Friday, June 13, 2014

Arnold girls dish: “The worst thing my dad ever did to me.”

With another Father's Day approaching, or come and gone depending on when you read this, I can't help but reflect, especially this year, on being a father, for better or worse. That sort of thing can be a slippery slope, of course, but what are you going to do? The brain goes where the brain goes. For example...

When my daughters visited earlier this year, we had a terrific time. We remembered old stories, created new memories- this time including Sheri who hadn't come into our lives when the girls were younger- and laughed a lot. I think it was the perfect tonic for all of us. Yes, we addressed my illnesses, but, since that is only a part of what our lives are today, it was given due attention, but kept right-sized.

Interestingly enough, what didn't come up was “The worst thing my dad ever did to me,” probably because it lodges firmer in my mind than it does in theirs.

The whole “worst thing” began when Jennifer was a junior (I think) in college, majoring in theater and psychology. Interesting combination, right” But my best friend in high school set the bar very high for interesting combinations. He was brilliant. He got one question wrong on his SATs and got through the University of North Carolina with flying colors in just three years. His majors? Spanish and religion. He once observed to me: “If the Spanish Inquisition ever returns, I'll be in high demand. Otherwise...”

But, back to Jennifer. At the time, I was the artistic director of a new plays program for a Syracuse theater company. My co-director chose the scripts and arranged for the playwrights to be at staged readings where I would have provided the actors. On one occasion. I arranged for Jennifer and a number of her theater friends to provide the talent.

Since the school was about 30 miles from Syracuse, I drove up to get them and bring them to the reading. On the way down, the other students started talking about their parents and each had a “worst thing my parents ever did to me” segment. Now, I wasn't loving this because, really,;what could I do but ask Jennifer for her contribution.

I confess... the speed with which she came up with her answer was disconcerting. Allow me to offer it here, some paraphrasing is inevitable; it was close to 25 yeas ago, after all. “Oh I know exactly what it was. (I imagined some of the things I thought were terrible and braced myself.) I was about ten and Alison (her sister, who was around eight)) hit me in the eye with a rubber band and I came to you to complain about it. Knowing how you were, I had all the evidence I needed. I had a red mark over my eye, I had the rubber band in my hands. And do you know what you said? (I assumed it was a rhetorical question and just waited.) 'Tell her not to do it again.' Tell her not to do it again? I will never forgive you for that! Never.”

Really? That's the worst thing you remember me doing to you, I thought. Wow, I also thought. Of course, I had no recollection of the “incident.” My guess it was a Sunday night and, if it had been a typical weekend, the two of them had been at each others throats for much of it. I was tired. More to the point, I was tired of them and so my answer would have made perfect sense... to me.

Now Alison had never actually formalized “The worst thing dad ever did to me,” but she didn't have to. We both know what it is.

First, though, you have to realize that Alison is one of the most kind-hearted people I know. Yes, she's my daughter, but I truly believe that. Yet, she also has a mouth on her... She just says things that remind me so much of me that I can't help but feel at least a little responsible. I remember a Saturday morning, 7 am.-ish, when all I wanted to do was go back to sleep. But no, I hear Alison, about five, say to her older and taller sister, “How'd you like a nice Hawaiian Punch? Would that be good? Right in your face.” Since she very well might have meant it, I needed to get up and begin the weekend's refereeing.

But the “worst thing.?” The two of them were old enough that their mother Janice and I could go out for the night and leave them without a babysitter. We told them they could watch TV, but specifically told them they could not watch “Friday the 13th” and they had to turn it off by 10 pm. Good enough.

We got home earlier than anticipated, but still after 10 p.m., and entered the house without them hearing us. They were watching the small black and white TV in one of their rooms and we heard them debating whether or not they should finish watching “Friday the 13th.” Yeah. The movie that should not be watched. Jennifer, always the one (at least at that age) who believed in following the rules and staying out of trouble, said they should stop, otherwise mom and dad would feel the TV was still warm and they'd get in trouble.

Alison- remember I told you about her mouth? Her response was “They're too stupid to feel the back of the TV. Quit worrying.” Yeah again. She said it; we heard it. They still didn't know we were in the house.

So, I went to the kitchen and got this horrific carving knife... just like the kind they used in the movie. Our stairs made a 90 degree, left-hand turn about halfway up, so I took the knife and stood on the lower level and waited... because they were going to have to come down to get ready for bed at some point.

Sure enough, Alison starts to come downstairs and just as she was about to make the turn, I put the knife around the corner where she couldn't help but see it, but where it couldn't actually stab her. OMG. Such screaming and, I think, tears. Did I feel bad? Nah. It was great. Hey, she started it. Too stupid? How do you like me now? And let's not clutter this with the she was a child and I was an adult argument. It was one small victory for the adults in an endless sea of defeats. Cut me some slack.

The thing about those two girls that continues to baffle me every day is how much they love me. Not just that they love me... the Bible tells them they have to do that, and Jennifer is a pastor's wife after all. But how much they love me.

If you had told me, heading into that visit, that the days would have been filled with love and laughter, and that multiple myeloma would have been present and accounted for, but right sized? Hey, I'm one of the ones who was “too stupid to feel the back of the TV.” Remember?

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.