Today is the 18th anniversary of my father’s death; my mourning has come of age. The hot days of summer bring back all kinds of memories of him and playing them back and filling in details is a process that seems to dominate every July. As much as I love him, most of the years we spent in the same house would never make a highlight film of his life. And as much as he loved me, I am haunted by the bittersweet feeling and misplaced sense of responsibility that there are people and tasks that merited his attention and did not get it.
Depending on how you look at it I was in both the right place at the right time and the wrong place at the wrong time. Appearing late enough in his life that I offered the joyous, no-strings-attached love of a little girl when such attention was in short supply, and in return I got the attention every small child craves from a parent. My late arrival also afforded me a front row seat to a mid-life bout with alcoholism whose confusion scattered our family in untold directions. I found myself adrift and distracted in the eye of the passive aggressive hurricane that characterized my parent’s marriage at that time, my allegiances shifting daily and instilling in me an unsettling certainty that there is no such thing as the whole truth.
His story ends well, with beloved grandchildren, an embrace of cooking, work and friends in the community, and a rekindled friendship with my mother. She liked to say that the first 15 and the last 10 years of their marriage were worth all that happened between. As it happens, what happened in between was my childhood. While I maintain that it was a happy one, I find myself sorting through it like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to make the brightly colored, oddly shaped pieces fit.
The inequalities of parental love – or any love at all – are tough to reconcile, and because I have witnessed in other families the carnage that can result when people attempt to settle old scores, I find myself overly focused on fairness and communication with my own children, knowing full well I have no control over how they might view their lives, and my role in them, fifty years on. But what I carry with me is the sense that my parents, my family, have loved me the best they can, and that I should lift my head from the puzzle and work each day to return the favor.