I’m working on a memoir about fatherhood. The working title is FourFathers, and it’s broken into four sections: one on my dad; one on father figures; one on me as a dad; and one on the idea—the tradition, problem, and promise—of God the Father.
Here’s how the project is going so far: I’ll write a section about my dad, based around some particular thing that happened in my childhood. I start with a foreground memory—stories readily available because they’re the sort of memories that have percolated in my head for years. Memories like the time in college when I carried Dad’s drunken body into the bathtub, or the day of my high school graduation when Dad was too hungover to show up—I’m hungover, too, Dad, I thought, standing on the stadium field in my dorky blue cap and gown, and I got here just fine—or the one afternoon during college when I had made a painstaking plan to confront dad about his drinking, and I did it, saying all the things I’d planned to say, and he sat fully sober across from me at the kitchen table and explained that he had a good reason to drink, and that reason was me. Well, not just you, he clarified. It’s your mom and sister, too.
That is (ahem) the easy stuff. Easy to remember, because it’s the fat that congeals at the top of my working memory. Writing out those stories is like taking a spoon to that fat, just like I do with my chicken stock, skimming it from the top to get to the pure, perfectly seasoned stuff underneath.
But what I’m finding is that the stock underneath isn’t pure at all. It’s cloudy, chunky, full of gristle and dregs. It’s hard to see anything else, remember anything beyond those top-of-mind stories.
One challenge is that I can’t find much evidence of Dad—I tossed most of what I had that memorialized him, because after he died in 2007 I was awash in the pleasure of being done with him and moving on. I let a lot go.
But now, with this book project well underway, I could use some artifacts to jog a fresh memory or two.
Earlier this year, I scrummaged through my attic and pulled down a few boxes full of family keepsakes. But I found almost nothing of Dad—few photos, little memorabilia to speak of.
I’d hoped to unearth his old Alcoholics Anonymous book—the Big Book, they call it in AA. I remember seeing it in his apartment after he died, and how on the blank opening page he had listed all his sobriety dates—the month, day, year that he gave up drinking once and for all. Dad’s list of dates looked something like this:
01/01/83 04/14/86 02/13/87 09/15/90 08/01/97 09/13/97 10/01/98 03/15/01 03/16/01 05/22/04
And so on. A multi-decade list of dates jotted down, scratched out, and followed by another date.
It’s a sort of funny-sad page, mostly sad, but the first time I saw that list of dates I definitely laughed out loud. I wanted to look at it again, maybe take a photo of it and print it in my memoir. But I must have tossed Dad’s AA book back in the day, along with most everything else that reminded me of him.
For a while, I had a 4oz bottle of cologne that I found in his apartment after he died, and I kept it in my car and called it “my inheritance.” But that was only funny for a while.
I do have one steady source of memory of my father: my student loan balance. I check the balance most every Sunday, whether I have a payment due or not, because that’s the day I work on our finances. More than the cologne, the student loan balance is my inheritance.
Starting when I was 18 and continuing for five (yes) years of college and into graduate school, Dad encouraged me to take out as much money in loans as I possibly could—the annual maximum, plus a mid-semester top-off the feds could provide. He also tried to borrow some of that money from me, and once or twice, I let him. Then when I graduated, he advised me to defer payments, to put them in forbearance, to consolidate and renegotiate…and never plan on paying: Eventually, they’ll just forgive it, he told me. I have no idea why he thought this back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Even if he’d had a crystal ball foretelling the recent Biden Administration move to alleviate some debt, Dad’s advice was misguided and genuinely terrible.
But here’s the thing: For over a decade of my adult life, I followed his advice—the advice of a man I knew had been an alcoholic basically since he’d been a kid, who’d barely been able to keep me in shoes, who always had all the money he needed for booze but would give Mom $25 on a Sunday as she left for the grocery store, telling her, “This needs to get us through the week.”
I followed this man’s financial advice until it left me and my family with a balance so high I’m not ready to type it out here. We’ve come a long way in repairing all that was broken by that advice and my decision to follow it. We’re still doing the work of repair.
Maybe that’s why I can’t see my way through to many more memories about Dad. Because looking at him means looking at me, and I don’t like what I see.
Nah, that’s too simple. I am okay with me. I’m a mess in my own way, just like you are in your own way. But I’ve been healed of so much. At 47, I resemble my dad in very few ways. I am holding down a steady job. I have some good friends who know basically everything about me. I’m not a drunk, and I don’t pop pills. My wife loves me, and better still, she trusts me. My kids love me, and whatever mistakes I make as a father, they know I have their backs. I’m for them, and they know it. That has to count for something.
So yeah, we’re still working to repair the financial dents left by my dad. But the dents are not the main feature of our lives. Every weekend, I do the grocery run for the family, and when I’m in the checkout line, I often think of my mom and her $25 worth of groceries to feed a family for a week. And as I fill my cart, careful but confident that I can cover the bill, I know the story I’m living now is a new one, and not just a sequel of him.