Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Pa

(Warning: This is a seriously long blog post. But I suppose that makes up for me not being able to post as often right now!)

It can be a little strange staying with a parent once you are an adult. Especially if it has been almost a decade since you’ve spent more than a few days with that parent. Especially if you are entirely alone with that parent in a house that is several miles from the nearest town, and you have no car or internet access. In my case, it’s my dad I’m spending this entire six weeks with. My lonely, lonely dad. He has lived by himself ever since my brother and I left home, and I’m tallying up all the ways in which this has made him eccentric. Where do I start? How about with his kitchen? I think some photos will say a lot:

Yes, that’s a can of Raid insect killer, in the same cupboard as the plastic mixing bowls.

A gift to my father from my uncle, who was a career soldier in the army until he retired fifteen years ago.

Here are some photos that will elaborate on the chaos of my dad’s house. He is a carpenter/woodworker, and there is no clear boundary between his home and his workshop:

I suppose some of the things I’ve been tallying up are not so much eccentricities as they are the manifestations of ongoing bachelorhood. (Or should I call it divorcee-hood?) Examples: The mountain of “clean” laundry on his bedroom floor that hasn’t been folded all summer. Metal camping gear plates and bowls in the kitchen cupboards (the kind that are blue or green with white speckles). Medicines in the bathroom that expired over a decade ago. Five cartons of maple walnut ice cream in the freezer (right next to a stack of ten identical frozen mini-pizzas). A towering stack of woodworking tool catalogs on the living room floor. A gaggle of duplicate vitamin/herbal supplement bottles on the kitchen counter (Daily Essential Enzymes, Ginko Biloba, Flaxseed Oil, Complete Senior Multivitamin, Revitalizing Sleep Formula, Apple Cider Vinegar Plus, etc.). Sawdust all over the house. Tupperware dishes that my mother left behind seventeen years ago, all covered in white mineral residue from Garfield County’s incredibly hard water. A sun-faded note reading “Grape Juice”, written on yellow legal-pad paper, still taped to the front door. Hundreds of plastic fountain drink cups from the local Kum & Go. Kitchen and bathroom towels that look more like auto-mechanic rags. An ugly hooked-yarn rainbow wall hanging that has now become a bathroom mat.

It’s not that I want to be critical of him. Rather, it’s that I feel incredibly unsettled by how human he seems to me now. As I child, I only saw his strength, jolly smile, dark hair, and impressive work ethic. I still see those things, but now his hair is thinning and graying, and I see his loneliness, insecurities, and flaws like termite tracks in his once super-human nature. Added to all this is the perpetual sensitive dance around topics of politics and religion. We had actually been doing surprisingly well in this department for the first few days. I wasn’t criticizing Evangelical Christianity and he wasn’t trying to persuade me to go to church. He had only dropped a few hints, one of them being this book:

As he handed it to me, he said, “A lady at church thought you might be interested in this, since you majored in Chinese.” I humored him, flipping through it for a few minutes, and then said, “Uh, Dad? I don’t think this book has any scholarly basis at all.” He just shrugged and said, “Well, I don’t know anything about it. That lady at church just thought you might find it interesting.” And that was pretty much it for the topic of religion. Until my fifth night here.

Our argument started with a TV show he was watching. It was about Florida Native Americans who believe in some sort of supernatural swamp creature. As a tribal elder talked about the creature, my father scoffed and said, “That’s just ridiculous that anyone would believe that. No one’s ever seen that thing.” I was immediately irritated by his comment, and here’s how the rest of our conversation went:
Me: “Dad, you’ve never seen God or Jesus, but you believe in them.”
Pa: “That’s different.”
Me: “Why?”
Pa: “Because I know God exists.”
Me: “How?”
Pa: “Because God talks to me.”
Me: “Some people would call that schizophrenia.”
Pa: … (staring at me incredulously)

Oh dear. The conversation just got worse from there. At one point, I told him that no one will ever be able to prove that any religion is better than any other, and that’s why I’m agnostic. “There will be NO agnostics come Judgment Day!” he retorted, his fist a gavel on his knee. I gave my usual defense of religious diversity, of multiple paths to truth. He countered with, “Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. That’s what the Bible says, and that’s just the way it is, by God!” I of course told him that was a copout, and that he wasn’t using his own brain to think about things. His response: “All those other religions are a copout! The Bible is the ultimate authority!” I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation, but let’s just say that it ended up with me crying and stomping out the front door for an angry nighttime walk in my pajamas and hiking boots. As I walked, I called my brother. He laughed and told me about a memorable Sunday when he was nineteen and still living with our dad. My brother’s hobby is rebuilding old rat-rods (see photo below), and one Sunday, he had refused to go to church with our dad, preferring to stay home and work on his cars instead. “That’s idolatry!” my father yelled at him. “You’ve made a religion out of those cars!” My brother got angry and yelled back, “No, Dad, these cars are my fucking HOBBY, not my RELIGION!” A half hour yelling match ensued. In the end, my brother never went to church again.

Hearing my brother’s tale made me feel 50% better. Frustration with parents is much easier to cope with when a sibling can commiserate. I told my brother good-bye (letting him get back to his Labor Day party and new girlfriend), and flopped down on a bench in the dark. I stared up through my wet lashes at the stars, which are stunningly clear and bright out here. Finally, I got bored of pouting, and trudged back to the house, sweatshirt hood pulled up over my head in angsty moping. When I came in the door, my dad was in the living room, watching a movie. “Night,” I grumbled at him without making eye contact. “Good night, Kid. Love you,” he said. “Love you, too,” I growled and stomped off to bed. I was fifteen years old again.

The following morning, he and I actually ended up having a surprisingly constructive conversation. Somehow, I think I convinced him that The Lord sent me down from Seattle to teach him how to talk to non-Christians. “Well, The Lord does work in mysterious ways,” Pa said as he contemplated this possibility. We talked about ways we could both work on how we word our opinions to show more respect for each other’s beliefs. My father—in his sad Oakie accent—told me, “I never have been any good at speaking to people. That’s not my calling. The Lord gave me building skills, so that’s why I just build things for the church. I’m no good at talking to people.” He said it like he believes he’s a worm in the eyes of The Lord. It made me feel sorry for him, in a really, REALLY disconcerting way. I would have rather been in a North Korean labor camp than to hear that tone in his voice. (This sort of Christian guilt and self-loathing is a big part of the reason I stopped being a Christian.)

Despite all my awkward feelings concerning my father, there are so many things about him that I do find endearing. He has a seriously noble heart. He is a sucker for helping the elderly and the weak. He adores children, and befriends little kids everywhere we go. He has a profound love for nature and plants. He keeps a wonderful garden, and his delight over the little cucumbers, carrots, and bell peppers it yields is adorable. He is a great storyteller, so long as you guide him with questions that will ensure you get a story you haven’t already heard 1,000 times. (One of my favorite stories is of his kleptomaniac grandfather, who used to enlist all the grandchildren in helping filch things from stores in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in the 1950’s.)

I am also impressed by my father’s knowledge. When we go hiking, he can tell me the name of almost any kind of wild plant. He knows whether or not the plant is edible, and how it needs to be prepared. He knows the name of every mountain, creek, reservoir, and canyon in Garfield County. His hobby is finding arrowheads left behind by the Ute American Indians. Over the years, he has found probably fifty complete arrowheads/scraping tools and hundreds of partial pieces. When we hike, he picks up all kinds of stones, telling me what type they are, and whether or not they would have been suitable for making arrowheads. He shows me which spots on the mountains the Ute kept sentry watches from. My father never went to college, but his knowledge impresses me more than any Ph.D. scholar I’ve encountered. I think if I can overcome some of the discomfort I feel, I am going to learn a lot from this six weeks with him.

Here’s an audio-clip of my dad telling a story about trying to catch a rattlesnake (Sorry for the annoying download site):

(Is that The Lord's light shinin' on my Pa?!?!?)


  1. I think one of the hardest things we learn as adults is how to see our parents as just people. The older you get, the more you realize how hard you are on your mother and father precisely because they WERE superheroes to you at one time, and seeing them as plain people, with faults and flaws just like anyone else, is a hard blow to the psyche.

    Sometimes it's helpful to take the extra time to view them as you would someone from a different culture. With someone from a foreign country, you would say to yourself, "Well now, they don't entirely understand what I'm doing or why I'm doing it because they don't do things like that where they come from." You would give that person extra patience and extra compassion because you would know that you're meeting at one point from two different planes.

    That's how it is with parents, we choose to give them extra.

  2. I never got along with my father. He had a cruel sense of humor (which I and my brother and sisters seem to have inherited) and spent so much time indulging in his hobbies that he rarely seemed to have time for us kids. During the last years of his life he tried to bond with us, but there was a lot of bitterness for us to overcome and I never really made a connection, although my youngest sister did, and doing so helped her to cope alot better with his death.

    I was pretty numb at his funeral, but thinking back I am now surprised by the hundreds of people who came and the often surprising positive things they had to say and stories they had to tell about him. His sense of humor seemed cruel because he joked with us kids as if we were adult friends, and he was probably a little hurt that we never got the joke (we were all introverted nerds). He spent so much time with his hobbies because he was always struggling to find work (he was an engineer) and his main hobby, golf, allowed him to network and find new job opportunities, ultimately keeping a roof over our heads (the thing I am most grateful for right now is the excellent dental care, after hearing a few of my co-workers' tooth-related nightmares).

    Right now I am involved in a sort of weird struggle with my mother to keep her from becoming a candidate for one of those TV documentary shows like "Hoarders". She compulsively coupon shops even for things we already have too much of, and it is a real struggle to get her to throw anything out. (Our pantry best resembles a frighteningly large pile of junk goods that is spreading across our basement like a mold). Amazingly, alot of the book-buying (or perhaps book-rejecting) knowledge I've learned at the store, as well as the experience dealing with upset customers, has helped me to convince her to lighten our load, and we are finally making something like positive progress. But left to her own devices, I'd have some real concerns about the conditions she would be living in.

  3. It's so heartbreaking to see someone so good and so extraordinary - and by this I mean his affinity for building and for getting along with children - ground into the dust by 'faith.' I think you've illustrated why he's a victim here and not someone I could write off as an adversary. It seems like he's chained himself to the floor... You're very brave for trying to reason with him at all. Jia you.