As you age, you begin to notice echoes of your parents in your day-to-day behavior. This is particularly difficult if, like me, one those parents was a waste of carbon. There are times when I am surprised or even amused at things — for example, I talk to cats the same way my mother does (same tone, same words, same rhythms of speech) — and there are times when I am horrified by things, like when I do or say anything like my father would have done.
Summer of 1984
After my parents divorced, I didn’t get hit anymore. And while that’s good, the verbally and emotionally abusive shit continued. I don’t know if it was better or worse than what came before (I don’t have a lot of memories before the age of ten) — but I remember it as frequent. My father had a thing for being rather insulting and for bursts of humiliating cruelty that I used to blame myself for — after all, I was a “difficult kid,” wasn’t I?1
When I was about eleven, I had a piggy bank that I got from my mom not long after she and my dad divorced. She collected them as a kid, and passed this one on to me. It was a blue Ferdinand the bull exactly like the one pictured above2 I loved that thing, and I stuffed it with all the spare change an 11-year old can scrounge out of the couch cushions and car cup holders. For a bright, nerdy, socially awkward, imaginative kid like me, the world was one giant Shinto shrine. Every inanimate object had a name, a spirit, a personality. And Ferdinand with his peaceful little smile was always a pleasant part of the private-ish space that was my bedroom.
I don’t remember the situation that led up to the action, but it’s a moment that has stuck with me in the 32 years since it happened. My father came barging into my room, where I was playing on the floor amidst the clutter that only an 11-year old who loves Lego and Star Wars can make. He shouted something while glaring down at me, looked around his feet as if searching for his keys, and then looked me in the eye and stomped on Ferdinand, shattering him into a million bits of plaster.3
My heart broke in that moment.
He turned, stomped out of the room and slammed the door behind him. I cried for a long while, ending with sniffles, puffy eyes, and ribs that hurt. And when I stopped, I did what any 11-year old kid with possession of Scotch tape and unrealistic optimism would do — I set out to patch Ferd back together.
It went about as well as you’d expect — a rat’s nest of tape and a jumble of plaster scraps later, and I gave up on fixing my bank. And my heart broke a little more. Eventually, I just swept up his parts and put them in a bin of some sort, with a bit of hope that someday I’d be able to fix him. That bin, of course, vanished sometime between that moment and our move to Georgia about a year later, and I let it go.
That was the day I consciously realized my father was dangerous — at that point, he didn’t hit me anymore, but he was still an unstable force in my life. A year prior, I had already decided that I very much didn’t want to be like him. And that’s a plan I’ve managed to stick to so far — I refuse to be the self-centered, dishonest, emotionally and physically abusive person he was.
The fundamental flaw in this plan, as you’d expect from my setup for this piece, is that like every other adult, my behaviors are still informed by the way I was raised.
Summer of 2016
A few weeks ago, I had a moment of parenting that left me heartbroken and ashamed of myself and simultaneously angry that after over a year of therapy that my father still has influences on my behavior.
Eddy has this habit of jamming things into your face and badgering you to “Look! Look at it!” even though it’s so close your eyes can’t actually focus on it and if you so much as twitch a muscle the object he wants you to observe is actually going to end up in your nostril. It’s a behavior that really bugs the hell out of me at times4, and on a Saturday morning when I’ve just finished dealing with a flooded basement and given a plumber the better part of three hundred dollars, and I’m watching my opportunity to get some me-time on the bike slipping away, it’s probably not the best time to jam something into my face.
Sitting out on the front porch and trying to enjoy what was left of the morning, he offered me a presta valve lock nut — a useless bit of metal worth less than a penny — in the manner described above. I took it from him, said something brusquely about not needing it, and then tossed it into the woods next to the house.
Instant tears. Apparently he’d been saving it “special.” And I instantly felt like the world’s biggest dickhead. I scooped him up and hugged him and apologized profusely. And then I cradled him, and I broke down and cried. I cried for the hurt I caused him and I cried for whatever memory of this he’ll have of it.
I did something stupid out of frustration. In the grand scheme of things, it was minor. I didn’t break a beloved toy, I didn’t strike him or humiliate him or anything like that.5 I trivialized something he’d done for me and treated it as if it didn’t matter. When what I should have done was thanked him for saving it and pocketed it.
This was, I think, my worst moment as a parent. I did something exactly like my father did on so many occasions.
What I’ve realized since that Saturday, is that the echoes of our parents are always going to be with us, the good and the bad. It’s how we handle them that matters. So on Saturday when there was an echo of my father’s behaviors in my actions, I can console myself with the knowledge that I did what he never bothered to do. I apologized.6 I made sure Eddy knew I was sorry, that I cared, and that we could figure out something to do to make up for it.
The echoes of my father have never been particularly loud — I knew from a young age that I didn’t want to be him and I spent a lot of time thinking about what I did want to be, and that’s guided me to where I am today. I’ve worked very hard with the help of a therapist to eliminate his influences from my thinking, my behavior, and my view of myself. I’ve eliminated him (and my stepmother) from my life as they’re still the same self-centered assholes they were in 1984.
Part of me will always be that scared, humiliated, sad little kid crying over the fragments of a cheap plaster Ferdinand piggy bank on his bedroom floor. And that’s not a bad thing — because I’ve used that memory and others like it to craft myself into someone who avoids perpetrating the same behaviors that led to that moment. Yes, there will be moments that I slip, like the callousness described above, and yes, I need to use those moments as learning experiences, to ensure that I stay on the path to being the man I want to be. Also of importance is that I need to give myself a little grace, to understand how far I’ve come and how much the polar opposite I am of my father — and, strangely, that’s the hardest part of all.
(Addendum: That picture of Ferdinand? Came from an eBay listing. It was active. Goddamned right I bought it.)