I have one good memory of my father.
This is not to say we only ever shared one good time. My memory has always been unreliable and skewed toward the negative, so it’s likely that there are several events that I’ve forgotten. So I have just the one good memory, and even that is tinged with awfulness.
For context, you have to understand our relationship. He appeared to believe that I was filled with lies, and I believed him to be unpredictably abusive. The Beta incident is typical of our interaction.
For those of you born after the heady early days of movie rentals, there was a format war for VCR tapes. It was somewhat akin to Blu-ray vs HD DVD. You don’t remember HD DVD? Never mind. The point is that my folks got a great deal on a Betamax player, precisely because Beta had just lost the war for home systems.
Anyway, the Beta incident began with my dad trying to hook up the player. He couldn’t figure out why the cable channels weren’t coming in through the VCR. I picked up the installation manual and looked through it until I found the answer. There was a hatch on the top that opened up to reveal a frightening array of dials. You were supposed to set and tune each channel individually in order for the Beta to read their signals correctly.
I guess that’s why it was called a Beta.
So, like Charlie Brown running at the football, I told my dad what I’d read. He was furious. He swore at me for interfering, and he sent me outside to pick up sticks in the yard so he could mow.
I went outside and cleared the yard, front and back. That only took a few minutes, and it was much too early to go back inside. The TV was right next to the stairs, and he’d certainly notice me heading upstairs to hide. So I did it again, picking up even the most minute twigs I could spot. Half an hour later I figured it might be safe enough to risk going in, so I did.
Dad caught me, but he wasn’t pissed anymore; he was triumphant. He marched me into the living room to show me the TV. The picture came in perfectly.
“I figured it out,” he proclaimed. “You have to tune each channel in that top panel.”
This wasn’t an unfortunate aberration; this was my everyday experience. Nothing any of us did was right, even if it was, and he was the self-proclaimed genius who told us we were stupid. When he ran off with his secretary while I was in my last year of college, I was more than happy to write him off and start repairing my confidence.
That was pretty much it for 20 years. Then Wendi found a message on our answering machine two weeks from the Department of Human Services of a county I hardly knew existed. It turned out that my father had applied for a fostering permit, and they needed to talk to his own offspring as part of their screening.
I wanted nothing to do with it. For one thing, I had elected to have no part in his life. I didn’t want to get involved. Additionally, I hate phones. No, that’s not right. I’m afraid of accidentally committing to something while talking on a phone. There’s a story in that, but I’m already on my second digression. I’ll explain that very particular phobia another time. Let it suffice for now that I do not make phone calls if I can help it.
The message nagged at me through the week. I’d sought help a few times in my adolescence, but nobody had wanted to get involved. Wasn’t my silence contributing to the problem?
A form from the Department of Human Services arrived in the mail. I could fill out the paperwork, assuage my conscience, and avoid using a phone! I read the form. The bulk of it obsessed on how well I was doing, and there was just one small space allotted for opposition to the foster application. That wouldn’t work for me.
By now I’d convinced myself that it was my duty to respond, but the safe route led away from the response I needed to make. Steeling myself, I dialed the provided number.
I got an answering machine. After rambling confusedly for a bit I left my cel number. Then I went to Wendi for comforting. Thinking about my father had wound me up, and imagining all of the ways that the phone call could go south had left me shaking. She calmed me down and sent me away again. Then my phone rang.
The county worker was nice enough, but I didn’t feel as though she believed me. She kept saying “That’s too bad” in a way that seemed well-worn and disinterested. I imagine she’s dealt with people who’d suffered neglect and physical abuse, and that mere emotional abuse is pretty low on her list of concerns.
Or, and this is a distinct possibility, I simply read into her responses what my head meat expected to hear. Regardless, she assured me that she would include my statements in her findings. This means that now there’s likely official documentation of my father calling me a “worthless piece of shit.”
But I do still have one good memory of him. I have to admit that.
I had just settled down to watch “The Tingler” on HBO. My dad wandered in and asked what I was watching. I told him, adding that it starred Vincent Price. To my surprise he sat down to watch it with me. A few minutes in, he asked if I wanted nachos. Did I?
We raced out into the kitchen, poured chips on a plate, sprinkled shredded jack liberally on them, popped them in the microwave for a bit, and raced back the living room with our goodies. Bing, pow, zap! A plate full of cheesy sadness!
We didn’t care though; we happily munched away as the glorious Mr. Price proved his theories on the physical nature of fear — by killing people, of course. The chips vanished quickly, and we raced to the kitchen for a second batch. Bing, pow, sadness!
It was after we’d eaten half of the second batch that one of us looked at the snack we’d prepared. The nachos were far more terrifying that any of the on-screen silliness that had been holding our attention. There were patches of green in the melted cheese. It had been moldy, and both of us were so fixated on a stupid movie that neither one of us had noticed until halfway through the second serving.
Feeling our stomaches churn, we pushed the plate aside and tried to enjoy the finale of the movie. We had to admit though, they’d been pretty tasty.
For that brief span, we were in sync. We acted as one with no friction, and we (mostly) had fun. That’s the father I wish I’d had more of. That’s the man I’d endorse for fostering a child — with the provision that he not be allowed to make nachos.