Ten years ago today, my father died. But there’s a lot that I didn’t bury with him.
You see, Daddy (pronounced děd-ee for us Mississippi kids) was kind of an enigma. He could be a cruel, selfish, and uncaring drunk, especially on weekends. Or he could be quiet, silly, and even caring at times. And even his bad side varied widely, ranging from simply being absent to purposely destroying any hope for peace and tranquility at home.
Of course there were good times—even great times—especially when we were young. He’d take us fishing at the nearby pond, or we’d all venture out to see Christmas lights or his mother in Brookhaven. He could be jovial and sing silly, repetitive songs, like “Christmas Time’s a Comin’” or “Santa’s Comin’ in a Whirlybird,” and for my sister, “Angelah-tah-tah-tah-tahh.” (Don’t ask me!?)
Though he tried to blame the living for his problems, I wonder if they started after his mother died. By then, all remnants of his youth were gone. His father had died a few years earlier, and he wasn’t particularly close to his siblings or other relatives. So at the age of 30, we were all he had. Sometimes that just wasn’t enough.
Throughout the 80s, he seemed to live in a state of self-imposed misery. He was “fine” during the week, usually. But on weekends and after a couple (or 12) beers, he felt everyone hated him—his family and the rest of the world. He had more career failures than I’d want to endure, and the lack of money usually kept us close to home, which only compounded the problem. He was always seeking some kind of joy or just something better, but I’m not sure he ever found either. In many ways, I can relate to much of that pain.
We were luckier than many kids, though, since we weren’t physically abused by any measure. Daddy rarely hit us—just the occasional spanking that we most certainly deserved. When we were older, there were one or two hits that were excessive in their delivery but not in their motive. In our teens, we really could be assholes. The yelling, the insults, and indifference that we heard on weekends were usually returned to him during the week, sometimes subconsciously from our deep-seated bitterness and hurt, sometimes from our boiling anger. It went in all directions.
But since I was home most, I felt like the biggest target for his anger and resentment. And there were times when I felt unsafe at home. Weekend battles between Daddy and my then-grown older brother often spilled over the rest of us—they had more than a few wrestling matches in the cluttered living room. More than once, one of them threatened to get one of my brother’s shotguns.
Even when Daddy was a “happy drunk,” I was sure he could accidentally kill us. He once almost set fire to the Christmas tree by swapping then overloading a circuit breaker—the tree looked more like a Fourth of July display as it brightened, flashed, and flickered before most of the lights burned out in a puff of smoke.
His second attempt to burn the house down came a few years later, after his drunken installation of a CB antenna in a treetop caught the attention of one of Mississippi’s many severe thunderstorms. I returned home from work to a darkened house full of smoke, finding a hole burned into the carpet next to my bed. The lightning had jumped into the phone lines via a power strip the CB shared with a phone.
Sometimes I felt that our family was a runaway train that could not be saved. Other times, I felt like I was slowly wandering through a world filled with emotional corpses that I could not help and dared not touch. Rather than try, I simply kept my home life hidden from the few friends I had, naively confident that their own home lives were much better.
Though I had felt like an adult since I was about 11, college was my first chance for escape. I moved 1,200 miles away and purposely lived off-campus so I wouldn’t be forced to visit home more I wanted. It was then that I finally took some control of my childhood, after it was too late to really have one. I was also the first time I had control over family relationships, which made things much better.
It’s still hard to know exactly what Daddy wanted from us. There’s enough to know that he loved us, perhaps in the best way he knew how. But he was emotionally broken—likely destroyed by his own perceived failures. His sadness, anger, and weekend drinking dictated his entire life, and I often wondered if he was just counting the days until he died. Oddly, when he got sick, though, he finally wanted to live. By then, it was too late for him to do much but try to survive. He did find his stubborn streak, and survived for a few years after being given only months. He was a much better person during those years, but it was hard to do much but pity the time he had wasted.
In anger, Daddy often told me I would someday regret all the things I did and said to him. While I wish things had been better, I can’t say that I regret anything. Living so far away, I never got the chance to reconnect with him before he died, but we had very little connection after I passed the age of 10 or so. And we got along splendidly in his later years, and I’m happy for that. I understood him a lot better, and had long since forgiven any emotional hurt he inflicted. Hopefully he had forgiven us, as well. (I know I gave just about as much as I took!)
And he left me a few things: an undying love of ice cream, appreciation of old TV shows, and in my old age, I really wouldn’t mind a good pair of western boots.