There’s a small town on the southern coast of the Georgian Bay called Meaford. A population of no more than 5,000 people, the town consists mostly of retired pensioners and rich Americans who decided to take a pamphlet from the road less traveled and invest in a summer home up north. If you felt so inclined to take the 7th line north towards Cape Rich and then up the dirt road hastily marked “Duxbury Lane” with a dilapidated oak sign, eventually you would find a small, hillside cemetery to your right. Should you choose to wander up the hill and walk along the graves, you would find that most are too old to read – many, in fact, have worn down to near illegibility, leaving nothing but weathered rock and crumbled stone.
But if you were to keep to the northern side of the hill, along the tree line but not quite at the bottom where slope meets road, you would find the following grave:
Ann Martinson 1959 – 2012
You’d think that this is where I jump to the point; some sob story about a dead parent, an analogy about death vs. life, grief and mourning – but this piece isn’t about my mom. The two of us got along swimmingly after my mid-teenage years were over (though, it’s not like anyone got along with their parents when they were 15.) No, this piece is about my dad.
I cannot, for the life of me, get along with the guy.
The two of us have never seen eye-to-eye for as long as I can remember. “It’s because the two of you are too alike,” my mom used to say with a sad smile on her face; a smile at what I assume was being able to see yourself in your child, yet sad because she only ever dropped that line immediately following a forced mediation between the two of us.
“I am nothing like him,” I’d retort back, arms crossed and lips snarled into a pout like only someone under the age of 10 can pull off. “And I don’t want to be like him, not now not later not ever!”
“You’ll understand when you’re older. Just watch – you’ll see.”
And I suppose enough time has passed that I finally qualify as “older.” I’m 23 and a dipshit the same as I was when I was eight, but I’ve at least graduated to being able to understand the family dynamics around me…or so I think. Everyone likes to assume they’re the smartest person in the room until they start eavesdropping on conversations around them and find out that, in reality, they’re second to last at best. Which is why it fucking kills me to say what’s coming next:
My mom was right – I am my fucking father.
Despite what the impression I’ve given you thus far, I promise you that my dad isn’t the monster I’ve made him out to be. Give him a task with an end-goal and he’ll figure out the logistics to get you from point A to point G within the day. He goes out of his way for people without even being asked, typically offering his assistance pro-bono and during his limited free time. I cannot think of a person I have met in the past two decades who is as good of a navigator as he is, and if you asked me to name someone who embodies the word “perfectionism” to a fault, well…I think you can guess who I’d pick.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have his faults, as we all do. He can’t admit when he’s wrong. I can’t remember the last time I heard a genuine apology out of him. If there’s a goal to be reached he’ll trample on anyone and everyone to reach it, regardless of whether your feelings get ground into the mud and clay beneath his feet. He is stubborn. He doesn’t listen to anyone but himself and has to see things in-person in order to believe you. You could tell him the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and he would wake up at 5:00 a.m. just to check for himself, god forbid he take anyone’s word but his own. My dad would be the best poker player in the world if he gave a shit about card games because you can never tell what he is thinking; frequently stone-faced, always poised.
And the problem here, you see, is that I have all of these traits too, and we clash constantly over it. Constantly.
My dad remarried this past November. The entire family was ecstatic that he wouldn’t be alone anymore, and contrary to what seemed to be popular belief at the time (How do you FEEL about it, Rebecca? How does it make you FEEL? was repeated at me more times than I could count), I was fine with it – annoyed that I no longer had a room to call my own in my childhood home since my step-sister would be the one living in it from now on, aggravated at the constant influx of people I did not know nor cared to meet moving in and out of the house at all hours (my step-mother is a social butterfly, whereas I’m more of a hermit moth), but I understood the big picture: my dad would finally be happy again. For that, I could put up with a lot of bullshit…or so I thought.
First it was being forced to dye my hair shit-stain brown on the day of the wedding because “Christine is afraid that people will be staring at your blue hair instead of at her as she stands at the altar.” A week before Christmas I was told to come up with a menu to feed 15 people because Christine was “stressed” and oh, by the way, no nuts, shellfish, sesame or soy in anything because your step-sister is allergic. Fine. I can deal with that, but what I can’t deal with is being told that “No one is going to eat any of that” after reading aloud what the planned menu was and then hearing “Christine will be in charge, can you just do what she says?”
And I get it – I really do. I get that he’s trying to make Christine happy, but what about me? Am I just some squashed bug on the underside of a shoe, existing solely to do what I’m told out of familial obligation? My mom died on December 1st, and I don’t remember anyone offering to help cook Christmas dinner that year aside from my brother. I was still a junior in college back then, and that winter break my dad spent most of it on business trips out of state. We all grieve in our own ways – I didn’t expect a “Thank you” or even a “Please.” He did what he had to do, and I picked up the brunt of whatever incomplete leftovers needed to be done.
“Promise me you’ll get along with your dad,” was one of the last coherent things I remember my mom saying to me as she laid in a hospice bed.
“And promise you won’t be mad if he gets remarried.”
I’m trying. I really, really am.
But it’s shit like being told to give my step-mom a hug because “She’s all out of sorts that we had to pick you up from the airport at midnight,” making sure to note that HE didn’t mind, but that it was HER with a bug up her ass (as if that made anything better), or having our entire car pull over twice for Starbucks during a six-hour trip because Christine needed coffee, when had MY mom asked to do something like that all hell would’ve broken loose (Do you really need to stop? Can’t you wait? We’re almost back was a constant repeated mantra during long car rides).
And don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem with Christine. I like her. What I have a problem with is how my feelings somehow become invalid if she feels like I so much as look at her funny, like I’m some sort of aggressor and my dad can’t be bothered to stick up for me when I haven’t done jack shit wrong. It’s not necessarily anything Christine has done, but it’s more so that her presence has brought issues to light between the two of us that I think neither of us wanted to admit.
I’m not a nice person. I’m not a bad person but I’m not “nice” either. I understand how I can come off crass, cold, unpleasant at times – and yeah, I probably could’ve been more tactful when Christine asked me how I liked my new shit-stain hair instead of saying “Uh…do you actually want to know what I think?” (though it was a stupid question in the first place since I’d been forced to do it.) But I show affection through doing things for people, and god do I feel like I do a lot more than I get credit for.
But you see, this is where I’m stuck – do I really get shortchanged in this family? Am I actually being a bitch and I can’t see it because people tend view themselves in a better light than others? Are the past 1,409 words really just a pity-party I’ve thrown for myself, or do I actually have reason to be upset?
Sometimes I try to talk about how I feel. Mostly I fail at it. “That good ol’ Martinson stoicism” is what my mom used to call it – bottle it up, bury it deep enough that someone who goes digging can’t find it, then slap a smile on and do what’cha gotta do. Occasionally though – occasionally – I get pushed over the edge and the pit of my heart swells to its bursting point, bringing a flood of emotions I’m unequipped to deal with. Hence, the stream of consciousness word vomit you’re currently reading.
A few weeks ago, for the first time since we buried my mom, I went up to our house in Meaford for a week. I wasn’t necessarily planning on going this year, but my grandfather had passed away in June and the official service was in August. While I’m there I get told to Tell Christine you “appreciate” her and Do THIS because blah blah blah, but I noticed that, outside of being told to “do” things, my dad didn’t really talk to me much.
And that’s fine, really – our conversations tend to be limited. I say something I think is funny and I get a disapproving face, I drop a casual F-bomb when my brother drops 20 and I get a dark look, I offer to help take the car-top carrier off the car and get told “No you’re going to scratch the car, go clean dishes in the kitchen instead.” It’s at the point where even if I wanted to say something I wouldn’t, because what’s the point? My dad doesn’t listen to me. What I say doesn’t matter. I’ve grown used to it, and I’m old enough to realize it’s a two-way street – it’s just as much my fault as it is his.
But that’s where I got stuck – I wanted to say something I wouldn’t normally say, yet I couldn’t.
I’ve seen my dad either cry or come close to crying three times in my life: the morning my mom died, during her memorial service, and when he was reading aloud his eulogy for my grandfather. It was a little surreal, to be honest; as if everyone standing on the hillside of Duxbury Cemetery was waiting for their cue that it was okay to cry if they had to, with my dad leading the group using the wobble in his voice like a maestro’s baton.
You should say something nice I thought to myself. It would mean a lot. It’s what mom would’ve wanted, yet I found that I wanted to say something heartfelt on my own behalf, not just in part due to a dying promise.
There were at least a half dozen moments between the end of the service and the reception that would have been perfect. Hell, I’m not picky – even an imperfect moment would’ve sufficed. And yet all these moments came and went, and I said nothing. I changed clothes, poured myself the finest glass of boxed Sunset Blush on the rocks money could buy, and didn’t say a single word to my dad the entire reception.
I said I am my dad, and that’s true – I am stubborn to a fault and hate admitting when I am wrong. One time I was so goal-oriented and indifferent to the feelings of the people around me that I wrote an email. I’ve had friends tell me that “Sometimes, I like to look at your face and try to guess if you’re enjoying yourself or merely tolerating everything around you” because of that good ol’ Martinson stoicism that runs through my veins.
There was a time I took pride in some of this, to a certain extent – but I’m getting to the point where I’m realizing that if I want to be able to talk to my dad like a normal, human being, that I’m going to have to shirk all the qualities we share if I want it to work. Admit when I’m wrong. Be a little more “open” with the people around me. Add some “empathy” to my current emotional repertoire of complacent, annoyed and bored.
But if I delete all these aspects of me, arguably the aspects people have begun to define me by…what is left?
Is breaking the person I’ve become back down into muddled Play-Doh necessary if I want to have a functional relationship with my dad, or can I keep my same qualities and make it work without demolishing myself down to the ground floor?
Is it too late?
Am I stuck?
With all my heart I wish I had an answer for you, and especially myself. Maybe after I finish this paragraph I’ll draft up a heartfelt text that’ll never get sent, or dial ten out of his eleven-digit phone number before putting the phone back down. But I know if I keep putting this off, things will either stagnate or get worse.
Yet here I am – trapped between an emotional inability to come clean about how I feel and a stubbornness that won’t let me say, “I’m sorry,” for being a bratty little shit at times. None of that should come as any surprise though.
After all, I am my father’s daughter.