Everyone has a Dad story, even if it is about not having a Dad. My Dad stories, like most people’s, I think – run from the bitter to the sublime. As I hear stories on the radio and read them everywhere about Dads and whether or not they could tell their children that they loved them, I recall my own parents, and what they said to each other and to us and what they left unspoken.
Years ago I was talking long distance with my mother about navigating my own adolescent relationships as she sat at her desk near the kitchen in our home in St. Louis. She had taken over the breakfast nook as her office, and it was situated across from the kitchen and around the corner from the dining room. Eavesdropping was simple and fairly common because her melodious voice and contagious laughter carried easily into the adjoining rooms. She also had a tendency to take on the accents or speech patterns of the people she spoke with, which made listening to her talk on the phone highly entertaining. During this particular conversation she was telling me – quite matter of factly, without rancor – that my father did not like to talk on the phone (I knew this) and that he just wasn’t one of those people who expressed feeling openly – he simply didn’t say I love you – to her or to anyone. I wasn’t entirely sure of this but was agreeing with her that while not big on introspective, emotive chats it was clear, in his way, that he cared for us. Within minutes I heard my mother pause as the floor creaked as my father passed on in the way to the kitchen.
“Who’s that?” he asked, wanting to know who she had on the line. When she said it was me, he said, “Oh, let me talk.” He got on the phone, chatted with me at notable length and then before handing it back, chirped “Love you!” Mom didn’t know whether to be insulted or delighted at being so openly contradicted.
That was classic Dad – never wanting to be analyzed or pigeonholed, he was a master of defying expectations, creating delight or disappointment at every turn. Only now does it occur to me to picture him, very likely hovering just out of sight in the dining room, knowing that she was talking about him and plotting to exact his revenge. I understand that his expressing his love for me was as much about him letting her know he was privy to her armchair analysis than it was about me. So much of what we say and leave out depends on who is listening, who is overhearing, and who we can depend upon to love us back, whether they say it or not.