My father doesn’t like trying anything new. Paying bills for instance. He still writes checks and sends them snail mail. “You can pay everything online now,” I’ve told him. “It’s faster and you don’t have to use stamps.”
He refuses, though he’s fairly internet-savvy, because he’s paid bills this way for the past 30 years, dammit, and that’s the way he’s going to keep paying them. He can get impatient. His stories can go on forever. He can be antisocial and crabby.
I want to be just like him when I grow up.As kids, my brother and I had to earn our mother’s approval. Good grades, politeness to adults, and a general cheerful disposition (difficult to come by especially in our teens) were all prerequisites. Failure to meet any of these resulted in yelling, the cold shoulder, and long grudges.
Our father, however, doled out affection like government cheese. Out of nowhere and for no reason, he’d give us a hug and a kiss. If we didn’t do well on a test, he’d say, “Uh oh,” and sit down to help us. He could care less if we were polite to his friends.
“I don’t even really like them,” he’d say. He’d only get mad when we disrespected our mom. “That be all?” she said once in her broken English, and my brother and I cracked up.
“That’s not nice,” our dad said. “You shouldn’t make fun of someone’s English.”
Fighting with our father wasn’t a big deal. The argument existed only in the moment. He didn’t take it personally, unlike our mom who considered every disagreement an insult to her character. “All my friends say I’m easy-going!” she’d insist. “It’s just you kids!” I doubted she nagged her friends as much. My father, however, didn’t question our love just because we shouted back.
Few of us get to experience unconditional love. For a long time, I didn’t even know this was what my father was giving me. All I knew was that my mother’s approval was hard to get and my father’s was easy. I depended on my mother’s approval a lot for my happiness, and her happiness seemed to depend on me. My father seemed happy that my brother and I simply existed.
While other women may marry their fathers, I ended up marrying someone a lot like my mom. My ex had the same volatile temper, and while arguing wasn’t a big deal — his family would be screaming one moment, then perfectly fine the next — he’d get infuriated by the smallest things. Out of paper plates? Check. On a six-month waiting list for a parking space? Double check. A screw-up with airplane seating? Triple check with a throbbing vein.
The way I earned my mother’s approval, I felt I had to earn my ex’s love and my place in his family. I tried to be “good,” giving up weekends to help with his sick mom, neglecting my parents to spend holidays with his, trying to make big bucks with my writing since non-paying literary gigs weren’t enough for him.
But I wasn’t an innocent victim either. I thought if I did everything he asked and gave him everything he wanted, he had no license to find anything wrong with me, and therefore anything that smacked of criticism was worth a hissy fit. I helped my in-laws not out of the goodness of my heart but for brownie points, and was bitter and resentful when I didn’t get the payback I thought I deserved.
Eventually, my ex would cheat, we’d divorce, and after several misfires, I’d find someone new. Not only was Alex fun, smart, and sexy as hell, he loved me for me. I didn’t have to meet certain criteria or behave a certain way. I didn’t have to earn my way into his good graces. Like my father’s, Alex’s love was free.
You’d think accepting that unconditional love would be easy, but it’s not. Imagine it this way: you tell someone she can sit next to you, but that someone has never been offered a seat without a price.
“Are you sure?” she says. “What do you want in exchange?”
Nothing, you say. Please sit next to me.
“Are you sure?” she asks again. “Can you I give you something so we’re even?”
No, you say, a little annoyed now. It’s not about being even. All you want is for her to sit next to you.
“Are you sure?” she asks yet again. “How do I know you won’t take the seat away suddenly? Can’t I do something to make sure you won’t?”
There’s nothing we can do really, except to love back unconditionally, which is no cakewalk either. Can we love regardless of what we might get in return? Accept people as they are? Consider others’ feelings before thinking about ourselves? And can we do it all without getting stepped on? Can we love without fear or losing ourselves?
I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’m trying and look to my dad for help. What Would Dad Do (WWDD)? I wonder when Alex is being cranky. I know what my mother would do: take it personally and yell. Dad would think, Hmm, Alex seems cranky about something that has nothing to do with me. Best to give him a little space, followed by a dash of affection. If that doesn’t work, call him out on his crankiness.
WWDD during an argument? Mom would freak out. Dad would argue back to the best of his ability, then drop it once he got bored. WWDD if someone made a comment about his shyness? I’d take it as a criticism. He’d shrug and say, “That’s the way I am.”
WWDD if I offered him a chair? He’d take it freely, if there wasn’t someone who needed it more, and we’d sit side by side, peacefully, not owing each other a thing.