by Kathleen McKitty Harris
I wanted my father to love me as much as he loved Judy Collins, as much as old Basil Rathbone and Jimmy Cagney movies, as much as he loved Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless, as much as Sunday afternoon re-runs of “F-Troop” and “Mission: Impossible,” as much as hard packs of Marlboros and drives on the New York State Thruway, with hibachi grills rattling around in the trunk, as much as whiskey, and as much as beer.
I wanted to know that I was a blessing, that I added up to more than the interruptions I had inadvertently caused, and the burden I so often seemed to be. I wanted to be adored. I wanted assurances. I wanted love. I wanted to believe that I was wanted.
Instead, my father was usually distant and aloof, preferring to spend most nights with the company of the black-and-white portable television in his bedroom, with Herman Wouk hardcovers, or astride Irish pub barstools in Manhattan. But at bedtime, he usually offered kindness for me – when the day had loosened its hold on him, and when the stresses of his life had been soothed by supper, darkness, and alcohol. He seemed to soften out of earshot of my mother, who clattered dishes in the kitchen after dinner, or complained to her mother and girlfriends while on the phone — pinning the handset between her ear and shoulder, and walking from the refrigerator to the sink in a corded perimeter, like a tethered, domesticated dog.
He’d sit at my bedside, letting his lit cigarette fall safely away from our forms while stroking my hair off my forehead, to soothe my fears and quiet my little-girl anxieties. Sometimes, he read Kipling’s Just So Stories to me, and asked me to consider the morals after he’d closed the book.
If I tried to delay bedtime further by voicing my fears, or expressing hesitation about the loneliness of sleep, he’d tell me to think happy thoughts. Only happy thoughts, he’d say, were allowed in this house.
In 1954, when my father was seven years old, his parents brought him to a performance of “Peter Pan” on Broadway, which famously featured Mary Martin in the title role. He listened intently as Peter instructed Wendy, John, and Michael to think happy thoughts – because doing so, Peter said, would enable them to fly as he could. My little-boy father watched, mesmerized, as Martin’s tiny form swooped high over the stage. As his eyes followed her seemingly magical flight upwards, he realized the awful truth: this was not the work of pixie dust. She was simply held up by wires. In the second act, when the actors implored all of the children in the audience to clap their hands as loudly as they could to bring the ailing Tinkerbell back to life, my father slunk down in his seat, quietly devastated, with arms crossed. This was all a sham.
“He’s not a kid, Rose,” my grandfather whispered over his head to my city-coiffed grandmother. “He must be a midget. How can he not believe?”
I don’t think that wound ever fully healed for my father: the trauma of seeing the wires, peeking behind the curtain, and under the snowy-white beard — too early and too soon.
He had to know what I could also see — the pinballs of tension that knocked around the walls of our Queens apartment, the instability, the drinking, the slammed doors, the painful silences. But at bedtime, he didn’t ask me to name my fears, nor did he dismiss or discredit them. He simply acknowledged that they were mine, and that I possessed the power to overcome them, if I just thought hard enough. In the quiet darkness of my bedroom, he was still a little boy himself, sitting beside me – still wanting to believe. Then, he’d rise, and leave the hall light on for me, assuring me that he was only a few steps away. He was right there.
On occasion, my parents would put on a bedtime show for me, and make my stuffed animals talk to each other. My mother would often choose a Steiff bear from her own childhood, which she had given to me and which I strangely named Neil. She would adopt a crisp Irish brogue and wield a sharp tongue to my father’s stuffed animal of choice — my beloved floppy dime-store teddy bear, who was forever slow to the joke and had a Snuffleupagus-esque cadence in his voice. The comic dialogue was an odd reversal of their personas. In such performances, my father deferred to my mother’s anger, and I sat transfixed, an audience of one.
After I had gone to bed and the light had been turned out, strains of songs from Judy Collins’ album, “Judith,” or her greatest hits album, “Colors of the Day,” often wafted from the stereo speakers in our living room. After certain songs, my father would lift the needle to hear them again. The telltale crackle of vinyl grooves would give way to notes of “Someday Soon” or “Sons Of” or ”Born to the Breed” and the saddest song of all, “My Father.”
I’d lie alone in my bedroom, anxiously searching the shadowy plaster ceiling for happy thoughts and morals taught by Kipling’s exotic mammals, never knowing that my father smoked alone in the darkness only a few steps away, right there, feeling so much the same.
So beautiful, Kathleen. It makes me think of my relationship with my father, who was loving but critical. Relationships are so complicated. You’ve captured it and showed it so wonderfully.
THank you, Kathleen, for a sensitively written story of the complexities of family relations.
I’d like to add to my previous comment that family relations become so more complicated when there’s a problem drinker, especially for children who can crave love and attention when the drinker just can’t be emotionally available.
Love this, Kathleen. Love you.