Sometimes things just blindside you.
To be honest, with the recent medical woes emotions are running a bit high right now and it doesn’t take much to send me into a spiral. But scrolling through my various media feeds this morning I saw this graphic and it just knocked me flat. I literally welled up.
All I could think was, at least somebody else gets it.
The thing about these insipid Hallmark holidays is that they exacerbate the pain for everyone who doesn’t qualify. For years, our joke about Valentine’s Day was that it really should be called “Depressed Singles Day.” Likewise, around here both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are generally thought of as “Bitter Orphan’s Day.”
All day long all over the internet, you’re going to see stuff like this…
Happy pictures with Dad.
Norman Rockwell moments everywhere you look.
No corner of the internet is free of this treacly sentiment.
For those of us who didn’t get that happy family experience, it just gets to be too much. It doesn’t matter if you get up and walk away; the damage is done. The memories, and all the bitterness that goes with them, come flooding back.
I’ve talked a fair amount about Mom in this space over the years, but I don’t talk much about Dad. The dynamic between us was different. With Mom it was always all about anger; to this day, if I let them, the simmering resentments from those days will still boil up into a rage. (I had a nightmare a couple of weeks ago where Mom and I were having one of our raise-the-roof main-event shouting matches, that I’m sure our former Oswego neighbors have come to miss so much, and I woke up shaking with fury. I have no memory of what the dream fight was ABOUT but the anger was right there, same as always, with nowhere to go. I just sat there panting for a minute and finally gave in and got up. Thanks a lot, brain.)
But with Dad, it was different. With Dad it was terror.
Here’s the recap, for those who came in late. In college, my father was an overachiever; straight-A student, star athlete. My mother was a sorority girl and cheerleader from a wealthy family; she’d grown up in Garthwick, a snooty neighborhood in east Portland every bit as stuffy as you’d think from the name.
She swooned over Dad and the storybook couple married right after graduation. Dad’s star was on the rise and shortly he was hired on as the youngest bank president in Oregon. (Name of the bank omitted for reasons that will become apparent.) Everyone thought they had it made.
But it was mostly a facade. Behind closed doors, Dad was a drunk. A mean one. Handy with his fists. In 1961, there were far fewer options for an abused wife with a new baby. So Mom just took it and tried to keep it together for her baby (that would be me.) It should be noted that my mother was a textbook narcissist who equated divorce with failure; in her mind enduring the occasional beating and lying to everyone about everything all the time was a small price to pay to make sure Nobody Found Out.
Then it got worse. Dad, who’d gotten spoiled by having everything come easy, also had a crooked streak. He allowed himself to be persuaded to get involved with an embezzlement scheme. He got caught and he did time; not much, a little over a year, in one of those country-club places. But it was enough. It poisoned our family for the rest of our lives. Without that, we might have gotten through the alcoholism stuff — Mom was a lost cause, but Dad might have made it out. But not after he was an ex-con instead of a young financial whiz with a bright future. Mom never, ever, let him forget that he had wrecked their storybook romance. She became a vengeful harpy. So Dad drank more. And when he drank he was dangerous.
THAT was my experience, growing up. Norman Rockwell had left the building.
Weirdly, though he often scared the shit out of me, I didn’t hate Dad; mostly I think I pitied him. He was in his own self-constructed hell; as much as my mother made it clear she despised him, every moment of every day, that was nothing compared to how much he despised himself. It was the thing he drank at, as though if he could get numb enough, he could bury the constant internal sneers of self-loathing (amplified, of course, by Mom, at every opportunity.) Mom, at least, he could silence with threats–or fists, if it came to that and the mood took him.
Sometimes people ask me how I made it out myself. Well, I didn’t emerge unscathed. Thrown out of five schools for cause, with a fine drug and alcohol habit of my own, I was spiraling down the drain by the early 1980s. But I had an advantage my father didn’t: I didn’t have a spouse constantly sabotaging every attempt to crawl up from the hole, and I had no narcissistic compulsion to cover up everything about my life for fear of being seen as a failure.
Hell, I knew I was a failure. Mom made that clear at every opportunity– she stayed a vengeful harpy till her dying day, even decades after Dad finally killed himself in 1981. There wasn’t going to be any forthcoming rescue or even support from THAT quarter. This was a woman who thought revenge was better than Christmas and who was as bitter with me as she was with Dad. Her master plan had been to hold out until us kids were grown and then we would restore her status by becoming rich and famous and respectable. Instead I was a drunk who’d embarked on a life of crime. Even after I got sober, became a published writer and a respected schoolteacher (and won some awards in both fields of endeavor)– whatever I accomplished by way of redemption, she couldn’t let it go. No conversation with my mother ever went without a needling reference to how I’d let her down. Just like Dad. (In my years teaching, occasionally some student would take a notion to heckle me and I’d cut him off at the knees with a snide remark; after one such incident little Jessica expressed amazement at how quick Mr. Hatcher was with that sort of thing and I could only snort and say, “Trained under my mother, kid.”)
Here’s the thing, though. I wasn’t just like Dad. I had a found family. My high school friends Joe and Janet and Mark and Molly. My college roommate West. My English teacher Letty. When I got sober in 1986 they were there for me in a way no blood relative of mine had ever been.
Julie’s got much the same take on it that I do. Our friends are our family. One we built for ourselves, where we get the things we didn’t get from our actual blood family.
And in my twenty-plus years teaching in public school, I’ve come to see how common this is. One of the frustrations of the profession is how you can’t follow kids home and beat the shit out of parents who deserve it. Like this moment of fantasy from Kindergarten Cop.
Trust me, that scene is pure wish fulfillment for every teacher who’s witnessed shitty parenting first-hand.
It’s because of this that Julie and I have always had an open-door policy for any kid needing a safe place to hide out from the relatives. We totally get it. So over the decades we’ve acquired our own little entourage of misfit kids needing a safe space, a group our colleague Pol Rua dubbed the “Hatchlings”– a name, by the way, they have enthusiastically embraced.
Several of them actually refer to us as Mom and Dad, something that Julie and I are deeply honored by and try very hard to live up to.
All of this is on my mind today because this year there’s a new development. One of our kids wanted to make it official and of course Julie and I said yes. Say hello to Rowan Hatcher.
Rowan came out as queer to their fundamentalist conservative birth parents and it was, shall we say, a disaster. (Just as an aside, the sheer hypocrisy of this makes my blood boil. Rowan wasn’t springing a girlfriend on them. They were trying to do the right thing… showing honesty and integrity, trying not to lie to the family. And for this good faith effort they were kicked to the curb. That is just about the least Christian response possible.)
But in any case, Julie and I were very happy to be plan B. The only hard part is remembering the pronouns and that they go by “Rowan” now instead of Tiffany. Currently they’re teaching in Japan, so my first Father’s Day as an actual Dad was mostly conducted via text:
—Happy Father’s Day!! Thanks for being my dad 😊😊
—It has been the greatest privilege of our lives, my dear
—We really had no idea how much we would love being called Mom and Dad till you kids started doing it.
We are determined that whatever orphans cross our path, they won’t be bitter ones if we can help it. Happy Father’s Day, everyone. Treacly sentiment and all. This year we’re feeling it for real.
Julie wants it known that I get credit for the cat:
Maggie, herself, remains unmoved.
Health continues to improve, slowly, and we are almost done with radiation. Back soon with something cool, and a little lighter.