When Fathers Fall Somewhere Between Awesome and Absentee
Father's Day can be a dilemma when you have a complicated relationship with your dad.
My father actually was absent for a few years. (In a favorite family anecdote, my mom muses out loud to 7-year-old me, ''Honey, I think we're doing pretty well, considering your father is in abstentia,'' and I reply, ''Abstentia? I thought he lived in Redding or somewhere.'') But during a longer period, I remember more clearly, he did show up at my gymnastics exhibitions and open houses (lanky, loud, bearing cameras whose pictures never got developed) and took me on field-trip-worthy Saturday excursions. We paddled boats in Golden Gate Park and drank hot chocolate on foggy ferry rides. He gave me pennies to drop in front of the silver-painted man who stood on a box at the pier. When his living situation allowed, he let me host friends for weekends and birthday sleepovers.
Collecting me from my mom's house, he'd be late and usually in a different used car. Often, we went to an apartment I hadn't seen before. Sometimes he sang along to R&B songs on the radio in a goofy baritone meant to make me giggle. Always, while we crossed the San Francisco Bay as the sun set on Sunday evening return trips, he gave fantasy sales pitches on his current projects and forthcoming fortunes. There was a bed and breakfast yacht, a motivational speaking career and multilevel marketing distribution of ''miracle'' vitamins. He was going to get into modular housing. I could have my own ''unit'' if I wanted. Eventually, I stopped believing but kept pretending. I'd listen until my eyes drooped and I fell asleep against the car window.
My dad's first job was stealing typewriters from his junior high school and selling them. He never got over making easy and often, illegitimate money. He also had an incongruously conservative, bootstrap-y streak. In Chinese restaurants, I knew to expect a lecture on how industrious ''Orientals'' were. Then, he'd sloppily segue to telling me that I'd need to work harder and look more pulled together than my friends because I was black. Cheerleading and a navel ring would combine to transform me into a slut, so he forbade them with all the authority of an every-other-weekend parent who didn't pay child support and didn't have access to the cheerleading tryout schedule (none at all). My first boyfriend didn't know whether to laugh or cry when my dad announced that he was in the ''Marin County Black Mafia'' and that his ''people'' were keeping an eye on things.
I can scarcely remember a time before I decided to just humor my father. Before part of what I felt for him was pity.
Today, he lives in a trailer in a wooded, upscale Northern California neighborhood, parked in the driveway of a lesbian couple in exchange for feeding their birds when they go on trips to Mexico. He remains on the brink of making a million (sometimes a billion) dollars. He calls to tell delusion-laced stories about his business plans and investors and forgets to ask about me. Just like the car rides of my childhood, without the Luther Vandross and Toni Braxton in the background.
Harder than explaining what he does, is explaining who he is. Narcissistic. Abusive. Helpless. Brilliant. Dedicated. Funny. Loving. He's been all these things.