn’t as my mother at the time clung to my brother as if he were the giver of life and not the other way around. My father was moving out. My mother had had enough of his drunken antics and cruel insults. After he spent his Christmas bonus on drink and who knows what else, (it wasn’t gifts for his children) she gave him an ultimatum. If you don’t stop drinking you should leave. It’s not what she wanted. She wanted him to choose us. He didn’t.

There were probably tears, his or ours I can’t exactly say but most likely his. My mother says in the weeks after he left she had to stop taking us to visit our paternal grandfather because the old man would sob the entire time, grieving over his son leaving these five grandchildren fatherless. My grandfather would eventually die from complications of alcoholism. Like my grandfather, my father was overly emotional, given to easy crying, and periods of melancholy and depression. My mother remembers he would sit in a darkened room, play his guitar and sing along to the Neil Diamond song “I Am I Said” with tears running down his face. You should listen to the lyrics sometime. They are gut wrenching. He was born at the tail end of 13 children. By the time he came along the love and money were in short supply and he suffered from lack of both. He fulfilled his Irish catholic duty by marrying a nice catholic girl and having four children in quick succession. My mother was more German than Irish but that could be forgiven. It was 1964 when they married and having a family was a good way to keep yourself from getting sent to Vietnam. My mother was young and beautiful. She was solidly upper middle class and was out of his league. He was handsome, charming and he needed her desperately. For a young woman, with her own self esteem issues he was irresistible. Her parents had reservations. He seemed a bit aimless with no solid plan for the future, but they paid for a wedding were tried to be supportive. I was born exactly nine months later. 

My grandparents were right to worry. He was often unemployed, and he was often drunk. Fueled by deeply rooted generational alcoholism and feeling stuck in the wrong life, he convinced himself that we would be better off without him.  His affair broke my mother’s heart and eventually he left us. The loss nearly broke my poor mother in half. Her sadness was so wide and deep that had it not been for the neediness of a newborn she might possibly have never gotten up. If my memory is correct, there were a few attempts at weekend fathering. I have a blurry memory of an awkward visit to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. My sister saw a red high heel pump on the floor of his bedroom and thought to herself “That is so weird. Why would that be there?” There was a breakfast at IHOP which I remembered because we were much too poor to ever eat in restaurants. I was fascinated by all the syrup choices, finally settling on blueberry. There was a trip to an arcade, a movie and ice cream, all the typical divorced dad weekend activities. But time with us was time away from his new girlfriend and probably more difficult, it was time he had to be sober, which in those days was not easy for him. Eventually but not unexpectedly the visits, calls and contact dwindled into nothingness and he was gone. Through the years I would sometimes hear a Neil Diamond song or see some other random thing that would remind me of him, and a memory would surface. I’d push it back down, return it to the place in my mind for things too painful to think about. When I try to conjure childhood memories now it’s images from pictures that I see.  Familiar photographs have replaced my actual memories of him. I cannot find anything three dimensional no matter how hard I try. He had become a face in old pictures and a song I once knew.

For my family, my mother, her four stunned children and newborn baby, his leaving thrust us into immediate poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, and trauma. Unbeknownst to my mother we were months behind on rent and there was very little food in the cabinets or money in the bank. One day a letter arrived from my father. It contained a partial child support payment with the promise to send more when he could. My sister says “I remember this very clearly because I sat at the kitchen table and watched our mother fall apart. It was the most traumatizing moment of my childhood. She sobbed over the phone to multiple people that her children would starve.” She was twenty nine years old and had never written a check or driven a car. 

For me, his leaving forced me into premature adulthood and responsibilities beyond my years. By the time I was ten or eleven I was babysitting my siblings and cooking meals. By age fourteen I was working at an Italian Beef sandwich shop to help feed the family. If you have never eaten an authentic Chicago Italian Beef sandwich, well, I feel sorry for you. I was in a program where I only took core subjects and then left school to go to work. I worked the legal maximum number of hours I was allowed to work for my age and I signed my check over to my mother to buy groceries and whatever else we needed. I illegally worked extra hours on a second time card and was paid in cash. My mother didn’t take the cash, either because she wanted me to have something for myself or because she didn’t know about it, I don’t remember. Sometimes I bought myself a record, at the shop across the street, but more often than not I would spend it on shoes or a toy for one of my siblings.  A year later my fourteen year old sister also started working. With both of us girls contributing, my mother’s minimum wage job, housing assistance, help from family and friends and the literal kindness of strangers we survived. There were times we ate day old bread for dinner or didn’t eat dinner at all, but we got by. I think we all had a touch of PTSD from the abandonment but I do have happy memories from that time. We did the things children do. We played, we fought, we cried, we laughed. My mother made sure we still had a childhood rich in the things that mattered, family, friends and plenty of love.

Once our struggles for food, shelter and stability were over I became a rebellious, moody, promiscuous teenager. I craved the attention of boys. I liked the confidence drinking beer gave me. I stayed out past curfew.  I cared more about my job than school. My mother and I often butted heads about things and when my step father came in to the picture when I was almost seventeen, I couldn’t wait to graduate and get out of the house. Mom still carries a lot of guilt about how fast we had to grow up and how rough we had it. We tell her it wasn’t her fault but I don’t think she believes that. Mother’s have masters degrees in feeling guilty about something. Sometimes I think it would have been less traumatic in the long run if he had died. I know that sounds horrible but at least I could have told myself he didn’t leave on purpose. I remember my fourth grade teacher approaching me right after he left and telling me she knew that things were “tough at home and I could talk to her anytime. ” I was mortified and ashamed. Who told her? “No they aren’t. Things are fine.” I replied, “Everything is fine.” then I buried my face in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book and did my best to hide my tears.

Over the years there were huge, long chunks of time we heard nothing from him. He didn’t pay child support; he stayed under the radar and kept his exact whereabouts mostly unknown. Occasionally I would get a card signed “Love, Dad” if he happened to have our address. Often, he did not and we rarely had his. That “Love, Dad” really irritated us. It irritates us still. The cards never said anything more, never asked about our lives, and they certainly never included any birthday cash. I think he assumed that by calling himself “Dad” he remained tethered to us by some paternal thread. When in fact, the tether he did create is between his five children, each of us unsure of how to process our feelings for him or understand why he still called himself our Dad. I may not talk to my brothers and my sisters as much as I should, we are all busy adults with full lives, but I love them.  The shared experience of our childhood bonded us. We are trench buddies.

Our sweet mother never talked trash about my father which so often happens in divorces these days.  She would answer our questions honestly, but we were in survival mode. Dwelling on the past was a luxury we couldn’t afford and what was the point anyway? He wasn’t coming back. He moved to Seattle for a job. It felt like he moved as far away from us as he could get without falling off the map. He was a thing that had existed in our life and then he didn’t. For him, I am sure we were frozen in time as the children we once were, never growing any older, never having any problems, just joyful happy children. We did grow up though, we had families and careers, we became fully formed humans and rarely gave him much thought.

When my youngest sister was seventeen, she told my mother and stepfather that for graduation she wanted a trip to see our father.  Several years before, we had moved from the Midwest to the suburbs of Washington DC. We missed having our grandmother, our aunts, uncles and cousins nearby. She was curious about our father. She was only six when he left. Who among us can remember much from being six. My stepfather paid for her plane ticket and hotel room. God bless his soul he was a good man. The trip was a disaster.  Our father was aloof and distant.  He treated my sister like a tourist, wanting to show her around but was unwilling to engage in any meaningful conversation.  He refused to let her meet his wife. He had married his girlfriend, the secretary from work who offered him an escape from a life that overwhelmed him. My sister came home from Seattle feeling defeated and wishing she had just gone back to Chicago to visit people she knew already loved her. Her hope for a relationship with him ended in disappointment. He had rejected her once more often than the rest of us, and two times too many.

The year I graduated from high school the family took a multi week, cross country car trip out west to attend a family reunion in Montana, visit friends in Utah and Colorado and see all the sites on the way there and back. We were seven people, driving across the country in a station wagon in June and July. I am quite certain that I had a bad attitude before we had even pulled out of our suburban Virginia driveway. In some families, they would still not be talking to one another as a consequence of a trip like this. My mother, ever kind hearted, thought how sad it would be to be that close to my father and not give him the chance to see his children. She got his contact information from one of his many siblings and reached out to him. They arranged a meet up. We were to wait for him at the main lodge in Yellowstone National Park on an arranged day and time. When the appointed day and time arrived, our parents dropped us off at the Lodge and then parked in the vicinity to keep a distant eye on things. The five of us sat on the front porch of that lodge for hours. He never showed. When we arrived home from the trip there was a post card from him mailed from within the park. He claimed to have not been able to find us. We believe he drove past, saw us sitting there and lost his courage. Who knows what happened. My mother’s heart broke. She believed that she had let him hurt us again. She vowed to never let that happen again. After that fiasco, the trip felt like it would never end.  I was eighteen, I missed my boyfriend and friends.  I was anxious to start my post graduation life. I had had enough of “family togetherness.” I wanted to go home. I look unhappy in a lot of the pictures taken on this trip. Being stood up for a date with good ‘ole dad was just the icing on the cake. 

My life took a fast forward not long after our trek out west.  I got married a year later, had a baby right away, another after just eleven months (Irish twins) and my third when I was just twenty six.  I was in the thick of child rearing and trying to keep our heads above water.  There was very little contact between my father and I going both ways for many, many years. My marriage was as happy as it could be for having been just barely out of my teens and pregnant at the onset.  We did our best despite growing apart over the years. Who knows what you’re going to want in a partner when you’re nineteen years old? We did raise three really great kids though and I’m proud of us for that.  When our messy divorce finally came in 2002 I found myself in dire straights. I had a job I loved as an assistant in an elementary school library but the pay was terrible. My ex paid child support but it barely covered the mortgage. I needed money. I had pawned my wedding ring and borrowed to the point of embarrassment from my parents. I felt desperate.  At my lowest, I wrote my father and demanded that he help me. I thickly smeared guilt and obligation all over the letter. A few weeks later I received a letter back with two cashier’s checks totaling around $1,000. I can’t remember the exact amount but it certainly was not a drop in the bucket considering all the years of back child support he had never paid. The card included a note that pretty much said “Don’t ask again. This is all there is.” I thanked him and we easily resumed ignoring one another. Radio silence from him was comfortable and familiar. We went on this way for a very long time.

And then, a few years ago, his wife died.  They were married for 40 plus years and then she died, and something changed. Blame it on loneliness, old age, remorse, or a sudden desire to get right with God….we don’t really know but suddenly there he was.  He started sending birthday flowers, Christmas cards, small checks, copies of life insurance policies with us as the beneficiaries.  He made my sister the executor of his will. He moved to South Carolina to live near his sole remaining brother. We panicked. What did this mean? What does he want? What is our legal and moral responsibility towards him? Does he want us to take care of him when he gets old? Will he show up at my door? How is Mom going to feel about this? We joked about how short the distance is between South Carolina and Virginia and that he would show up at my house before he showed up at their houses further north. We didn’t need a dad. Our stepfather had filled that role nicely. We didn’t trust it. It felt suspicious. An escalating worry started to form about why he was ‘coming back around’. We might not have needed him but maybe there was some reason he needed us and that’s what worried me. Then, as if right on cue, I got a text message from my sister. “He wants to meet.” I wasn’t surprised. We saw it coming from a mile away. We knew eventually that it would happen. What we had to figure out was what we wanted to do about it.




Goodbye Dylan

Goodbye Dylan

A few weeks ago my son came home and told me that his Dad's dog Dylan had passed away. My ex husband and I have been divorced almost ten years and we haven't had any contact since Alex graduated in 2009 but this news made me very sad. 

Once upon a time Dylan was my dog too.

We had recently lost our dog Mickey to a sudden illness and the kids had taken it hard.  Mickey had been a rescue dog and when my ex husband Bill suggested getting the kids a puppy I was a little hesitant because I had no experience house breaking a dog.  Bill reassured me that it would be fine and he knew someone who knew someone who had just had a litter of yellow labs. I remember the day we went to pick him out.  We stood in a pen with about ten adorable little yellow balls of fur running around our feet as if to say "Pick me, pick me!'  I wanted to take them all home.  Their mother was a sweet loving dog with a good temperament.  Their father was strong and energetic. You could tell this was going to be a special dog. The puppies were still too young to leave their mother so we  would go back in a few weeks to pick him up but we first had to figure out which one would be the right fit for our family. We knew we wanted a boy.  I can't say I remember exactly what made our boy stand out.  He was active but not too active. He was adorable but they all were. We all just kind of migrated towards the same dog.

We named him Dylan. People always assumed it was after the musician but it wasn't.  Our youngest son Alex was crazy about a book at the time called "Dylan's Day Out" by Peter Catalanotto. The Dylan in the book is a Dalmatian who escapes the house and goes on a series of wacky adventures.  Alex loved this book and we read it over and over again.  It was easy for everyone to agree that it was obvious what we should name him.

My worries about housebreaking and having a puppy tear up the house were mostly unfounded.  Like every puppy he was not perfect but he was sweet and we all grew to love him rather quickly. He grew like a weed and was incredibly active.  The kids all pitched in helping to take care of him. If you know anything about Labs you know that they are the sweetest most even tempered dogs ever.  Dylan was no exception.   I love this picture of him with Brittany.   He actually did steal her homework.  She asked me to take the picture so she could prove it to her teacher.

 Unfortunately, four or five years down the road Bill and I found ourselves in an unraveling marriage.  It was hard on the kids each in their own way. For a few months right before we separated for good, Bill was pretty much living in the basement and I was upstairs with the kids.  I used to say that Alex wore out the stairs going up and down between us.  It broke my heart.  Divorce is an ugly thing. You take a life that is a whole, the sum of all it's different parts and you start dividing it up bit by bit.  You take that chair.  I'll keep this picture.  We had a lot of animosity at the time so the process of splitting things down the middle was that much more difficult.  One of the things that Bill insisted was that he take the dog. I believe his exact words were "I'm going to be alone.  I won't have my children with me anymore.  You aren't keeping my dog too. "  At the time I thought it was a pretty crappy thing to do, take his children's dog away from them during a very difficult time.  A lot of people around me thought it was pretty crappy too and encouraged me to fight him on it but the more I considered it I kind of understood how he felt. He was right.  I had the kids.  I couldn't complain about the dog.

Alex took it the hardest not having his pet anymore.  I got him a cat but it wasn't the same.  He missed Dylan.  Eventually we added two new dogs to our household and he loved them a lot but for him it was never quite the same.  Thankfully he did see his dad often and always came back telling me "Dylan did this" or "Dylan did that."  He also told me how much the dog meant to his dad.  He told me how they were inseparable.  He told me that when his dad cried tears of loneliness the dog would lick them off his face. He told me how his grandma (Bill's mother) who claimed to not care for dogs would sneak him scraps of food so often that Bill had to put Dylan on a diet.  He told me these things and I realized that I had made the right decison in letting him take the dog.  Either of us could have fed and cared for the dog but Bill needed that dog because, in the aftermath of what happened to us, Dylan helped him heal.

I saw Dylan several years ago when Bill came to pick up Alex for the weekend.  We wanted to see if he would play with our new dog Duke, a lab/weimeraner mix.  When Bill got Dylan out of the car he ran to me like it had been a day since he had seen me instead of years.  Clearly dogs never forget love. He was so happy to see me.  We put him in the back yard to see if he would run around and play with Duke.  Poor Dylan just stood at the gate looking at Bill pleading with his eyes to "Get me away from this lunatic."  To say that Duke was a hyper maniac when he was a puppy would be the understatement of the year. That dog ate six remote controls before he was one.

Over the years Alex kept me posted on Dylan's antics. He would show me pictures or tell me stories and while it had been years since I'd seen him, hearing about how he was doing always made me smile.  This last year his health had really declined so when I found out he had passed it wasn't suprising but it was sad. I guess over the years I have softened because my heart went out to my children's father as I tried to imagine the great emptiness he must be feeling.

When the children were young they loved a movie called "All Dogs Go to Heaven."  It's about a murdered mutt who returns to earth to do a good deed so he can gain entrance in to heaven.  It's a cute little movie and I haven't thought of it in years.  Not until recently.  I hope dog heaven has lots of wide open spaces for running and fetching, a lake for swimming and catching "stick fish,"  an endless supply of doggy bones and all the homework a dog could eat. 

Rest well sweet Dylan….you earned it buddy.

Son in Progress

Son in Progress

This is my son Alex when he was a toddler. Look how cute he was.  Everyone in the family unanimously agrees that he was the cutest baby in history until my grandson came along. Here is a picture of him now.  I still think he’s adorable but I’m his mother so that shouldn't surprise anyone.  His was not an easy childhood.  Getting him raised was a challenge. When he was eight years old he was diagnosed with severe attention deficit disorder and thus began a ten year roller coaster ride trying to get him through school, through adolescence and ready for life in the real world.  I used to pray that when we came out on the other side we would still be speaking. I really worried about that. 
I used to keep a picture of us together on my dresser.  He was about four or five years old. We were playing in my Mom’s pool.  I was floating around on a tube and he was sitting on top of me.  We looked happy.  I kept it out as a reminder of a time when I knew he loved me and more importantly he liked me.  I feel confident that during his growing up my son never stopped loving me as his mother but I’m fairly confident that there were plenty of times that we didn’t like each other too much.  One of the ways he struggled was with impulse control and one day when I have his permission I will tell some of his stories. I can tell you though that his least favorite thing to do was write.  I often used this to my advantage when he had to be punished.  I still have his essays on “The Dangers of Smoking” and “Why going to McDonald’s on your bike without permission is a bad idea.”   I think if I really looked I could find “Why children should not befriend homeless men” and “Yelling at your friend when he is hurt is not nice.”  You get the picture.

It wasn't always rough.  No one in my life has made me laugh harder than he has. He is a good sport.  He often gets picked on for his somewhat lazy grooming or the silly things he does and he always takes it in stride.   He is smart as a whip.  He is the kid who would not do any homework all year and yet get a perfect score on his final exam. He passed advanced on almost all of his SOL's yet he was constantly on the verge of failing.  He drove his teachers crazy.  When I'm late coming home from work he calls me to find out where I am. He doesn't like leaving me home alone.  He worries about me.  If I ask him to do something for me he'll do it…if he remembers…which is not often.

This weekend I had a party at my house and a good friend of mine was there.  She hadn’t seen him in a while.  She commented to me that he is looking and acting more and more like his dad.  An observation I had made many times myself.  Imagine how hard it was to parent a child who is the mini me of a man you couldn’t stay married to. It’s been hard.  I do see so much of his father in him.  His dad is not a terrible guy.  We just couldn't keep it together and unfortunately many of the things he did to drive a wedge between us I sometimes see in my son.  I once expressed my frustration to my mother that sometimes it’s like I’ve had no influence on my son at all.  All of my hours at this doctor and that, all the driving from one counselor to another trying to find someone to help this kid.  All the conferences, child study meetings,  principal’s hearings , court dates, helping with school work, bailing him out of one problem after another, all the late nights and tears and prayers and he turns out just like his dad. His dad who never went to a single conference or doctor’s appointment in ten years.  It just didn’t seem fair.  My wise mother advised patience.  She reminded me that he only has half his father’s genes.  I am in there somewhere waiting to come out.  She reminded me that a mother’s influence is felt over a life time.

So Saturday evening we were talking and Alex told me that he is going to put his hair in to dreadlocks soon.  He has been talking about doing this for a few years now but he hasn’t done it so I usually say “Yeah, yeah ok” and don’t take him quite seriously.  This time was different.  He laid out his plan.  He has been researching it.  He knows what he has to do to form them and maintain them.  He made the comment “I am going to have to use this special shampoo for the rest of my life.”  Uh excuse me…what did he just say?  The rest of his life?!!? There is not enough punctuation on the keyboard to express my shock over this comment. He said “Yeah Mom, I’m making a commitment to them.”  Ok, a commitment is good, but to your hair?   So I then said “Well you know 15 years from now you’ll be going to parent teacher conferences like that” thinking this would maybe cause him to think twice.  Well dang if he didn’t shut me down.  He said “It’s just hair Mom.  It’s just freaking hair, if someone wants to judge me for that that’s their problem.”   

I am going to go call my mother and tell her she was right.

I am in there after all.