I hadn’t seen my father since my 38th birthday, many many grey hairs ago. Before they unionized. Before Ben was crawling, or eating anywhere except Mom’s 24-7 Dairy bar. Before waiters stopped carding H. Before Ben’s first food, steps, words, animal sounds, full night’s sleep. Before my father got new knees, and remarried.
The reasons were not minor.
The end of his first, 36 year marriage to my mom, in the mid 90’s, was as sordid, lowclass and thoughtless as it gets. And what followed seemed to follow suit based on exchanges I heard second hand from my brother and his wife. Word of my father’s over-the-top proclamations to friends from his old life – our past and current lives, in other words – made me wince.
His newfound wealth in the form of a tubetopped sugarmama and her comments to my brother about what our lives were like triggered my only adventures outside low bloodpressure.
So on the occasions when I called (birthdays, holidays), I was civil – but that was it. Following good form for its own sake. I made no additional effort at outreach, and conveniently employed the prissy excuse of their unmarried state as a reason for not making more of an effort. He never offered to fly out to see us, even when Ben was just born. My family was more offended than I was about it – I was just resigned to it, and a little sad. I saved my anger for other things.
Then they got married. Whether I liked his choice or not, she was now his wife. Time was passing, and as my father rounded the corner of 80, then 81, I knew there would only be so much time left, when he might still be able to enjoy and bring enjoyment to Ben.
So, with my job having ended and a quiet, no-traveling christmas leaving us all the time in the world to get sick and recover in a familiar environment, we planned a trip to Florida to see my father and his (now) wife, as well as my birth mother’s family (two cousins never met, my sister, etc).
I decided that any effort anyone made for Ben would be instant positive karma, that I would appreciate it for what it was, and keep my focus on who would be kind to him. And so when my father told me that his wife was making arrangements for us to visit a horse ranch based on Ben’s love of horses, I decided that was a very nice thing, something to appreciate.
For many historical reasons, I felt a great deal of anxiety about the trip, but I knew we had to do it, and that it would be for the best. I plowed through, with little sleep, stomach upsets and rosacea flareups.
We set out from our base in Ponte Vedra to Port Charlotte, with stops at SeaWorld and a layover at a friend’s perfect home in Sarasota. The tension of 7 hours of driving and limited sleep, despite our splendid accommodations, were pooling in my shoulders.
Near the end of the final leg of the trip, we were in deep Florida, all Rudy and Mitt signs, model homes for no money down and with all the swamp you could smell. Cement roadways, which I could imagine in all their white heat starting in April. It felt more foreign to me than the cities of night kanji, or the coast of an old viking empire.
We came up on the last of the streets in our directions, and something familiar – the developer of the subdivision had to be from Boston, with streets named Cohasset, Carlisle, and other Mass C suburbs. At the seaway end of Carlisle, we arrived at my father’s house. Modest, well kept, with sculptures to greet you. A fiberglass dolphin standing on sea foam. A balinese? indonesian? totem of a frog.
My father and his wife answered the door together, in matching t-shirts (their regular wardrobe). These shirts they chose in my honor – hot pink souvenirs from Manzanita Beach in Oregon, a place I’d been and photographed for my father, mother and grandmother.
My father gave me a tour of the house – it has its own style as the outdoor sculptures could only hint at, but is spotless. Everything was well cared for.
That was when I got it. They were made for each other.
My father’s wife packed snacks for Ben, and was kind in her remarks to him. The ranch was a place where she could shine, telling us about her experience with horses after more than 60 years of riding, training and caring for them. She was kind and generous, and she was doing it because it meant the world to my father – just as I was being on my best behaviour for Ben and for him. We didn’t get to stay long enough for Ben to really connect to him – my father is wonderful with small children – which is my only regret.
Well, maybe I have two regrets- the second being that I hadn’t done this sooner, set free the hurt and anger, and just allowed a small amount of understanding and happiness for my father. Thank goodness I wasn’t too late.