The fairytale ending I’d hoped would happen between me and Dad—didn’t. I matured. Dad mellowed into middle age. But we still muddled through life in the emotional ruts we’d laid down long ago. The only thing that shifted in my teens was the balance of power. While I’d always starve for Dad’s approval; now, Dad craved my time and attention. Neither one of us did much in the way of delivering.
The summer I graduated from New Smyrna Beach High School, I drove the family Duster seven hours north toward Lake Lanier, Georgia, to see Dad. He was staying with his lifelong friend, Cash Adams, who managed the waterfront for a resort.
As I skirted Atlanta on I-285, warm, August afternoon blew through the car with the memory of the last time I’d visited Dad, five years earlier. I tilted my head into the wind as though the force of the air could wipe clean my last sight of the Annie Lee. But the smell of rotting mangoes and mildew had lodged in me along with boatload of pain. The taste fish and the nauseating sweetness of blackened bananas. Unwashed sheets gritty on my skin. Rigging rattling against the metal mast, relentless, rallying a perfect storm of self-pity that put me on a Greyhound bus back to Mom before the weekend really started.
The guilt over ditching Dad made me say yes this time.
I turned onto a tidy two-lane road lined with thick grass, and mature trees. Pine and cool evening air and dread filled my lungs.
It’ll be fun, I mantraed as I pulled to a stop beside the lake, climbed out, fielded an awkward hug from Dad and a high-five from Cash. And then I discovered I’d be unfurling my sleeping bag on the floor of the pump house where Dad and Cash were camped. I shrugged away my disappointment. The cement floor and jungle of pipes were still cleaner than the Annie Lee.
But Cash had other ideas. “Dick, I told you I have the keys to the empty cabins. Annie can have one of those.”
When Dad announced we’d eat in, my vision of rotten bananas returned. But Cash’s aging movie star face crinkled and he laughed. “We’re going out. I’ll buy.”
Relief snaked through me. I could get through the next two days.
I fell asleep that night on the carpet of the furniture-less cabin, awash in gratitude that eddied around the rest of my stay. There were trips down the behemoth waterslide Cash fired up just for us. I ducked out for Cokes with my camp friend, Nora Connors in her two-toned Mustang. We canoed the quiet lake. And in between, beauty swathed great brush strokes across the wreckage of me and Dad.
Cruising south on I-75 toward home, I congratulated myself on dodging eye contact with Dad, avoiding his pet topics, and keeping Cash in the mix. I’d survived Dad without any new dings to my psyche.
A small voice said, Yeah, but you didn’t really connect either.
Neither did we connect a couple years later when he appeared on our New Smyrna Beach doorstep… with his 19-year-old Swedish girlfriend.
I’d sailed past the Florida drinking age two years earlier, voted in a presidential election and nearly completed my sophomore year of college. I was a year older than Dad’s girl!
I didn’t want Dad, but I didn’t want to be replaced.
If I’d given her a chance, I probably would have liked the sweet-tempered blonde with blue eyes and freckles. I might have sucked up enough maturity to believe Dad deserved a relationship seven years after Mom divorced him. But I read “little girl” between the lines when Dad spoke to me and “woman” when he referred to her. My good will rose and evaporated with the steam from my ears.
The two of them biked around America and eventually, she returned to Sweden to become a nurse. Dad spoke fondly of her for the rest of his life. And I can’t even remember her name.
The summer I was 22, I hugged Dad—sharp elbows and pointy chins—on the front porch of my uncle’s jewelry and watch repair shop and home in Canton, Ohio. I breathed in the lingering scent of Dad’s sweat from his bicycle trek from California and my childhood swam through my veins.
The iconic Milk and Honey ice cream shop lights blinked on across Cleveland Avenue.
I’d forgiven Dad—finally, a few months ago—for a lifetime of infractions I’d ferreted down into the fabric of who I was. This visit would mark a turning point in our relationship.
Chagrin puddled in my midsection as I took in his customary Willie Nelson hair and flannel-shirt-in-June he’d probably “found” on someone’s clothesline. I squared my shoulders and turned to introduce the two men who would always be the most significant people in my life. One broke me. The other rebuilt.
“Dad, this is Jim,” who would become my husband in four days.
Twenty minutes later my shoulder blades relaxed against the back of my chair. Relatives milled around the house and talk turned to Saturday Night Live.
I imitated the high pitched voice of the clay clown made famous on the show. “Oh no, Mr. Bill!”
Everyone laughed but Dad. He sighed, shook his head like I’d deeply disappointed him. “I can’t believe you watch that idiot box.”
I expected Dad’s dig to knife me. Then I’d toss it onto the heap of other hurts piled up like the scrap lumber we used to store in the aft cabin of the Annie Lee. But forgiveness had swept my cache of bitterness clean. And in the transaction, God threw in thick skin that protected me from Dad’s barbs for the rest of my life.