The ‘why I am like this’ category

My Father’s House

February 27th, 2018

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I grew up in the ’80s, when being different was not cool. Teenagers of that era strove for sameness; we all wanted to be the exemplar of our particular niche. Perhaps you’ve seen the very famous ’80s-era documentary Breakfast Club?

To be popular/cool, you had to be a jock or the pretty girl who could smartly pair skirts and boots. It was also cool to be Judd Nelson — what we used to call a “hot burnout.” Maybe there’s a more PC term for it now. It definitely wasn’t cool to be the nerd or the artsy girl who scowled all the time.

I was pretty much Ally Sheedy, but I definitely worked hard to be more Molly Ringwald. 

So my father, who was not  a fitter-inner by any means, was an embarrassment to me. Only my closest friends ever met him. I constantly made excuses not to hang out with him. Sometimes, we would get in big fights and go months without speaking.

This wasn’t just because I was, in his words, a “snob.” We had a difficult relationship that suffered from my parents’ divorce when I was very young, his alcoholism, and the rampant partying that went on at his house every weekend. I was and still am and will always be a proud goody two-shoes. I was often on his case to act like a more proper parent. He was always trying to get me to get out of his hair so he could have fun. We didn’t really spend a lot of QT together.

Through my teenage lens, I did not get him, and for my whole entire life, I’ve still struggled to accurately describe him to other people. 

Pops is technically of Scottish and French Canadian descent, but I think he must have gypsy blood in there somewhere. Although he’s lived in the same house for nearly four decades now, he’s not a nester or a homebody. Even as he enters his 70s, he spends as much time as he can out and about, around other people — the more people, the better. When I was younger, we were often at bars. He still spends a lot of time at bars. His favorite bar is just down the street from his house. Well, it’s not technically a bar. It’s the American Legion, and although he was never in a war, he is an honorary member because he is just that fun of a guy.

His house, which he bought when I was a child, is full of not-great memories for me. The sweetest one I can muster is lying on his living room floor on a Sunday morning (as he slept off a hangover), listening to Alice’s Restaurant on vinyl over and over and over while scrutinizing the record jacket. Even though I retain a solid relationship with my father and have truly grown to appreciate him as a human as the decades have marched on, I still cringe when I feel like I owe him a home visit.

But this week is his 70th birthday, so over the weekend, we went down there. Jon came with me for the first time, so I got to see my father’s house through his eyes. Maybe it was that. Maybe it’s that Pops’ girlfriend, Jackie, lives there now and is pretty great at the little things it takes to run a home. Or maybe it’s that my father is getting older, is not as spry, and little by little, is spending more time in his house, forcing him to nest. But for the first time it looked like a home to me, a place representative of its people, a place that tells a story.

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This is the entryway. My father grew up in the ’50s. 

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I don’t know who this drawing is of, but I know with near certainty that my father either found it at the dump or bought it at a tag sale. Those are the only places he shops. My husband finds his acquisition habits pretty amusing. At Thanksgiving, he gifted us a carving knife that we used to cut our turkey. It was a spectacular thing, very weapony. “I found it at the dump!” he told us over dinner, as we all chewed on the turkey we had just cut with it. “There was a weird stain on it I couldn’t get off.”

The lantern was a castoff from a bar he used to frequent. I think it genuinely ties the room together. 

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My father collects found objects (this is my nice way of saying, things he finds at the dump and at tag sales). This is his collection of colored glass goblets and bottles perched on a not-quite-even windowsill in easy-hands-reach of toddlers, which makes any visit a peppy one. Filtered sun through colored glass is a beautiful thing, though, I have to admit.

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 My father has always had a thing for Mardi Gras, and I definitely inherited his romantic love for New Orleans. 

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One of my father’s favorite lifelong avocations is painting. For years he has submitted his paintings — mostly landscapes and portraits of  animals, some oil and some acrylic, to the annual county fair art show. He has won many blue ribbons, for which he is extremely proud. I have several of his paintings in my house.

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Another great passion of his: bluegrass music. When I was a kid, we used to get dragged to bluegrass festivals from New York State down to West Virginia. His favorite was always the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia.

Today, a bluegrass festival is an opportunity to see a bunch of hipsters groove out to excellent music. In fact, I’m one of those assholes who now loves bluegrass like it’s in my blood, although technically, I don’t have a shred of Southern blood to boast. Pretty sure the French Canadians never wrote a bluegrass song. 

Galax, and the other conventions my father enjoyed, were instead competitions where musicians came together to dual it out, not just with banjos but with fiddles and other old-time instruments, as well as with their opinions, late at night over whiskey and campfires. It was a bona fide hillbilly situation. Lots of drinking and cussing and frankly, lots of racism and sexism. From a very young age, I hated it. Now, I long to revisit those experiences with a different lens.

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Note about the house: It’s huge. A carpenter his whole life, he did the work himself to subdivide it into several rental properties, and lives in the smallest unit in the back, with his wonderful girlfriend. When I was a child, he painted this house, which sits on Main Street of a very small New England town lined by white colonials, in a bright shade of blue, with a red porch. He likes bright colors; the neighbors considered it quite an eyesore. Recently, a friend who owed him a favor repainted it for him… in a much brighter shade of blue he refers to as “Puerto Rican blue,” for some reason.

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After we left, Jon said to me, “I don’t know what you were talking about. That house is fine. He’s just eccentric.”

I never thought of my father as eccentric, but that’s exactly what he is. And that’s pretty cool.

As for me, at this point in my life, “fitting in” is the last thing I would want to accomplish. So I am grateful now that I have a father who is totally marching to the beat of his own drum. 

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