For the few days leading up to Father’s Day and the actual 24 hours of the day itself, everyone’s father suddenly becomes Andy Griffith.
But what if your father is/was pretty much an asshole? I don’t mean a truly evil son of a bitch, a child abuser or anything like that. I mean just a regular run of the mill asshole, difficult to please, humorless, workaholic, why haven’t you mowed the lawn yet, can’t you do anything right asshole dad.
I saw somewhere, probably on Facebook, my principal source of news lately, that President Obama described himself as a ‘fun dad.’ “Ha,” I said to my husband as we were climbing up the stairs, “no one would describe my dad as a fun dad but he was a dad who would give you a job and then fire you.”
Yes. My father fired me from my $1 an hour job at our Ben Franklin store for what offense I can’t even remember. I was maybe 12 or 13 and my own father fired me. Forget about the family business being the employer of last resort. There was no mercy there. Plus why was I working in the first damn place? I should have been riding my bike and braiding my best friend’s hair, not trying to cut window shades and stuffing the mistakes behind the button counter. The teen labor shortage being what it was in 1962, he hired me back.
My father also didn’t let me date until I was 16, a useful rule that, unbelievably, I instituted years later with my own kids. He insisted I learn to drive on his stick shift white Chevrolet station wagon. He insisted I take typing in high school and shorthand in college so I could always find a job. He told me that I was going to college to meet a college man to marry and that I could be a secretary, teacher, or nurse. He made me leave college when he got wind of marijuana smoking and weekends spent off campus without permission. Better I should be a chaste ignoramus than a ‘fallen’ college graduate. He refused to pay for my wedding because he thought the guy I was marrying was Jewish (which wasn’t true at the time but turned out to be true about twenty years later) and told me as we were walking down the aisle that “it’s not too late to back out,” shocking the guests in the aisle seats.
My father was all about work and exhaustion. Getting his approval meant hauling ass in our Ben Franklin store, ripping open cardboard boxes, stocking shelves, feeding the damn turtles and parakeets, measuring fabric, weighing candy, rolling down the awning, rolling up the awning, dusting housewares, making Easter baskets and the worst of all terrible jobs, making keys. To make a key then meant first matching its general shape with the hundred hanging keys and then putting the original key in the left vice and the new key in the right vice and then guiding the steel cutting blade over the first key’s ridges so it would cut the same ridges in the new key, all while the key owner watched in disbelief that a 13-year old was making his new key. The sound of the machine was deafening like a lawnmower you would hold in your hands (maybe that’s the cause of my hearing loss), the steel shavings went flying everywhere and the massive dangling risk of error practically guaranteed a wrong move and a ruined key. Nothing was worse, except maybe window shades. And running the register with no automatic change calculator. “Just count up to the bills they gave you, Janice. Just count up.”
“You count up.” If the 13-year old me could have said anything, it would have been “YOU COUNT UP, Damnit!” But I just buttoned up my little blue smock and went to straighten the birthday cards. I hated it when people didn’t put the cards back with the right envelopes after they rifled through all of them.
The summer after my senior year and before college I decided to cut loose from the Ben Franklin store and find another job. Because I was an extraordinary typist, I got a job working in a small office sending out individually-typed letters pimping a roofing sealant called Carbo-Lastic. This was a dreary couple of months marked by the Richard Speck murders in Chicago and a growing sense of distance from my father and the things that were important to him. We didn’t have the store to talk about anymore. We didn’t ride home together in the white station wagon, the half hour in heavy traffic from Dearborn to Southfield on Telegraph Road, the radio tuned to Detroit’s WJR, when he would tell me how he planned to discount Aqua Net hair spray and beat K-Mart at their own game. “The trick is to sell it at cost, Janice.” Yep, sell it at cost, Dad. Okay.
I made my dad proud of me but it took a really long time, 12 years in college and thousands of dollars. I found him sitting on my back porch with my dissertation in his lap, he’d been there a while so I thought it might be possible that he’d actually read my study of indigent health care policy in Milwaukee County. I don’t know. But clear as day, I remember the book on his lap, his hand on the cover, him looking at me and saying, “This is quite a piece of work here, Janice.”
I scored, I thought. I finally scored. What a tough customer he was. My Dad.