MY ESTRANGED FATHER

by Cathy Arden on June 14, 2014

I had two fathers, a biological father and a stepfather. My stepfather came into my life when I was a teenager and brought with him fatherly love. To my friends, I’d refer to them as the good father and the bad father.  My stepfather was the good father.  And later he was the loving grandfather to my children.  I was estranged from my biological father for most of my adult life.  My children never knew him.  And, more importantly, he never knew them.

I rarely write about my biological father, who lately I’ve been affectionately, or sarcastically, however you wish to look at it, referring to as Bio-Dad.  I never refer to him as my father.  But, in this piece, I will.

I wrote about my father once, in a memoir.   And once, in a poem.   I never had much to say about him, except for the bad stuff, which gets boring.   So I decided this Father’s Day to write about my father.  He was absent from my adult life, and it wasn’t long before he disappeared from my story.  Today, on Father’s Day, I intend to reclaim the missing part of my story which includes my father, whether I like it or not.

My father played the piano by ear.  Every night he sat down at the piano after dinner and played.  It sounded like jazz.  I don’t remember ever sitting on the piano bench next to my father.  I don’t remember ever sitting in the living room and listening to him play.  I remember hearing the music from behind my closed bedroom door.  He never taught me how to play.  I took piano lessons and learned how to read music, which my father was never able to do.  I learned how to play the guitar.  I took guitar lessons.  I wrote music.  I sang.  My father and I never interacted around music.

My father was a writer, or perhaps he should have been.  He always said, “I didn’t become a writer because if I couldn’t be as good as Shakespeare, why bother?” So my father wrote educational films. He composed music for them as well.  He won some awards.

My father did some illegal stuff.  Not on a grand scale, but on a scale that would get him fired from jobs.  I never knew the details.  But everything he did had the earmarks of scam.  He went into business for himself.  He had dealings with some shady characters he would sometimes meet on street corners in New York City. He’d laugh about it to me over the phone when I was in my twenties, before the estrangement, and would deny they were Mafia.  My father always laughed when he was uncomfortable.   He always laughed when he was lying.

My father had many women in his life, before my mother divorced him, and after.  He lied to all of them.  He tried to stop the publication of my memoir because he was afraid I’d out him to the two main women who had been in his life for decades, neither knowing about the other.  I assured him nothing about this was in my book, but he was paranoid and wanted final approval before the book was published.  He was not given final approval, or any involvement at all.  So he tried to sue me.  That was when the estrangement began.

I was afraid of my father as a child.  He was abusive.  I wasn’t allowed to have a lock on my bedroom door, but I’d hide from him, or try to.   One day when he hit me because I wouldn’t dry the dishes after dinner, I was hiding under the kitchen table with a bloody nose and I heard him crying upstairs behind his closed bedroom door.  My mother told me to go to him.  She said he was sorry.  I didn’t budge.

I wrote in my diary day and night, sitting on my bed.  I’d write all the things I couldn’t say out loud.  My diary saved me.  It was my best friend.  I don’t know whether or not my father was bi-polar.  One therapist thought perhaps he was an alcoholic.  But I never saw him drink.  I did see him pass out, though.  Although back then I was told he had fainted.  The “fainting spells” would only happen at the end of a night out.  I don’t recall he ever saw a doctor about this.  “Your father fainted again,” my mother told me once when they returned from Grossinger’s.  And there was a photograph of him at the table in Grossinger’s, looking very pale and absent.

When I was writing my memoir, my editor implored me to think of a time in my life when my family was whole.  She said, “If you don’t show your family whole, even for a moment, we won’t care about it breaking apart.”  I was stumped.  It took me weeks to remember an experience in my relationship with my father that wasn’t of the scarring variety.   And then I did.   Today, I will recount that memory, on Father’s Day, because I now believe that although darkness is a part of everyone’s legacy, and that the dark piece of a person’s story must be told, every human being should be remembered for the goodness inside of them, as well as the bad. Even if that goodness wasn’t the part of themselves they were able to honor and live fully, nor to share with the people who perhaps loved them most.  Or needed to.  And that piece of my story, the part about my father that is whole and tinged with joy, is the saddest piece of all.

It is a hot summer morning in July.  Sunday, and everyone is feeling happy.  It’s a beach day. My mother, father, older sister and I are all in the kitchen pitching in. There are egg salad sandwiches being made on soft white bread with a few pieces of lettuce. The sandwiches are wrapped in wax paper. Tangerines are put in the powder-blue Styrofoam cooler. And green seedless grapes. Oreos, too. My father carries everything out to the car to put in the trunk. The large green, red, blue, and yellow striped beach umbrella is already in there. It stays in the trunk all summer long. He puts in the cooler with the old, frayed, quilted summer blanket.  There are towels you can hide your whole body in, especially if you are five years old.

There was always something magical about a beach day.  My sister, Doren, and I would climb into the back seat of the blue Pontiac.  There were never fights in the car on the way to Jones Beach.  My father was always happy on beach days.  He wore  beige cotton shorts and no shirt.  He’d unload the car when we arrived and dole out items for all of us to carry.  My sister and I carried our pails and shovels.  My mother carried the blanket. My father carried the umbrella and the cooler. And then we’d have to walk a long way over what seemed like miles of sand to find an un-crowded spot near the water. I looked at my father’s bare feet a lot, amazed at how large they were.  I was never up close to my father except on beach days.  I’d put my foot up to his foot and compare, and make fun of him about how giant his foot was.

I hated the sand.  I was constantly brushing myself off.  I hated the crunch of sand in the egg salad sandwiches and the sting on my shoulders by the afternoon. I liked the colors of my pail and shovel, bright red and yellow, more than I liked to play with them. What I did like, though, was watching my father swim in the ocean. I was afraid of the ocean. The seaweed stuck to my feet and got in between my toes, and the waves were too powerful and out of control. Out of my control.  They terrified me.

My father loved the ocean.  He was an expert swimmer.  He would always ask my sister and me to come with him into the water. My sister would always go, and I’d watch him lift her above the waves. My mother would encourage me to go, too.  She’d tell me my father would protect me. I’d tell her I was afraid he’d drop me, and she’d say softly and firmly that he would never, ever do that.  Doren would come back to the blanket after a short while, grinning madly, and after my mother helped her dry off, Doren would squint into the sun, trying to make out which dot on the waves was our father. When he returned he’d report to me that there was no seaweed today, that the water was very calm, and why didn’t I come in with him the next time.  Maybe, I’d say.  Just maybe.

Every once in a while, toward the end of the afternoon, close to leaving, I’d find my courage and join my father at the water.  It would always be my last chance, his last swim. He’d take my hand as soon as we left the blanket.   It felt strange to touch him, to feel his skin.  So unfamiliar.  When we ‘d reach the water I’d let it skim my toes and would think about running back up to my mother and sister, to safety. They would wave from the blanket, and their waves would turn into hand gestures urging me to go in, go in, go into the water.  I’d inch forward with my father, screaming but still moving forward.  He would pick me up in his arms and carry me into that frightening ocean.

My father lifted me above the waves, never loosening his grip around my waist.  I would shriek and he would laugh.  After a few minutes, in spite of my fear and discomfort in my father’s arms, I would start to laugh, too.  I’d look back to the beach at my mother and sister waving like crazy and applauding and clearly yelling “Yay!” though I couldn’t hear them as my father and I laughed and he kept me aloft, above the crashing waves.

So Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.  Here is a glimmer of the brief joy you had in life, and the fleeting joy I had with you.  And though I think about it rarely, I carry it with me still.  Perhaps there is even a spark of that joy shining in the eyes of my children whom you never met.  Tragedy is not merely about what you’ve lost.  It often is about something you never knew.

Hal Marc Arden 1/1/1921-12/24/2006

Hal Marc Arden
1/1/1921-12/24/2006

 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven D. Brown June 15, 2014 at 5:47 AM

Nice piece Cathy. Interesting guy. Micah’s resemblance is pronounced. Glad that you wrote this.

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Cathy June 15, 2014 at 8:35 AM

Steven, I only noticed the resemblance when I found this photo. Micah hasn’t seen it yet. I expect he’ll be stunned.

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Iris June 15, 2014 at 7:42 AM

That must have been difficult to write–but a propitious day to share the memories.

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Rima June 15, 2014 at 10:53 AM

Nicely done. Micah looks so much like him

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SilverMarc June 15, 2014 at 3:59 PM

Cathy, that’s a wonderful memoir!

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Libby June 15, 2014 at 6:09 PM

Thank you for sharing this with me. I have a friend who is writing an autobiographical novel. His relationship with his father is not good at all, but the parts in the book that break my heart the most are the small tender moments that he acknowledges between them as a means to connect with something good or to even have a connection at all. I also think it’s so important to find the light in so much dark. Even if its the smallest thing. Much love to you.

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Barbara June 16, 2014 at 9:30 AM

Beautifully written, and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing such a private part of your life.

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Lisa June 18, 2014 at 7:19 AM

Cathy –

This is so beautiful. I am crying. I’ve know you for so long and I never knew anything about your father, except for all of the horrible stories. I’m so glad that you have connected to a touch of joy and shared it.

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tom June 19, 2014 at 12:19 AM

Hey Cathy,

Thanks for sharing this. It’s so amazing the things we take for granted. Beautifully written. I could see you as a little girl at the beach. I feel like I know a little secret part of you now.

Thanks again for writing it.

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Brandon Kirk June 19, 2014 at 4:36 PM

Cathy, I’m so glad you had a good stepfather. And your formative years with Hal make it all the more admirable that you’re such a sweet, kind soul today.

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heather June 20, 2014 at 6:54 PM

Cathy, i felt a bit like air was being blown into your story as soon as you switched to your father You moved from a well articulated, slightly removed accounting of the bad stuff, and then-swoosh-we are being carried to a fully realized scene that we can SEE. Then, we can see, feel,imagine and respond to a story of a little girl who sometimes knew she was adored and could breath easy for a day. Sometimes..
thanks…it is beautiful

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Trish June 26, 2014 at 5:57 PM

Utterly tragic…utterly beautiful…I wanted more…alas there is no more. Well done my friend.

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Anita Storr July 6, 2014 at 7:56 AM

Your story is beautiful, palpable and leaves me wanting to know more. Thanks.

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Toby Smith February 4, 2015 at 3:47 PM

Cathy,
My parents — Marie and Royall Smith — knew your parents and at least twice had them out to the house where I grew up, in Darien, Conn. This would have been in the early 1960s. When the four of them got together there was, as I recall, a lot of drinking and a lot of laughing. (My father was a Mad Man). I remember your father drove an Avanti, that jazzy Studebaker model that wound up like the DeLorean. I seem to recall they brought Doren with them on at least one occasion. She was very attractive. I was sorry to read of her death. She left the party far too early. My parents received their own “letters of transit.” My mother in 1992 of dementia, and my father in 1966, of pancreatic cancer.
Here’s something screwballish: My wife, Susan Keil, grew up in Merrick. She graduated from Calhoun in 1964. She remembers Doren, at least has a memory of your sister’s name, but alas nothing more.
So sorry to read about your mother. I loved that she hid her lack of a degree for years and rose so high despite that piece of paper. Good for her!
Only good thoughts. –Toby Smith, Albuquerque, NM

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Cathy Arden February 13, 2015 at 12:50 AM

I do remember the name Royal Smith. And I remember the Avanti. My father totaled it on the West Side Highway, but it saved his life. We left Merrick in 1963 and moved to NYC. Thanks for reaching out!

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Craig Evans February 5, 2015 at 6:49 PM

Jones Beach and Point Lookout. The Evans’ and Arden’s spent beach time together as well as family trips to PG’s house at Grossingers. Please reach out and say hello. Craig

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