Pops called at 12:30 last Sunday night. Startled from a deep sleep, I felt my heart race when I glimpsed his number on the caller ID screen. But then a sense of relief flooded my body as I answered the call to hear his cheerful voice loudly bidding me to "Wake your ass up, girl!" As always, his enthusiasm was contagious, so I had to laugh despite the hour.
I've never been a daddy's girl. As an only child, I've always clung to my mother for companionship and that only deepened when my parents divorced when I was in high school. Separated for several years before that, my mom and dad carefully tried to maintain a sense of family despite their personal differences. They've always been friends—even to this day—and the camaraderie between them has shaped my definition of who they are as individuals, especially my dad.
My dad always says that the divorce was his fault. For years, I certainly blamed him. In my eyes, he broke up my happy little fairytale home though I never admitted that to him or to anyone, including myself. We were the three little bears, the three J's (each of our names begin in J). One of my favorite old photographs is a studio shot of us from the early '70s. I'm only about a year old, and my parents seem equally young and ingenuous. The love between us is visible. Our eyes sparkle with the delight of being together. My heart still breaks to look at that photo. I haven't in years.
But more important than poignant memories, that photo represents something else: the way I romanticized the persona of my parents. As wondrous, fearless creatures in my young eyes, I didn't expect them to fail or make mistakes. My mother was the flawless homemaker cooking and cleaning to perfection; my father, the model breadwinner serving his country in the Army. So as I watched my family unit dissipate, I realized that we weren't living the American dream, but the typical American nightmare (we've all heard the divorce statistics).
I've grown out of that, though. Often amused by their personal blunders, I've learned to appreciate their frail humanity. Their frankness about mistakes of the past reassures me that we can all move beyond those dark days. We can even embrace our flaws as lessons learned instead of laying blame on others. Though he may not realize it, my father has offered me some very tangible tools for creating a happy and healthy married life via our telephone conversations. Who says you can't learn from the mistakes of others? Experience is indeed the best teacher whether you're directly or indirectly involved.
My father is no longer the enigma that floated in and out of my childhood. His anonymity has been replaced with a very intriguing, animated character. We still don't always agree. Some of my funniest and most rewarding arguments have been shared with him in the last year or so. What we do have is an earnest respect for each other's opinions and philosophies.
Now I don't need a photo to define my family. That particular shot is tucked away with other childhood memories retrieved only for sport on rainy days. One moment frozen in time can't possibly reflect the hard-won years of love, respect, triumphant and heartache that constitute any family. Midnight phone calls about nothing at all and awkward, non-traditional family dinners serve that purpose. And whenever I feel that bitter streak creeping up on me, I take a deep breath, laugh and thank God for my crazy little family.
Mom knows she has my heart, but I'm not so sure if my father does. His Father's Day card is always late (when I even remember to buy one, which I haven't in several years), and his birthday is often an afterthought with a phone call a few days afterward to find out how he spent his special day. Rodney Dangerfield has nothing on poor Dad! But even when he makes me so mad I could cry, good ole Pops is still the first man I ever loved and the one I know I can always count on. Maybe I'm a little bit of a daddy's girl after all.
Jennifer Spann is a frequent columnist for the JFP.