I'm reading Mary Karr's Liars' Club which features wonderful segments of writing about her father. I marvel at how she captures the details of the man who played such a large role in how she views herself and the world. Without making the connection to today, I found myself wondering just yesterday how I would write about my father. While he undoubtedly helped shape me and my views, his type of guy doesn't show up in the memoirs I read. He didn't drink or fight or beat us. He's not an artist, musician, diplomat or secret agent.
He worked, kept our vehicles spotless, delivered goofy one-liners, fished, made fabulous homemade ice cream and slept in his recliner. Except for working, he still does all those things.
I once had a therapist who urged me to dig deep so I could hand her some juicy slug of wickedness with his name on it (how else to explain my approach to men and relationships?). I found nothing. Not that I'm so good at digging deep, but there was no abuse, no repressed memories. He's just my dad. He's not one to lavish affection or words on us, but I never felt unloved or unwanted. Did I feel like a nuisance, a disappointment, a drain? What kid doesn't? As a parent, did I do things differently? What parent doesn't?
My father was famous among the neighborhood kids for his suggestion that we "Go outside and play in the traffic." But we knew he was kidding. Mostly. Our street wasn't that busy anyway.
While the best I can do is a Crayola stick figure of a guy with a badly drawn truck and a fishing pole, Mary Karr's writing about her daddy is a masterpiece. She paints him as rough-hewn, of mixed origins that showed in his face, a poor kid from a timber camp in East Texas, a fighter, a labor unionist.
They had that in common, our daddies. They both did manual labor for middle class wages for related industries. Her father worked for Union Oil, mine for Monsanto. I know. Don't have a heart attack.We had good enough, not fancy, but good enough. Vacations, an above ground swimming pool in the back yard. Cable TV when it first came out. Always two cars in the driveway - used, but still. I held my hand out and batted my lashes, murmuring something about movies or the mall and a twenty dollar bill floated down into it.
We didn't question where the money came from. Dad worked in a factory, he wasn't in the mob or anything. It was the 60s, 70s, 80s. We didn't know that Monsanto was altering our agricultural landscape in dangerous ways.We just knew that Dad came home smelling of chemicals and Vitalis with chewed Tums on his breath, put his black rectangular lunchbox covered in Dole and Chiquita banana stickers on the counter and looked tired. When he worked four-to-twelve, we had to keep it down during the day, but it seems like he didn't get much sleep and operated that way for years. From what I've seen when I visit my parents, he's making up for it now.
Dad was just the guy who drove the forklift, moving foam core, walking the concrete floors of the plant there in Addiston, on that bend of the Ohio River along Highway 50. He earned a living, took care of his family, put money in the bank, played by the rules, and didn't take risks. Even with his good union job, he found ways to make side money. Helping on Grandpa's little tobacco farm. Collecting old bottles and glass from dump sites in hollows, cleaning them up and selling them long before ebay was a twinkle in some wunderkind's eye. Pumping gas at the Sunoco. Unearthing antique milk cans, painting them and adding decals before selling them as home decor pieces.
I was wrong. He is an artist.
He assumed his kids would continue the upward trajectory that began with him, having grown up poor and the recipient of occasional charity when Grandpa's delivery job didn't cover the necessities. As a kid, Dad had a paper route and did odd jobs. I picture him always working, working.
Which brings me to today. I'll call, but I'm dreading it. The last time I spoke to my parents, I got off the phone and MathMan could tell with one look that I was bent in six different ways. I know they don't mean to ride my ass about finding a job, they're just worried. They didn't send me to college so I could be a housewife. They can't understand why I can't find any job.
"Just apply to McDonalds." That's become the fall back suggestion. I refrain from pointing out that they didn't send me to college to work at McDonald's either.
The sad reality is that I have filled out online applications for every fast food and mid-range restaurant. Grocery stores, retail, cell phone, cable, satellite, coffee, greeting cards companies. Community colleges, administrative work in offices large and small. Doctors' and dentists' offices. The nursing home. The rare job in my field that pops up. Jobs like my old ones, but in Chicago and D.C.
The silence from potential employers is deafening.
It's hard to explain to my parents who still live in a world where you walk in anywhere and ask for a job if you need one. I tried that a couple of months ago. I was in a small shop downtown and mentioned to the owner that I was looking for work. Did she know anyone who was hiring? No, came the answer. Most of the places there in the downtown area were just hanging on. Her smile was sympathetic though.
My parents don't use computers so they don't understand the process. Once you fill out the online application, you can't create new ones. You return again and again to click new Apply for this position boxes. And hope. I guess that's the emotion. It's hard to identify. Sometimes it feels like when the guy behind the counter slides the lottery ticket toward you and you say a little Please Let This Be A Winner prayer even though you don't believe anyone is there to take the call.
I can't tell if my parents think I'm lying about looking for a job or if they suspect I think I'm too good for certain kinds of work. Thinking you're too good for something is one of the Seven Deadly Sins where I come from. It replaces Gluttony because who needs that guilt when you're chowing down on a Big Boy and Fries?
I started to whine to MathMan about my trepidation, but stopped mid-sentence. At least I can call my father even if I have to deal with the dreaded unemployment question. He's been without a father for far too long.
I whined to Chloe instead when she called this morning. "Maybe they won't be there and I can leave a message on the answering machine," I moaned.
Talk about shifting roles. Chloe called about her job and ended up talking me down off the ledge. I was nearly in tears because Sophie informed me this morning that she didn't want to go to school because now that I'd chewed out the girls at the party, she didn't have any friends. "I swear, I am the worst mother," I choked out.
"Oh, please." Chloe's a woman of few words. "Stop it. She'll get over it. Now, aren't you glad I was anti-social?"
I sniffed. "Yes."
"And don't forget - it's middle school. Not a pretty time."
She had a point. By the time we got off the phone, I felt better and had a plan for that call to my father.
If the question comes up, I'm prepared. Even if each parent is on an extension doing that double-team thing they do.
Did you get a job?
Why, yes, I did.
Really? Where? What are you doing?
I'm doing domestic work for a family here in town.
Does it pay well?
Not really, but it's a job.
I see. Are you still looking for something better?
There will be an awkward pause, then I'll say Did you want to talk bout the weather? It's pretty bleak here, but I hear it's going to get better.....