Monday, June 01, 2009

A thing I always wanted

When my father took his own life at the age of 57, I believe he was still longing for the one thing he always wanted: affirmation from his own father, long dead by then.

When Peter came home from the war (which - he was to assure us all repeatedly years later - he had won single-handedly), he was introduced to his three year old son. Obedient to his mother's instructions, little Geoff held out his arms for a hug and a kiss from this stranger she referred to as his Daddy.

The Daddy in question held out his right hand. "A man who kisses another man never grows whiskers," he declared. He had started as he meant to go on. While he lavished affection on his two daughters, and the third one who was to arrive a year later, his son had to be content with solemn handshakes. And even these were few and far between.

When Geoff earned provincial school colours for rugby, Peter told of how he had been selected for the South African Olympic team. When Geoff jumped 21 feet in long jump, Peter told of how he had held the record for the 100 yard dash.

Nothing Geoff ever did could measure up to the (allegedly) greater feats of his father. Geoff began to tell stories of his achievements. With every telling, the achievements became more spectacular. He was, however, a gifted storyteller and made the tales thoroughly entertaining. Like his father before him, he became the hero of all his own stories.

Sadly, by the time of his death, the stories he was telling involved all the same incidents they had 20 and 30 years previously. In the intervening years, he had done precious little to brag about. He had numbed this pain with increasing quantities of alcohol and slipped into a haze of self-pity, nostalgia and 'if only'.

Once, when I was 14, and playing a lead role in a school musical, a runner appeared in the make-up room and announced to me that my Dad had arrived. One moment the make-up artist (aka a volunteering mother of a cast member) was turning me into an elderly lady, the next her hand was poised in fresh air. I think I broke the sound barrier as I hurtled down the passage.

I had inherited my athleticism and my singing ability from my father, but he had never come to hear me sing. He had never come to watch me run. He had never come to cheer me on or support me in anything at all. And, whenever I called him to tell him I had improved my PB (personal best) in the 400m, he would tell me how he had jumped 21, 22, 23 feet (it tended to increase over time) in the senior boys' long jump competition. When I phoned to tell him our choir had won an eisteddfod, or I had landed a minor lead in Oklahoma he would tell me how he had sung at his sister's wedding when he was only 9, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. He was still waiting for his Dad to say, "You done good, kid," and until he heard those words, he couldn't be free to say them to me.

I screeched to halt at the end of the corridor. My Dad would have been easy to spot. He was 6' 3" with a larger than life personality. But he wasn't there. Instead, there was my mother with her dysfunctional boyfriend. I was livid. "They told me my Dad was here!" I snapped, completely forgetting to acknowledge my mother's presence. "Well, it was easier to say that than to explain," he shrugged. I went back to the make-up room.

The show went as well or as badly as school productions do and I played Aunt Eller as well or as badly as a 14-year-old could.

After the show, because I was at boarding school, I only got to spend a few minutes with my Mom before I had to head back to the hostel. The dysfunctional boyfriend teased me endlessly about the fact that I had held hands with the boy who had played Andrew Carnes when he and I had taken our bow. Even now it makes me roll my eyes!

All the way back to the hostel with the other girls, I spluttered with indignation that the man had had the effrontery to call himself my Dad to begin with, and that all he could say after the show was that Brett Adkins must be my boyfriend because I held his hand. I was sure that, if my real Dad had come, he would have told me how well I had done, how much he had enjoyed the show and that he was very proud of me.

I know now that he would have been more likely to tell me about how he used to sing in a night club and how the people used to come from miles around just to hear him.

History was repeating itself.

And I find myself wondering today. When my children come home and tell me that they have shaved a nanosecond of their 200m PB, or landed a role in a school play, do I focus on their achievement, or am I still imprisoned by the fact that my Dad was never free to tell me I 'done good'?

How many of us are marking time waiting for the apology that is owed but will never come, the praise that is our due but will never be given... and in the process depriving our children of the praise, the encouragement, the apologies that are their due?


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