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This is a Dad Story

By
August 15, 2012

The kid has a question she’s been asking for a while: Where is the story in the non-story?

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Photo courtesy J.D. Hancock

Some things:

He had bad handwriting (as did his kid), but bad in a very distinctive way. Joked that it was because he was a doctor. (He was a PhD.) Always wrote with a felt-tip pen, not fine, always with that or a mechanical pencil in his shirt pocket. Wrote and filed things on index cards, used scrap paper for notes; cut them into 3×5-ish pieces with the paper cutter he’d had since he was a kid. In his desk drawers, time travel: fountain pens, ink bottles, a tape dispenser seemingly made of lead (was it made of lead?), a paperweight with the logo of the family business, photo corners from the 1930s, blotters from around the same time, an early calculator (she remembers the dad’s excitement about this advancement and how you could spell “hell” or even “Shell Oil” on it when you entered the right numbers and looked at them upside-down), mini-binoculars, Jew’s harps, a pitch pipe, antique Iowa postcards. Unidentifiable crumbly bits, once erasers, or rubber bands perhaps? Food?

Drives from airports and train stations. The classical music station always on, the dad’s quizzes: Okay quick, name the composer. The dad knew the kid would most likely not know, but guesses would be made. Handel! Close, the dad would say.

Driving around his small hometown, pointing out sites he’d pointed out on every trip before: I’ve probably shown you the old mill, he’d say, exactly the same way, each time, passing the miniature mill by the train station. You know which one of those is your great-grandmother’s house, right?

Driving around his small hometown, pointing out sites he’d pointed out on every trip before: I’ve probably shown you the old mill, he’d say, exactly the same way, each time, passing the miniature mill by the train station. You know which one of those is your great-grandmother’s house, right? Yes, the kid would say, even though there are two nearly alike (both small white clapboard) and the kid was never sure. We lived in that apartment on the square, above where the newsstand used to be, when I was born.

Do memories of photos count, if you can’t remember the Kodak Moment itself? The kid always claims to remember nothing from before the parents split, but of course stories get told, and in conjunction with the photographs (the dad reading her Hop on Pop, showing her a rose garden, the kid, in PJs, on the dad’s shoulders, the dad and the kid dying Easter eggs. She has been told that early on, the mom was absent for long stretches (the grandmother was always happy to point these things out about her then daughter-in-law), that the dad taught her to read, put up giant flash cards with words on them around the house; REFRIGERATOR, TELEPHONE, CHAIR, has been told about the time when she was three and asked why there was an S missing from the Esso sign, about the time they had something flambé in a restaurant and she said I’m not scared, Daddy, are you? Is it enough that she remembers the dad telling her these stories, if not the actual events?

But what did they talk about? School? TV? Fuzzy. Circa 1972, she remembers him telling her about how he’d cracked the code on the expiration date on the Pop Tart box. She remembers his recipe for a sweet treat when you’re out of everything else: bread with butter and sugar. They must have talked about writing, they wrote about writing, often, but whatever was said is in a cloud somewhere.

She remembers the dad opening a small cardboard box, inside, tissue paper cradling fragile drips of molten lead. Telling her how he saved up bottle caps to make these, showing her how to melt them down and pour them into cold water to make interesting drips. How he, as a kid, had made coins out of molten lead, for the country he and his friends had started. How he showed her their manifesto, in a small green loose-leaf: maps, laws, accordances, and amendments.

The dad taking the kid to the newsstand and buying her every single comic book she wanted, Archie, Betty and Veronica, Richie Rich on occasion. Sending her a subscription to Barbie Talk. But how she was jealous that when her half-sister was a kid, he kept a list of all the books she ever read. Sure, he might have done this for her too, if.

The mom parts are the dramatic parts, the no-way-really? parts, the I-can’t-believe-you’re-not-more-fucked-up parts. . .

If this hadn’t happened:

The young mom and dad met in small-town Iowa and fell in love (who knows about that part, different versions have been reported), got married, had a kid, and a couple-three years in, the mom decided she needed to get away from the dad, be famous (plus it was the mid-sixties, she was no budding hippie or even budding feminist, but may still have been influenced by the times just as she claimed to have been influenced by the previous times, during which according to her she got married young because it was what you did), left kid with the dad, went to NY, got an apartment, came back in a couple years to get kid, told the dad don’t call don’t write (or something), kid didn’t see the dad for a long while. This has all been documented in detail elsewhere, the mom parts. The mom parts are the dramatic parts, the no-way-really? parts, the I-can’t-believe-you’re-not-more-fucked-up parts, the parts that felt urgent, when written. You are lazy, the mom said, often. You are lazy and selfish and (but?) I love you.

The kid has a question she’s been asking for a while: Where is the story in the non-story? Can the dad story be told without the conflict? It’s not that there was zero conflict, only by comparison to the mom conflict. Is it even possible for mom conflict to be altogether separate from any dad conflict? Is it really true that that’s what a story is, conflict? The kid recalls actually telling this to the dad, more than a few times, that a story wasn’t a story without conflict. The dad wrote a novel once. A novella. It was a romance. All dialogue. Wasn’t altogether bad, but had a couple of critical flaws, in her opinion: 1) It had sex. (Picture her reading this, the adult kid, not just sex but sex where the characters are forced to talk about what they’re doing to each other, not just sex but sex written by her dad—as though suffering through endless talk about sex from her mom hadn’t been plenty enough parental talk about sex for one kid’s lifetime). 2) It had no conflict. The couple met and fell in love and had witty banter and sex the end.

This story sucks. It’s all over the place and the mom is creeping in again. Fuck her.

So the kid told the dad that his story had no conflict and the dad said he didn’t like conflict, which was already known to her to be true. He liked happy endings. He liked Disney movies. Someone always falls in the water in a Disney movie, he told her. You can count on it. In real life, the kid shared this preference with her father, though she was perhaps less committed to avoiding it as he was. She thought she was, but it seemed to just ‘come up’. The kid did some drinking, later, which can be an informal invitation to conflict.

This story sucks so bad it doesn’t even know what tense it’s in.

But after the kid got to see the dad again after two years of nothing, mostly things were actually really great with her and the dad, except for the fucked-up things the mom—what if we tried calling her “the other parent”—had said about the dad that crept into her head sometimes (things that were by and large either untrue, dubious, or irrelevant to his skills as a parent), and later, for a time, became true-ish seeming, but really, were the same as the other parent’s problems with everybody. It was all their fault. You may need some preventive therapy, sweetheart, to deal with your father issues.

Dad story. Get it together, writer.

Dad story. Get it together, writer.

So the kid went to Iowa for visits, hung out with the dad, got a stepfamily, a very nice, very mom-ish stepmom, same age-ish siblings, it was fun, not like NY, they had like, lemonade stands and they laughed a lot at dinner, the dad and the siblings and the other mom were all funny, the kid was funny!, everyone was funny, Iowa was super fun, and they did things together, as a family, they went camping together and played games all day and had running family jokes about big fat rats (not funny to you, right? and yet forty years later, to them, guess what, still hilarious) and went to drive-in-movies and even made movies, like movie-movies, comedy movies, that the family all starred in and the dad directed and edited (with like, tape—the dad showed the kid how to do it) and then when we watched them in the family room (there was a family room, it had beanbag chairs, beanbag chairs! and shag carpeting! so good!) the other mom made popcorn in a big giant black tub, that’s how much popcorn was needed, because there were so many of us having all this fun.

This story can’t get it’s tense together or it’s person, now. Has it even got its “its” right? We don’t know. I mean, who the hell are we, right now? Who the hell am I?

Often, she wished there’d be a phone call or two, but this was a term the parents had psychically agreed upon. Too expensive, one said, not aloud, I don’t want to hear that one’s voice,
the other said

So this all went on for some years, little league games, road trips, always in the summer, of course, or over Christmas or Easter break, those were the only times of year the kid was there, the rest of the time she was at home in NY, writing letters with the dad. Often, she wished there’d be a phone call or two, but this was a term the parents had psychically agreed upon. Too expensive, one said, not aloud, I don’t want to hear that one’s voice, the other said. Guess which one was which. Even travel arrangements were all sorted out by mail, over the course of any number of letters, months in advance. So, but it’s good to have the letters, now that the dad is gone. Because the memory of the phone calls, the ones that hadn’t happened, well, as has been implied, memory is weird. The kid can hear the dad’s younger, better voice, if she tries hard, it was sort of a baritone, very smooth, but the crackly, fading voice is the one that comes up more often. She remembers the silent laughs from at the end, where his eyes would crinkle up like they always did, but little sound came out. Anyway, there weren’t very many phone calls until maybe the nineties, so it’s moot. There are letters that can be read, and what was said was what was said. And the letters are good. The dad said nice things to the kid, letter after letter, decade after decade, encouraging things, things that weren’t confusing. And sent typewriters and reference books and TVs. The other parent thought the dad was trying to buy the kid’s love but the kid thought the dad knew who the kid was and what would you have done if you were him?

So the kid grew up, went to college, got out of college, went to NY (where else would she go?), moved back home, it’s NY, it’s what everyone did, moved out a year later after it sucked enough, went to therapy, the usual story, the other parent fucked the kid up (the same-sex parent, typical), but due to the aforementioned particular methods utilized in this fucking up, for a period of time, the kid got this idea that it was the dad that fucked the kid up, at least partly. She had heard the other parent say so enough times that she began to believe it. That was dumb. This would get straightened out soon enough (e.g. she remembers a therapy session: Q: So how exactly are you selfish? A: ___. Oh. The therapy equivalent of the discovery of electricity or something). In the meantime, the dad being the dad, he was always patient and forgiving about it. More letters, always letters, even though the kid was now an adult, supposedly, and could have asked for—made—a phone call herself now and again—there must have been some phone calls but this seems fuzzy too—anyway, there were letters, in which the dad was funny and supportive and sent clippings of relevant things (articles about the Iowa Writers Workshop, book reviews, pictures of pug dogs) and never said shit about the other parent and yet lazy selfish I love you were the things swimming around in her head for years and years (what do you do with those things together?) and then the kid finally thought to move away from NY, that had been someone else’s choice, and the place where she went was a good bit closer to where the dad lived and she could and did visit more often, and not at legally dictated intervals. And this was good.

Did the dad ever say an annoying declarative thing or two where the kid would just wish he’d end the sentence with “in
my opinion?” Yes.

In these years, amends of a sort were made, though the dad indicated that amends were never needed, that’s the kind of guy he was, and he visited her and she visited him and they played games and watched cheesy TV shows and went to the movies at the one movie theater in the square, and they went to the Old Threshers Reunion every year and looked at old threshers and antiques and he always bought her a little gewgaw or two she admired, which was so sweet, and this was all very good. Did the dad ever say an annoying declarative thing or two where the kid would just wish he’d end the sentence with “in my opinion?” Yes. This was a flaw of the dad—he was smart and knowledgeable about many things and he knew this about himself and sometimes it carried over into his opinions, and sometimes, possibly most times, he was even intending this rhetoric to be funny, the kid was sure, but anyway this was his flaw that sometimes bugged her. Did she ever wish the dad would stand up for himself, like the time he got the home movies put on video? Yes? This was a great thing, ostensibly, but some stuff got edited out, and the dad had been upset but hadn’t wanted to bother anyone about it, what was done was done. That had seemed like a big deal to her, losing whatever that footage was, though the kid didn’t even know what was lost. Something important having to do with her childhood. And then also he got cancer and then Parkinson’s, but failed to ask some obvious-seeming questions, because he didn’t want to bother the doctors. And then what’s a kid supposed to do, berate her ailing dad about it? It was useless to explain that this constituted a good part of the doctor’s job, of the services the dad was paying him for, being bothered. Wasn’t the father, so smart, smart enough to know this? Had asking questions of doctors helped her other parent not die? Nope.

The point is, he was a person, right, no one is perfect, and the kid doesn’t want you to think that this is some story where there’s this idealized, perfect parent thing. She’s mostly just trying to not forget things. Anyway, there were a lot of good years, letters in the mail became emails (the dad’s idea!). The kid remembers this very well, how she thought, Oh, the internet, nobody really uses that, and how frustrating her early attempts to get service were, and how the dad did his best to help her figure it out (he’d been an electronics engineer in the Navy, always loved technology, had a computer in the house back in the seventies he’d been so excited about: It’s hooked up to the University! Look what you can do! Punch cards with Christmas trees, banners on continuous paper, with dot-matrix birthday greetings!). Her protests: But haven’t letters always been so great? His counterpoint: email would be like instant letters. Some trial and error later, emails became daily, and phone calls finally went into the mix as well. How he would leave long phone messages that always ended with “Love, Dad.”

You may need some preventive therapy. Father issues. Lazy.

Lazy lingering there in the kid’s head, long after the mom was gone, even though she’d by this time written four books and done a bunch of other good shit too. (Should she have written five, six, twenty? Earned more per book? Probably. But how much not to be lazy?)

For fuck’s sake already. You have had your stories. This is not your story.

End with the dad! End with the dad!

The dad, returning from the daughter’s back porch to report on the rap music coming from the alley. Something about “motherfucking hoes,” he said.

The dad, at a bookstore, to a favorite author of the daughter’s. My daughter is a published writer too!

The dad, in his office. I just wanted to say how proud I am of you.

Father issues. Seriously? He’s not the one who haunts her dreams.

I would like your permission to marry your daughter.

The dad’s reception of the future son-in-law. I would like your permission to marry your daughter. Hmm, I’ve never been asked this before. What do I do? You say yes, Dad! Oh, okay, well then yes! The dad and the husband at the kitchen table. These were my father’s tools. These were my wooden soldiers. These were the wood block prints I made in high school. These are my ten thousand Jew’s harps. These are my art books, maybe you’d like to have some of them. The dad and the husband. The dad and the husband. They both carry hankies.

The time the dad picked her up at the train and took her suitcase, as usual. There hadn’t been a struggle so much as just a moment, one in which the kid noticed that her dad was about to be old. The time the dad drove up on the curb, the time he scraped her car with the riding mower even though he had a wide berth, eight acres wide, to be precise. The dad had never been a good driver, predicted his own death by lollygagging at the wheel. That wasn’t how it went down; he stopped driving not too long after these incidents.

The progress of the illness: slow, after this, but predictable. Wobbling, walker, wheelchair, hospital bed lifter-into-contraption, so many pills and timers for pills, assorted cognitive issues. A different story.

The herky-jerky, smiling face via Skype when he couldn’t talk so well. She remembers now, a conversation about a favorite bit from Infinite Jest, about the failure of video phones. How the dad laughed when she read it to him. How he wondered when his daughter started reading such highfalutin’ stuff (his use of words like highfalutin’ purposeful; he liked to portray himself as folksy which was maybe one part of him, even though he’d grown up privileged, but that this was sometimes called into question when he would go so far as to point out, for example, that the proper pronunciation of “creek” was “crick” and so forth).

A last little shaky wave goodbye. Love you Dad, always.

End with the dad!

Author Image

Elizabeth Crane is the author of three collections of short stories, When the Messenger is Hot, All this Heavenly Glory, and most recently You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has also been featured in numerous publications and anthologies. She is a recipient of the Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award, and her work has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater company. She teaches in the UCR-Palm Desert low-residency MFA program. Her debut novel, We Only Know So Much, is out now from HarperPerennial. Her story, “The Genius Meetings” appeared in the August 2009 issue of Guernica.

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2 comments for This is a Dad Story

  1. Comment by Milos on August 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you, that was very warm and affecting.

  2. Comment by Sumil on October 21, 2013 at 9:54 am

    My goodness, this was so heartfelt. I loved it, and even got a little teary. Thank you.

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