It’s a common stereotype that young girls idolize their fathers and build them up to epic proportions. My young mind certainly did build a mythos surrounding my dad, and in the early years it was largely positive. My mother was superbly effective at keeping us in the dark to any conflict between her and my father – she didn’t speak ill of him around us and picked up the pieces when he broke promises or cancelled plans. So for a time, it was easier to focus on the good things, even as the bad threatened to seep in through the cracks.
My early attempts to create an identity for him were slightly misguided. My mother tells a story of how (pre-divorce?) I would watch him on the television as a toddler – he had a brief stint here in Ottawa as a newscaster – and try to talk to him through the screen. I was infuriated and didn’t understand his lack of response. A cute anecdote, I suppose, but to me it remains symbolic of the nature of our relationship as a whole: both of us talking, neither of us communicating; separated by a virtual wall.
We were, I suppose, poor. I was certainly aware that we did not have a lot of ‘stuff’, but my mother always ensured we had what we needed. I know now that it was a lean time. My mother worked with sporadic financial support from my father. We sometimes drank powdered milk and my brother wore my hand-me-downs. A lot of our so-called poverty was masked by my mother’s pragmatic sensibilities. When she taught us to respect what we had and not waste things – I just thought she was strict. When she bought fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk – I just thought she was a health nut. She grew her own bean sprouts and cultured her own yogurt; something my childish mind could not comprehend for things you could just buy in the store.
Because cable was not a necessity (my mother later told me that her benchmark for deciding whether something was in our budget or not was if we would die without it), our television held limited entertainment value for us besides weekend mornings. If we craved entertainment beyond books, the record player was the way to go. We had a few kids’ albums (I still think Free to Be You and Me is the coolest album ever!), but I developed a few favourites among her folk and pop collection. Among them was a John Lennon and Yoko Ono album.
The image of the couple stuck with me. And a weird parallel began to form. The thing about someone being absent from your life for long stretches is that you find yourself filling the blanks – I didn’t have much in the way of pictures of my dad, and here were two people that bore more than a passing resemblance to my father and stepmother. Logically I suppose that I knew that they weren’t the same people… but privately pretending they were quieted some of the anxiety I felt over his absence.
Like many part-time fathers he tried to make up for lost time, and visits to my dad’s in Toronto were designed to impress and were highlighted by expensive outings. There were frequent trips to Canada’s Wonderland, the Toronto Zoo, Ontario Place, the Old Spaghetti Factory and the Organ Grinder Pizza Restaurant (if you were lucky enough to go there during the 70s, 80s or 90s, then you know what an amazing experience it was – in my early 20s I even insisted some friends take me there for my birthday).
My stepmother often accompanied us on these outings, but not always. One summer our annual trip to Canada’s Wonderland involved a guest – a young woman who worked with my dad at the newspaper. My dad picked her up on the way to the park; she spent the day with us and even ate dinner with us at the Organ Grinder. She seemed pleasant enough, although when she got out of the car to go up to her apartment at the end of the night and I picked up her stuffed bear (that my dad had won for her at the park) to hand it to her she yelped “no that’s mine!” – assuming perhaps that I intended to keep it? I don’t think she was accustomed to being around kids.
When we got home and my stepmother asked how our day had been, I told her, including whom we had gone with. It hadn’t even occurred to me to leave that part out. She completely blew up at my father and they stormed upstairs, leaving my brother and I in awkward silence, with me trying to process what I’d done wrong. The guilt was a heavy weight – I liked my stepmother and I felt devastated at being the catalyst of her hurt and anger. I also felt a great deal of shame for being clueless and stupid about what was going on. Even now, I cannot fathom what my father was thinking, making us complicit in his deceit of his wife. He must have realized he’d get caught. I suppose he justified an outing with another woman with his children present as proof of no wrongdoing.
My father lied about most things – most often to impress, sometimes to protect himself, and often just to cover up other lies. Some lies weren’t meant to be lies – they just started out as promises and he never had the sense to back down and admit to commitments he couldn’t follow through on. When I was 4, he promised to take me to Disney World – he never did. I’ve never doubted that he wanted to; but by the time he had the money to, I was no longer a child and it made more sense to take my sister. An off-handed promise to a 4-year-old might have gone forgotten after a few years. But he didn’t let me forget. With that initial promise, and every time I’d ask, he’d describe the trip in elaborate detail. What the hotel would be like. What we’d do. What rides we’d go on. He bred a need in me where I had not previously been aware one existed. It became an lucky pebble in my pocket – something to turn over and over and give me solace in those times when I doubted his love for me. Whether he sensed the weight of that and it was why he couldn’t bring himself to shatter the illusion by breaking his promise, I don’t know.
As an adult, I wrote off my father’s need for deception as a simple reflection of his narcissism. I figured he just thought he was ‘that good’ that he would never get caught. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this explanation, though, because so often he seemed genuinely hurt and baffled when it ended up destroying his personal relationships. I know for a fact that he loved my stepmother, even after their separation (they never divorced, in spite of being apart for more than a decade), but that didn’t stop him from being unfaithful. He joked once, as we sat watching tv, that he was really good at getting married, just not staying married. I just smiled thinly and faked a chuckle, but on the inside I was stung by the callousness of the remark.
Perhaps, though, his pathological need to fudge the truth was more ingrained than even he could control. My mentor, originally from Belfast, has some theories about lying as a form of survival. She thinks deception is a learned trait of the Irish – when used to soften up a young woman or spin a fanciful tale; they call it blarney. But there’s a darker side to it – a need to misdirect and never tell full truths as a matter of survival. The Irish have deep trust issues (or at least trust of authority figures). And when lying becomes a way of life, you soon find yourself lying about the small things as much as the big. It becomes hard not to do it anymore.
My father’s side of the family is a few generations removed from the emerald isle, but from what little I know of them, they were a colourful bunch. There are tales of the Belfords buying (faking?) their title, and some question of them possibly selling children on the black market. On a lighter note, the latest generations seem to be made up of writers and storytellers, so perhaps we’ve mostly managed to steer our talents towards the creative rather than the destructive.
But while that gives an explanation of context, it doesn’t wash away all sins. Even if I understand why the man was the way he was, or even where the behaviours came from, it doesn’t excuse it. The lies he told to the people around him were at times unbelievably cruel – but I don’t think he ever intended them that way when he started. He would just begin with a small one and keep having to cover with new ones when cracks appeared in his story. It was no wonder he doubted we loved the real him. He didn’t even know who the real him was – how could we possibly be expected to?