Stay Awhile with Your Own Ones: A Father’s Day Essay
June 13, 2014 § 8 Comments
A guest blog essay for Father’s Day from Alexis Paige:
When I was a child, I remember my father growing irritated, impatient even, when people made a fuss over his single dad status. When my parents split in 1983, Mom moved to Texas, and my little brother and I to New Hampshire. Our family story happened this way for many reasons, some of them practical, some of them tragic, but Dad always felt that he got special notice when single moms never did.
“Aw, your daughter’s running a fever, and you are going to pick her up from school?” a lady from the office might coo, sighing longingly as Dad grabbed the keys to his Datsun 210 and hustled his tall, gangly body beyond the cubicles and out the door. As if his leaving work, scooping me up from the school nurse’s office, and dropping the pink, chewable aspirins into my fleshy hand were somehow more heroic as a dad, as a man.
The winter I turned nine, we moved from an apartment complex that smelled like cigarettes and burnt SpaghettiOs to a modest split-level ranch about a mile away. Our new house sat on a tiny cul-de-sac in a subdivision grandiosely named Windsor Pond. Upstairs were two small bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen/ living room, and downstairs was an unfinished basement, where we roller-skated in tight, dizzying circles.
For the first four or five months while Dad and my uncle refinished the basement, my brother Josh got the front bedroom and I the back, and Dad slept on a secondhand sofa in the living room. At six-foot-three, he dangled off of it from all sides, his spidery arms and legs draped over the armrests, his outside arm hanging limp on the floor like a vestigial limb.
He would go to sleep with the television tuned into M*A*S*H or Hill Street Blues, the foil-muffed antennae crackling into the night. An early insomniac, I would rise in the dark and grab a snack or read, and hear his snores rumbling against the hiss of the television. Back then, stations would sign-off around midnight with a long BOOOOOOOOOP, followed by a shower of black and white snow, and not return to life until dawn with an instrumental rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
I had stopped sleeping one night when I caught the beginning of a scary movie about witches; one witch in particular wore an indelible sneer. For months she terrified me: I would find her under the covers, in my closet, hiding behind my bedroom door. I took up reading during these long stretches of night, with a little flashlight I held under the covers.
I read anything I could get my hands on—Judy Blume, the Ramona Quimby books, the Babysitters’ Club series, an Amelia Earhart biography, The Red Badge of Courage, and even Dad’s copy of The Happy Hooker. I feared something in the maw of nighttime, and the TV-movie witch may well have been the easy symbol I projected to blot out the deep.
Dad found me one night, the flashlight glow seeping through my polyester bedspread, so I found other ruses. I would lie on the bathroom floor with my books; if Dad stirred, I would flush the toilet and go to bed. At one point, I clipped a desk lamp to the rod in my closet and read in there, sitting on an exercise mat with a book propped on my knees.
Dad eventually caught me on another night, rolling the door open with great fanfare and shouting, “A-HA! Gotcha! What are you doing up kiddo? You’ve got to sleep!”
“I can’t,” I whined. “I get nervous.”
“What are you nervous about, Pumpkin?”
“I don’t know, the witch, I guess—and everything,” I said.
He checked under my bed, inspected the attic hatch, and showed me behind the bedroom door. “See? All clear!” he said. “Now, let’s get you back into bed.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“I grew up with eleven brothers and sisters; I know every trick in the book.” Once in bed, he sat alongside me and scratched my back until I grew tired.
“Use your nails, like Gram,” I begged.
“Want me to crack an egg?” he asked, and as I nodded I began to feel the happy tingle of yolk oozing down my scalp, my head growing heavy under his hand.
Dad showed up for everything—for late night crises, ear infections, homework, and field hockey scrimmages. He planned father-daughter dates on my birthdays, showed up on Sunday mornings with fresh donuts or raspberry danish, and at the dinner table on ordinary days to talk about Algebra or Amy’s dad’s new drum set.
He showed up five years too early in the training bra section of Bradlee’s Department store, and an hour too late with tampons when I got my first period at 15.
Ten years after that, Dad showed up when I called from a phone booth in Italy to tell him I’d been sexually assaulted the night before. Because he was 6,000 miles away in San Francisco, he sent me to the embassy. “The Marines will be posted out front; they will take care of you,” Dad said. They weren’t much older than me, but in their dress blues, I was reminded of Dad’s own Marine Corps portrait from 1967. When my plane landed in California 36 hours later, Dad showed up at the airport and waited for me at the gate, so his was the first face I saw as I stepped off of the jetway.
Dad showed up at the emergency room six months after that, when I cut my wrists and took a bottle of antidepressants, and he showed up yet again a few years later still, when I got arrested for drunk driving. I was 29 at this point, and he should have been tired of showing up by then, but he did anyway.
At 38 now, I am grateful that he stayed long enough for the happy stuff and for me to finally show up for him. I know what Dad would say to all of this. He would say that he was just being a father. He would say that showing up doesn’t make him any more or less of a hero than other parents. But I would say this: it does make him mine.
Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and will complete an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program in July. She lives and teaches in central Vermont.