Absent Fathers


The date is April 30th, 1970. I'm eight years old. I wake
up in the morning and I think it is a school day, only no
one is getting ready for school. I'm the youngest of six,
and usually the "getting ready for school" routine creates
quite a commotion. I'm vaguely aware that things are not as
they should be. My mom appears to have been crying, which
is not uncommon in my home. I'm not too alarmed. My sisters
are comforting Mom and each other. My brothers are subdued.
I'm still trying to come to a conclusion when there's a
knock at the door. We're Mormons. The people at the door
are the Bishop and the president of the wives' group we
call the Relief Society. The Bishop takes my mom aside to
talk and the older woman gathers us children around her.
She begins by saying "My father died when I was quite
young, too.." "Too," she said. The light when on in my
head, "That's it, my dad has died."
When I was eight, the permanence of death had no meaning
for me. I didn't realize how drastically my life would
change. I had no idea how many of my decisions would be
affected by the need to fill the void his absence left.
With my father we had lived in a modest middle class home
We went to church most Sundays. We visited with
grandparents and other extended family members. We had a
pretty normal life.
My mom was feisty, and she argued with Dad. Because she was
the loudest, I always thought of her as the bad guy. She'd
had a hard youth and was determined not to let Dad get too
"high on his horse".
Dad was a typical father of the late '60s. He went to work
each morning, worked hard, came home. His political views
were conservative. He was religious. He liked camping and
deer hunting. He loved all of his children, but his two
boys were the "apples of his eye".
Dad's brother and father had died earlier that year, which
further diluted the significance of death. Well-meaning
relatives suggested that these two men needed my father
with them in heaven to help with the work there. I couldn't
believe that they needed him more than I. Others said that
Dad had finished his work here on Earth perhaps by
performing my baptism into the Mormon church a month
earlier. He'd baptized all of his children. Maybe if I
hadn't been baptized he wouldn't have died, thought my
eight year old logic.
My mother's mother died just three weeks before my father.
I can't imagine what she must have gone through. My mother
was young, only forty-two, and she had six children. What
despair she must have experienced. Even the callousness she
had developed from the hardship of her youth must have
dissolved, exposing the feelings, more sensitive than most
due to the repression and disuse. When it occurred to me,
many self-absorbed years later, that the tragedy of my
father's death was no doubt, ever so much more profound for
my mother, I softened toward her.
Mom's decision to remarry quite hastily must surely have
been based on having six children between eight and
eighteen. Unfortunately for all of us[,] the man she chose
was a near-transient alcoholic who felt no obligation to
aid in the support of his new wife's vast family. She had
spent her insurance money, her nest-egg, on a ragtag parcel
of farmland for the fulfillment of his dream to have a
farm. The man who we all hoped would take the place of a
father in our lives turned out to be, in hindsight, the end
to any chance of normalcy we may have had.
The years with Don as a stepfather were nothing short of
hellish. We were moved away from the home we knew, to a
rundown farm with no running water and badly in need of
interior repair. We were so isolated that the nearest towns
were six miles away in either direction. These towns had
populations less than 2500. We had left our extended
family, and we knew no one.
Looking back, growing up on a farm was character building.
We all worked together. Don wouldn't allow us to replace
our old black and white television once it blew its tube,
again building character by forcing us to use our
Television was evil, the Mormon church was crooked, the PTA
was too political, but spending all of his time and money
in the local bars was all right. My mom secured a job as a
barmaid so she could spend more time with him, and still
earn a living to support her children. Our needs grew as
rapidly as we did. As far as I can remember, Don never held
a job. He would hire himself and the farm equipment my
mother paid for, to cut or swath or plow or bale the
neighbors' hay. He was a carpenter, really, and although my
mother and brothers were the ones who worked to remodel our
home, Don would occasionally build cabinets for friends.
There had always been what we termed "family fights". The
buzzword now is domestic violence. Once Mom started working
for the government in social service jobs, Don became
jealous of her independence. The cycle of the fights became
more frequent and more intense.
Mom divorced my stepfather when I was about fourteen, and I
rejoiced. Surviving daily life was easier, leaving more
energy for other things. It was about that time that I
began to mourn my father.
I longed to return to the last home we lived in with him.
I felt sorry for myself for having lost my father at such
an early age.
I felt cheated because I was the youngest and had had him
the shortest time. I knew him the least.
I wished for my father to be able to see me as I began to
rise above my surroundings and excel at school.
I resented him for abandoning me. I'd been left with a
mother who had never had her needs met and was unable to
meet anyone else's.
I lost faith in the Mormon church, in Jesus, and even in
I hated what my life had become, and later, as a young
adult, I blamed him for some of the stupid choices I'd made
in my life.
As a senior in high school I had earned a scholarship to a
four-year college in another part of the state. I rejected
the scholarship in favor of marriage. I was afraid of going
out on my own. I needed a man to take care of me.
When my young marriage seemed too much of a burden to bear,
I turned to another man for comfort. When I needed the man
the most, he left.
Determined to lie in the bed I had made, I had a child. My
thinking was that I would have a focus other than the man I
no longer cared for. That was a big mistake. Realizing that
it was doomed no matter what I did, I opted to save myself
and end the marriage. I spent a year hopping from man to
man, claiming I didn't need any of them. Then I found one
whom I wanted. Secure, safe, stable.
The absence of a father in my life left an incredible void.
I'm not sure I would have made different choices if my
father had been around. I do know my life would have been
incredibly different. I would have chosen a mate
differently. I think I would have stayed with the Mormon
church, not because I would have believed it any more than
I do, but because that is what one does. I think I'm still
making decisions, and have needs based on not having had a
father. Sometimes I admit it and sometimes I don't.
I may not have liked my father very much if, I had grown up
with him. I know that he was conservative, bigoted and
chauvinistic. Those are issues I may have gone round and
round with him about. But at least I would know what
relationship I had with him.
My experience has made it possible for me to realize the
important role that fathers play in their children's lives,
and how much children love their fathers regardless of any
faults. I thought of this as I made the decision to allow
my son to spend the school year with his father in Alaska,
and only have him on vacation. He needs to know what it's
like to have a "real" father be a part of his everyday
life. I think it's particularly important for young boys.
As my husband and I watch our children grow in a healthy
and secure environment, I hope for them to have many
wonderful memories and recognize how lucky they are to have
such a loving Dad.

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