Day 113: My Own Sugar Daddy
If anyone is to blame for my sweet tooth, it’s my father. So, how sweet was he?
“Let’s face it, I’m a revolving, from every angle, son of a bitch,” begins one of my favorite letters from him. I wanted to quote that line at his funeral until I caught sight of my mother and aunt in one of the pews and lost my nerve. My father would have loved it.
I think that after your parents die, the mystery of who they really were deepens. Like the picture above of my father, Ted, with his dog, Mugsie, where the image has faded and you can’t quite make him out anymore.
I also believe that in some cases you get the father you deserve. I got a self-described sonofabitch whose moments of sweetness left such an imprint that one of my childhood friends named her son after him. A sometime-scoundrel who’s still a near-legend in the tiny universe of people who remember him and still talk about him years after his death.
He was a loner to the end – but he loved to play his women against each other and never let the truth, especially about me, get in the way of a good story. My cousin, for example, who always adored him, just found out recently that I was never, in fact, a Rhodes scholar.
It took me years to realize that anyone can have a stable, reliable dullard for a father. But a colorful bad boy who does it his way and doesn’t care what anyone thinks? Better learn to love them because the world is always going to be on their side.
My father once got irritated with my childhood friend Doug when Doug was about 17 so my dad just tossed him across the room like a rag doll. Hey, everyone has a bad day. Doug strenuously defends my father to this day; in fact Doug once told me I was an “ungrateful” daughter. See my point?
Sugar’s my thing but it was only my father’s backup addiction. He was an alcoholic, but he gave up drinking when I was about 4 and white-knuckled it without any liquor until I was 17 and went off to college in LA. My parents split up when I was 2 and my mother wouldn’t let him pick me up in his car because of his drinking. Hence the overnight sobriety.
So for those 13 years without “Uncle Jack,” which is what he called Jack Daniels whiskey, he made do with candy. He and I spent my childhood together in an odd coupling reminiscent of the con man and tough orphan (who may or may not be his daughter) who bickered their way through the 1973 film, Paper Moon. ( The movie resonated with me so much that I’ve interviewed the star, Tatum O’Neal, at left with her real-life father, Ryan O’Neal, three times since 1990 and we’re now friends.)
My dad worked at General Electric and lived near us so I saw him most weekends and during his summer vacations. Our sweetest moments, literally, were spent on Cape Cod where my father had an old summer house in Barnstable Village and a powerboat.
Both of us were happiest in our boat on Cape Cod Bay en route to Sandy Neck or Provincetown with a Red Sox game blaring on the transistor and several boxes of fudge between us. We used to watch the Saturday night block of sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show while eating from huge bags of orange circus peanuts and more fudge. Neither of us ever gained an ounce.
Many summer nights we’d go to the penny candy store on Main Street in Hyannis and then catch a movie at the drive-in, sitting in my dad’s blue VW Bug with our provisions. During the day, when we weren’t fishing off the boat or water-skiing, my father took me and my friends to Hathaway’s Pond where he organized endless swimming competitions and races for us.
When it came time to leave the Cape every Sunday night and drive back to the North Shore, I stocked up on candy and Tiger Beat magazine. I sat in the back of the car with my feet up on the passenger seat so my father could reach over and rub them while he drove.
Sounds great, and I loved all of it. But my father could be the bane of my existence. I was embarrassed that he was so much older than other fathers (he was 48 when he had me) and found him hopelessly eccentric.
When I was little, going out to eat was often an ordeal – at least for me.
“She recently escaped from a Belgian circus troupe,” my father would tell the gullible waitresses when we went out for breakfast. “She’s a fine acrobat but she doesn’t speak much English.”
Other times, we would sit down at the (now long-gone) soda fountain at the Barnstable General Store and order milkshakes.
“And put plenty of gravy on mine, amigo!” my 100% Irish-American father would bellow as I wished I could disappear into the floor.
He also had a slightly morbid view of death. He was always talking about writing his will and how one day we would “plant” him and he would go off to the “Great Beyond.” “I’m so thin, the pallbearers will have it easy,” he told me.
My father carried a length of pipe on the floor of the backseat of his car in case, he said, anybody ever threatened him. He taught me how to fight when I was 7, recommending one move which involved brandishing your index finger and little finger and poking them in the offending person’s eyes.
He was always feuding with someone. People showed up to spend a week with us in the summer and something would often go wrong within minutes. The next thing I knew, their car was pulling out of the driveway and it was just me and my father again.
But he usually copped to his own insanity. ”I threw the bad Ted in the harbor,” he once told my older half-sister after some dust-up.
I don’t know why my father was an alcoholic except that his own father, who I never met, did a lot to try to break his spirit. There was very bad blood there.
I am eternally grateful I didn’t really know him as a drunk – and that I only got the candy gene, not the alkie gene. He never laid a hand on me and even though he could be difficult and mean at times, he always acted as if he was surprised to have produced me, that I was too good for him.
I saw him less and less after college as he began drinking more and more Miller Lites and gradually took up with Uncle Jack again. My father had taught me to come and go on my own terms without realizing he was preparing me to be able to let go of him.
The day I flew back to LA after my father’s funeral in Boston, I developed an intense, almost crippling fear of flying that lasted four years. When I was on a flight, it was as if there was no pilot and I had to fly the plane. Then one day the fear ended as abruptly as it began.
My father lived on for a long time though, in the astonishing number of men I found who looked just like him, to the point where one friend said it was as if they all came from one planet, arriving here in spaceships one after another.
I’ll always have his voluminous correspondence, too, even the old Western Union telegrams. Often, after a rough patch between us, my father would pull out the violins and compose a letter to coax me back down to the Cape. At this he was a pro:
“We’ll point the compass due northeast to P-town and head toward Long Point Light. You watch the maps, I’ll take the wheel. I’ll let you wear that old sweatshirt you like and you let me listen to the Red Sox. It’ll just be you, me and a box of fudge.”
Happy Father’s Day, amigo, wherever you are!
- Day 365: Tell the Women of Congo You Love Them! (1)
- Day 364: What If the World Did End in 2012? (2)
- Day 363: Twilight of the Dictators, Twilight of No Candy (1)
- Day 353: Howl of a Candy Addict (2)
- Day 351: Self-Deprivation Sucks (5)
- Day 350: Sugar = Gangrenous Toes! (1)
- Day 349: Dreaming of Thailand (7)
- Day 348: Zero Sugar: Help Me (St.) Brigid! (1)
- Day 341: Are You Too Chicken to Read This? (2)
- Day 339: R.I.P. Jack LaLanne!