August 3, 2013
Dad’s coffin had arrived. I saw it when I went over for Christmas, lying on the floor in front of the couch like some morbid coffee table (coffin table?) I got a better look at it when he cleared off the mugs and magazines. It was six-sided and made of pine, with brass handles and a cross burned into the lid. When he unscrewed the top (yes, it unscrewed) I was expecting to see Dracula inside.
Headstone in place, coffin in the house… I asked Dad why he was doing all this, and he said he wanted to be prepared. “Why, are you dying?” No, he just wanted to see what everything was going to look like while he was alive. “Okay, then why don’t you go upstairs and put on a suit and lie in the coffin with your eyes closed. Then I’ll take a picture and you can see what you’ll look like when you’re dead too.” No. He thought that was too weird. Even Dad had limits, apparently.
He gave me my birthday present while I was there, over a week late. I couldn’t understand how he kept forgetting it every year. You’d think the day would be seared into his memory, considering I nearly died in birth. Even the embarrassment of forgetting multiple times still wasn’t enough for him to get it right. The best part was when he told me he argued with Kathleen about it, with him saying it was 19th and her insisting it was the 18th. Meanwhile neither of them was right.
Anyway, he gave me a card with a check. He could have stopped while he was ahead, but he threw in a VHS of Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye. Okay, I guess. Next up was my Christmas present. True to form, Dad stumped into his conservative book library and grabbed one at random off the shelf. Then he handed it to me unceremoniously and unwrapped, just as he had done the past several years. I’d received books on Clarence Thomas, abortion, and now one on German tank warfare.
When it was my turn I gave him a calendar with the 17th of each month circled in red marker, and I crossed out every single day in December but the 17th. I also framed a copy of my birth certificate for him. “Now you won’t forget my birthday next year,” I said while he chortled.
Then he started up with his usual nonsense. “I was talking to your mother,” he began. (It was always “your mother,” “your brother” or “your sister,” pronounced with a faint sneer.) He’d asked her about coming over to her house and she told him no, and that one of the kids would have an issue with that. “I don’t understand who would have a problem with me stopping by. It’s just her and Mary over there.”
“And…?” I prompted
“And who else?”
He shot me a confused look. Then I told him that Johnny was there too, and that threw him for a loop.
“Oh, like you didn’t already know that from all your reconnaissance missions,” I sneered in return.
Dad looked more baffled than ever. “Oh, so Johnny has an issue with me too?” Yeah, like that was a revelation. Then he started ranting about Johnny, recalling how he slung motor oil around his room, how Johnny wouldn’t contribute to the house, how nobody came to see their grandmother, etc. I finally cut him off and told him I wasn’t interested in rehashing things that happened 10-15 years ago, and especially when it didn’t concern me and I couldn’t answer for other people.
Then he asked me if he thought he was wrong to ask people to contribute to the house when they’re of a certain age, and I told him I had no opinion. I added that I was never going to have kids so I’d never have to think about it anyway. Dad seemed a little perturbed by that so I asked him why. “Well… it’s natural to seek out a spouse and start a family…” he said. Well, that’s nice. Still not going to happen. (And it’s ironic because Mom told me afterwards that Dad used to rant about overpopulation when she first met him. But Dad maintained that he only had six kids with her to make her happy.)
“I know popping up out of the blue and forcing your company on people is very satisfying to you, but it’s very in-your-face and not very productive,” I said, adding that if he wants to stop by he should wait for an invitation. “If they want to see you, they know where you live,” I told him for the hundredth time. Dad hemmed and hawed and said he’d take my advice. “For now…”
I grit my teeth but let the remark pass. And then I had a minor epiphany. Maybe I should just let things go and accept Dad for who he was. Maybe he just didn’t know any other way. He just never learned to communicate his feelings properly – certainly not from the example Grandpa set when he was growing up. Maybe it was time to stop getting riled up by his nonsense and forget the urge to whoop his ass in retaliation.
I figured that would be the last I’d see of him for a while, but he crashed my aunt’s New Year’s Eve get together again. Kathleen showed up with the new boyfriend, and I saw another car pull up a few minutes after they arrived. “I bet that’s Dad,” I said to myself. Sure enough, there was a knock on the door and my aunt opened it to him standing there with a stupid grin, holding a bottle of wine and another one of his VHS tapes.
Dad went around the room saying Happy New Year to everyone, adding that he wasn’t staying “because I’ve already annoyed enough people tonight.” He seemed greatly surprised to discover Kathleen in attendance. When he came to Mom he handed her the tape and told her to give it to Mary, even though he’d already seen her and given her a tape on Christmas. Meanwhile my aunt was berating him for not standing up straight, yelling at him to get the hump off his back. She took his bottle of wine and went to the kitchen to get him a beer, but by the time she returned he was already gone. “What the hell was that about?” she demanded.
True to Mom’s prediction, Dad went back to my aunt’s house the following day, fishing for information as usual. Then he told her that he and Mom were getting back together. “That’s not happening,” she told me. Dad went on to talk about his cemetery plot and his headstone and she was like, “You came all the way in here just to tell me about this shit?” Finally he read her the riot act for embarrassing him. “How, by telling you to stand up straight??” My aunt did not suffer fools gladly and sent him on his way.
And Dad did not heed my “advice” for very long. Valentine’s Day rolled around and Dad phoned me for a favor. I figured he needed help shoveling off the flat part of the roof so the melting snow wouldn’t leak into the house for the millionth time. Instead he was armed with yet another VHS tape that he wanted me to give to Mom. Penny Serenade starring Cary Grant, and it said it was supposed to be relevant to their “situation.” This is what I went over for? And why didn’t he give it to Mom himself when I’d heard he was in store twice that day – first with another one of his handwritten letters, and then to ask if she wanted to eat lunch with him at McDonald’s?
“Well, she’s not going to watch it if she knows it’s from me.” Guess what, chief? She’s still not going to watch it because I’m going to tell her it’s from you. Next time he pulled a stunt like this I was going to tell him to shove it. I was done being treated like a messenger boy or a go-between. Leave me out of it. I resented him dragging me into the mix. But I just took the stupid tape and left because I didn’t feel like making a scene.
Dad continued to visit Mom at work. He dropped into remind her that she took marriage vows and inquire why she stopped visiting the house. Well, Mom only went over to see Grandma and now she was dead. Dad was suspicious. asked if Mom was seeing anyone. She told him no and he left in a huff, and spent the next couple of days in the parking lot watching to see who was taking her to and from work (spoiler: me).
When he came back a few weeks later Mom told him flat out they were never getting back together. End of story. “Well I can always hope… and false hope is better than no hope…” He started asking her what would it take for her to come back? Separate beds? Separate rooms? A new car? A monthly allowance? Yes, he actually tried to bribe her into coming back. That didn’t work so he started taping poems in the wall, watching from the women’s underwear section to see her reaction.
Mom was getting really tired of his nonsense so I asked if she wanted me to talk to him and put a stop to it. “No,” she insisted. “I’d rather him come into the store and get it over with in a few minutes. I don’t want him showing up at the house going bonkers after he’s spent months building up a head of steam.”
Instead he came to my place. I woke up on Mother’s Day to find a package outside with an accompanying voicemail: “I left something for your mother outside your door – can you give it to her?” No, I couldn’t. I flung it into some unseen corner, resisting the urge to go over and fling it at his front door instead, along with a message in return: “I am not a courier.”
Of course, Dad was in the store the very next day to get Mom’s reaction. He walked up to her and asked,”Do you have frogs in your underpants?” When Mom responded with a baffled look he was like “Oh, I guess you didn’t read the thing I gave you…” She had no idea what the hell he was talking about and told him so. Just then a manager called her over, and before she walked away Dad went, “I’ll be back…”
He returned a couple more times over the next couple of months. The first time was to hassle her about her marriage vows yet again, asking her why couldn’t she forgive him and why couldn’t she come back and try again? The second time he told her that he was going to help rebuild a Texas town after its fertilizer plant blew up. But first he wanted to know why neither I nor Mary stopped by to see him anymore. I hadn’t been over in months.
Mom told him he was better off asking us, so he did. Later that morning I received a voicemail. He told me was going out of town and that he left some books for me on the railing, and if I didn’t come by then Lenny would pick them up instead. He added that he could have given them to me directly, but I haven’t stopped by because “I guess you’re too busy.” I called him back to give him an immediate correcting.
“Hey, Dad, I got your message… and I’m little puzzled because I’ve left several messages over the weeks. I said, ‘Dad, it’s Tommy. I was thinking of stopping by and I just wanted to know if you were home.’ And nobody got back to me. And if you wanted me to come over all you had to do was call me and say, ‘Tommy, it’s your dad, I’d like you to stop by.’ But maybe YOU were too busy. So if you get this message maybe you can call me back and let me know…”
Eventually he did call back, and I picked it up on the second ring so I wouldn’t have to sit through another sarcastic phone message. I heard plenty of sarcasm anyway. He remarked that he was puzzled as well because “I didn’t know that the policy had changed” in that I had to call before I came over. Well, I told him that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for quite some time. “Not always,” he said. Maybe not, but I’d been making it a point not to be like him showing up places unannounced.
Then Dad wanted to know why he had to call me to come over? We went back and forth about it, my voice rising with each passing minute. I finally dropped it because I was getting nowhere with him. But the fact remained that if he wanted to see me, all he had to do was call. He had done just that in the past – a fact I wished I remembered to mention on the phone. Maybe one of these days Dad would learn that there are simple solutions to some of life’s little problems, rather than stewing on them for months and developing a case of butthurt.