Tuesday, January 25, 2011

You cast your line and hope you get a bite

Our roles ares fluid. I'm the parent, I'm the child. Today is my father's birthday so for a few minutes, I'll be the child when I call to wish him a very happy day.

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.

"That's practical."

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.
Uh huh.
Does it pay well?
Not really, but it's a job.
I see. Are you still looking for something better?
Always, always.
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.....



  1. Your father sounds like a stand up kind of guy. What I would have given for a dad like yours.

    I think parents and children reverse roles as time drifts by. They become the ones who need to be assured of life's uncertainties. I realize you're also on shaky emotional ground (in terms of employment) but whatever you can do to ease his worry on this day is a mitzvah. Tomorrow you can get back to the eyes bulging but today let him believe you are okay.

  2. Yeah, been there with the odd conversations with parents, usually about things not said because those things end up hitting nerves.

    Now, as a father, I can add this: Neither of my two grown children understand or have interest in what interests me... So, I mostly listen to them talk about their worlds. And I stopped making suggestions to them about most things a long time ago - it's really easy knowing when there's no interest in your skills and POV. Small talk wins out and I keep my thoughts to myself.

  3. Nice story. You're not the only one who dreads making the call.

  4. Daddy asked my then-fiance to leave me alone. Actually told him I was too good for him. I found out about this later, after I'd married the wrong guy, who married me because he wanted to "show" Daddy he was wrong.

    But Daddy was right.

    Toothsome essay, girl.

  5. Your father sounds like a wonderful man, and kind of reminds me of my own father. Happy Birthday, to him.

    I totally get the reasons your dreading making the call. You're right, your parents are from a totally different generation, and, they have NO IDEA what it's like 'out there' looking for a job these days.

    Maybe remembering that will make the call more bearable.

    I like your answer: 'I'm doing domestic work for a local family' idea!

  6. My father and I stick to the weather and sports - always have, always will. I think your approach is a good one and you are such a great writer.

  7. So, *did* you guys go play in the street?

  8. You're a writer...right now that's your job.

  9. So? How'd it go?
    You must have called him by now. It's 4:08 Eastern

  10. "Now aren't you glad I was anti-social?" Oh, that is BEAUTIFUL! I love your daughter. And I loved this tribute to your dad. I think your position is so hard. I've hired, and we bypass 'overqualified' because of fear they will leave, but it leaves a group of people with few options...

  11. Wonderful post, Lisa. I like your new job description, too!


  12. People who tell unemployed people to get off their ass and go to work at McDonald's have no clue about being out of work. I'm glad your dad is around to celebrate another birthday and I'm happy he's responsible for bringing us you.

  13. I love your family. Happy Birthday, Lisa's Dad!

  14. Happy Birthday Mr. Hewitt! My dad always told us to play in traffic, too.

  15. Reading this, I got thinking about my Dad. Which isn't hard, really, because I think about him an awful lot. Nothing horrible - and that in itself is something special, I think.

    Your Dad sounds like a marvelous man. I hope you told him there are a whole bunch of folks all over the place who think he did a pretty damn good job raising his daughter, Lisa. If you didn't, pass it on, OK?

  16. maybe it doesn't have as much to do with you as it feels. if someone has spent the bulk of their life working, it's difficult to find other topics to talk about. maybe he just doesn't know what else to ask about. not that that makes it easier on you, but asking him about what it was like to work where he worked could make it easier for him.

    i like your daughters. a lot.

  17. Fathers are AWESOME!!! They are WAY better than those... what do you call them??? Oh, yeah! Mothers!

  18. I love the picture of the two of you on the couch. Times have changed and changed again in a very short time. Your current job description is a beauty.

  19. That last line, the thing you said, it is better than anything that Mary Karr ever wrote. I believe that things will get better soon and I am no optimist. I am glad that you believe that too.xo

  20. Landing in therapy about a decade ago after my life had turned into a major car-crash, I too went the way of examining what must have been wrong in my relationship with my parents as a child.

    Like you, I didn't find anything spectacular. Smaller stuff, sure, but as someone once said to me; kids are great observers but hopeless interpreters. I realised that my parents had genuinely done the best they could. I was left with subjective feeling of complaint but nowhere to address it. I just had to let it go; not easy but, oh (having finally done it), how liberating!

    My father will be 79 next month. He's ill but has learned to accept it. Both my parents seem to have learned that most precious of lessons - how to graciously accept ageing. Visiting them in recent years has become a lovely experience for me, partly, perhaps, because I am becoming increasingly aware that they're not going to be there forever.

  21. Happy Birthday, Lisa's Dad.

    I love this post, and your Dad's steadfastness.

    I think you should give up on jobs and monetize your blog instead.

    I have always want to read Liars Club -- I think I'll add that one to the stack.

  22. Hope you had a great talk. Happy birthday to your dad.

  23. Awww. Your dad sounds like a good man. Happy birthday to your dad. :)

    But, I think most adult kids dread calling home, for one reason or another.

    I love Chloe so much.

    Thanks for the sweet note today...I missed you, too. I've just been uber busy with a variety of things. Spread thin.


  24. It's tough w parents. I'm sure they nag because they care. My Mom was a force to be reckoned with. I once made the mistake of getting "berry flavored applesauce".
    Boy did I get my ass handed to me on a platter.
    It was so bad, I gathered the undesirable groceries & immediately drove back to the grocery store. I'd rather make the pain in the ass run back to the store than listen the lecture as a 40-something adult.
    The clerk @ the store asked "anything wrong with these items?"

    My response: "If Momma ain't happy, ain't no one happy"

    The clerk gave a knowing "Ohhh".

    Mom just turned 86 & is in memory care.

    Love em while you still have them- even though they make you crazy.

  25. I think it's that age-old feeling of it's worse to disappoint your parents than have them angry with you. I still feel that way at 32.

    You are not a bad person because you don't get a call-back from fast food restaurants. Truly.

    You are not alone with the role reversal. Sometimes my dad and I do the same thing.

    Happy birthday to you dad!

  26. Also, WHY do you not have ads on your blog? Sponsored tweets? WOMAN, YOU HAVE TALENT! I hate to be that person who is all "cash in, baby" but you know...

  27. Oh gosh Lisa, I am sorry I missed the timeliness of this post, day late dollar short, story of my life.
    First I hope your dad had a nice birthday, my dad was 86 just last week. I believe your description of your dad is similar of many of our fathers, they worked hard to make our lives better, and I know my dad succeeded, but I know my choices have not always pleased them.
    I almost always dread my phone calls too, because I never know what mood I'm stepping into. Why has it been so long---you are lucky you aren't here, its' so cold--how are the kids?--when are you coming to visit--etc etc. My dad's willingness to talk depends on the day, he has days when he doesn't want to talk much at all. It's very sad.
    Thanks again for sharing, I think you're a good daughter.

  28. Awww, I'm late to the party. But happy birthday to your sweet dad – from all your imaginary friends.

  29. Happy birthday to your father. He worked honestly I am sure. You know I hate Monsanto but that's not because of the employees working there, because these employees are not evil, merely trying to make ends meet and raise a family most likely. And we certainly didn't know then what we know now.

    Someone said your vocation is writing and so it is. You also work in the home as you have pointed out. Now if only that work paid cash... ;-)

  30. Well, as usual, I'm late. But what's news about that???

    Happy Birthday to your Dad. Mine's gone, but when he was here he was my hero.

    Beautiful tribute, Grrrl.

  31. Lovely piece- been meaning to comment. Poignant without ever turning drippy, and that is so hard to do right.

  32. Lovely piece- I've been meaning to comment. Poignant without ever turning drippy, and that is so hard to do.

  33. Ahh, Lisa, I was away for work and I'm so behind on blogs. Happy belated birthday to your dad. He sounds like a wonderful man. This was a beautiful tribute.


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