Dinner at Dad’s
My dad had lived in Connecticut with his wife Jean and their son John for over twenty years. Even though their house was a mere three hours by bus from my apartment in Manhattan, I had seen very little of them. I didn’t know anyone when I first moved to New York and it was in those first few months in the city, when I sustained an injury to my knee, that I should’ve realized I would never be a part of my father’s family.
Initially when I was recovering from this accident, I had hoped that they would let me stay with them until I was able to walk without crutches. I lived in a fifth floor walk up which made things more difficult. However, when I suggested that I might stay with them, Jean locked herself in their bedroom, screaming that she could not handle me staying at their house. My father said that he was sorry, but he would have to agree with her because “she was having problems with John”.
A few years later, I wanted to try again to get to know my father and thought that perhaps if I tried to understand his wife, things might work out. The few visits we managed to arrange were strained. The television was constantly blaring in their house. There was a TV set in every room; very often they would all be on at the same time, with different programs. Television always had more important things to say than we did. That is why I was surprised when Dad invited me to their home for dinner. Apparently, Sandra was coming in from Chicago for the weekend. When I learned that, I felt hopeful about being included. Sandra is Jean’s daughter from her first marriage. Sandra had a son, John, when she was only a teenager. The story I had heard growing up was that she had taken care of him for three years, then decided to give him up to marry a man who didn’t want children. Rather than have him go to a strange household, Dad and Jean adopted him, and moved to Connecticut to start a new family. They never told John he was adopted.
Evidently all they said to him was that both of them had been married before. Jean told him Sandra was from her first marriage while Dad told him I was from his first wife. Although they are his grandparents, once the adoption went through, they raised him as their own and never said a word. None of us have shared the same dinner table, at the same time, since Dad and Jean married. Though they have been married for over thirty years, I don’t even know the date of their marriage. I had heard that Sandra had attended the ceremony, but, like the situation with John, I was threatened with the possibility of no visit with my father at at all if I asked questions. Still I wanted to be a part of their lives and to have them be interested in mine.
Now, I finally had the coveted invitation, a dinner at my father's home in Connecticut, “a relatively short bus ride”, my father had mentioned when he phoned to invite me. I had bought a bottle of wine, a Pinot Noir, I knew relatively good things about wine, and I thought that this might be a nice treat for them. However, my bottle remained on the counter. “Your father don’t drink corked wine.” Jean announced and pulled out a half gallon of Gallo Rose from a closet in her kitchen. I felt myself stiffening as they toasted with the Gallo that Jean had bought on sale. They sipped nonchalantly while staring at the food on the table.
We are waiting for John. It is getting late and Jean is annoyed because the thermometer in the turkey says it’s time to eat. Dad does not want to start eating without John. John is at least twenty tears old now, and is much more of my father’s offspring than me. I was just a kid when he and Mom split up. It all happened suddenly without warning. Either they were good at hiding that we had no family life, or I was.
My nine-year old eyes saw it like this: Dad received a big raise in his salary from some office he drove far away to every day. We needed an extra car; Dad wanted a Volkswagen, Mom wanted to use the money to add a new room on to the house. The house was always too small for her. She wanted an extra bedroom and was always drawing floor plans on grocery lists to see if there could be a possibility to make more space. She even wanted to turn the garage into a spare room and leave the car in the driveway. We didn’t spend the money for a new car for Dad or a room for Mom. Instead we took a trip to California.
This was the most exciting to me; I’d never been on an airplane. I was the envy of the block. Not many of us had been out of Oblong, Illinois. If we had, it was to go camping at Devils Lake in Wisconsin. Before I left, my friends gave me an autograph book. It was heart shaped. The pages in it were a variety of vibrant colors. I had promised that when I came home it would be filled with signatures of television stars. Mom, Dad, and I were in California touring the Farmers Market, Knotts Berry Farm, Malibu Beach, and Disneyland. Everywhere we went I took my autograph book. Maybe I was so busy looking for celebrities that I didn’t notice my family coming apart. Somewhere between stops on a tour, we took a big detour. The next stop was a Days Inn where Mom checked into a room with me and my father went to stay with his sister. The only TV stars I would see in California were the ones on the old set in the motel room.
The rest of the vacation was spent watching it with the sound turned off. All I heard was my Dad’s voice when he came to the motel and pounded on the motel door, calling out for reconciliation. He knocked persistently on our motel room door yelling, “Sally, I want to talk to you. Please let me in.” I wondered aloud why Mom wasn’t answering. Didn’t she love him anymore? I couldn’t stand it, he was outside knocking on the door, she and I were inside sitting perfectly still. When I tried to answer the door, she hit me. Then the knocking finally stopped. I wanted to let Dad know that I had wanted to answer the door, that I wasn’t taking sides, but there was nothing I could do but listen to my mother cry, saying that I loved him more than her. When we returned to Illinois, Dad moved his things out of the house. The front closet had an empty area in it where Dad’s coats had previously hung. There was a space in the medicine cabinet where Dad’s Old Spice used to sit. Even the smell of it was gone.
After Dad moved out of the house, I started seeing Dad only once a week. I didn’t know where he lived or what he was doing. All I knew was at 9:00 a.m., Dad would arrive in his blue V.W., just a few seconds after Mom had pulled away in her Nova station wagon. I often wondered if he watched from the parking lot which was near our house so that they would not have to talk. They only spoke through me. Mom would give me a verbal list that began with “make sure you tell your father....” and his answer was “tell your mother....” I wasn’t their daughter anymore I was an intercessor.
On a few of these Saturdays, I would go to Dad’s office. He said he needed to complete work he hadn’t finished. This was when I first met Jean. She was Dad’s secretary. Often she would give me clothing that her daughter had purchased at a factory outlet store. I just thought Jean was some nice lady at the office. I didn’t pay much attention to her being there. I was trying to think of ways to cheer up my mom. The mother who had knit my sweaters, led my Girl Scout troop, and signed my report card, who had told my father he could leave, and sobbed when he did, became my child. Her constant crying was unbearable; I didn’t know what to do. It got worse when Mom ordered me to convince Dad to move home. She told me that if he really loved me, then he would move back.
The thought of him leaving terrified me. I was born with an unusual life threatening illness that rendered tumors on my nerve endings. Many of them popped through the nerve and appeared on my skin as bumps. My mother seemed embarrassed about my illness; it was my father who took me to the hospital to have an operation. Perhaps this is why I believed I could fulfill her wishes, and probably that is why she allowed me take a vacation with him, saying, “It will give me time to put up new wallpaper.” Mom was always putting up new wall coverings, hoping a coat of paint would make things look different.
Dad took me to Florida while she stayed in Illinois rearranging the house. I kept my word to her and talked to him about coming back to live with us again. I was excited by his words, “We’ll see...” Towards the end of the vacation, Dad told me that there was a surprise for me; he let me know that someone would be joining us. I was that convinced that Mom was coming. But it was Jean who stayed with us in the hotel room that night, not Mom. I was not even eleven years old at the time and I started bleeding. I tried to hide my bloody clothing but I finally had to tell my father and Jean. She was angry that I didn’t know anything about menstruation.
My mother broke into heaving sobs when Dad and I returned from the trip. She did not want to give him a divorce, saying that she wanted him to move back to the house. They argued for a while, and then my father left. My mother asked me what I could do about the situation; the only way that I could think of to get them back together was to go on a hunger strike. I simply refused to eat. If I ever did, I would vomit immediately. Maybe if they could see I was willing to starve for their reconciliation, Dad would move back. However, no one seemed to know why I was reacting this way. Mom began offering me a quarter for each food that I “fully digested”. She’d lock the bathroom door to make sure I couldn’t get in to throw up. But I wouldn’t give in. I’d find a bowl, a pan, a towel, anything to catch my vomit. As the hunger strike raged on, all of us held a trump card: Mom would not give Dad a divorce, he threatened to stop paying child support, and I would not eat. Each of us held on tightly to our desires.
Eventually my Mother divorced Dad. He married Jean. When he visited me on Saturdays he would bring John with him and that was the way that I was introduced to John. He told me John was Sandra’s son. One day he announced his plans to adopt him and move away. From then on I was not a part of their lives.
Years later, I moved to Manhattan wanting their dinner invitation which never came. Now I had finally received one and albeit for Thanksgiving. I sat at the unfamiliar table waiting for the “OK” to pass the gravy. Jean said that she had bought a hen-turkey this year because she thinks it will be tenderer than the tom-turkey she served last year. She is worried the meat will be dry if John doesn’t show up soon.
Sandra heaves deep sighs as she stares at her watch. She keeps getting up to look out the window to see if she can see his car coming. From her reaction, I wonder how long it has been since she has seen John. For all I know she has not seen him at all, perhaps that is even why they invited me, less of a chance for an out burst with John. John finally arrives, jokes about his girlfriend’s family, and begins to eat immediately. He does not acknowledge any of us, even though my father and Jean speak of John’s trips to New Zealand and Australia and the fact that he is a success with computers. He sits down and begins to eat immediately.
My father and Jean say nothing about his being late. I find it amazing that John hasn’t figured out by now that my father and Jean adopted him. Sometimes I think he knows everything and is carrying on their family tradition of not saying anything. They are all chewing dressing, passing gravy, and seem to be very comfortable with this family dinner. Dad is at one end of the table nodding, “Oh really?” as Sandra babbles on about nothing. “Did we know that on her last business trip she saved the company hundreds of dollars by taking a bus for three days straight instead of flying on a direct flight?”
This seems to please my dad. She works as an underwriter for an insurance company. My father, having been a vice president in the claims division of a rather large insurance company, is delighted to see her saving an insurance division a few dollars. Sandra babbles on about a course that she is taking in Egyptology. “Maybe once I’ve learned to read these symbols, I’ll go see the pyramids,” Sandra muses, then tells me that her boyfriend has recently left her for “a woman with a Ph.D.” I pretend that I don’t know this, but actually, Dad already had told me when he had picked me up at the Greyhound station earlier this afternoon. On the short drive to their house from the bus station he had told me about Sandra’s situation, as he pushed the remote control to open the garage door, he said, “Don’t let on you know, but that idiot was going to quit her job and follow some asshole boyfriend of hers to Arkansas. Now she’s taking some crap course at the Art Institute.”
But none of us are talking about that. Instead we are hearing about the weather, cholesterol counts and the fact that Kellogg’s has come out with sugar free Wheaties. I fade into the background, noticing that the TV is competing with our talking with a rerun of Zorro in Spanish. When the talking lapses ever so slightly, they all turn their heads to the television listening intently. Even though none of them understands a word of Spanish; I begin to realize that they are using the television as a distraction, to keep them from saying what they haven’t said in years and probably never will. ©patriciayoungquist2011
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