4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
[Jasper told me that the other day one of his kindergarten classmates told him that I haven’t posted lately. Which was true. And which means that somewhere in Massachusetts there’s a kid with unfettered access to an iPad and my blog. So if you’re a six-year-old reading this, please stop. I use some curse words that were way more acceptable in 1977 than they are now. Go build a fort or something.]
We are surrounded by fathers. I mean, where would we be without them? We’d be a depressed diary entry in our mothers’ collective diary times infinity if there were no dads, at least I would be. Without my father, who would have loved my mom so completely? Who would have told her she was beautiful in a world where likely no one had ever said she was beautiful, or certainly never told her enough?
I could make a list of my father’s favorite sayings:
1. Shit’s up.
2. That’s bullshit.
3. What’s this shit?
4. That’s called making chicken salad out of chicken shit.
5. If there was a pile of shit in the middle of the table, she’d have her hands in it. (In reference to my extremely energetic and curious sister. Note to frustrated parents: my sister grew up to be a hugely successful pediatrician, so there’s hope.)
It sounds as if his sayings lean in a particular direction, I know, but his life had sort of handed him shit. Often.
There was the time he answered the phone when he was a teenager and the police officer calling had mistaken my father for his much older brother and thus had related the news that his own father had died in a head-on collision. My father’s father had been beheaded driving in his convertible and my father was the first to know. There was that.
So my father struggled in college and his mother cut him off.
Then he married my mother, who wouldn’t allow him to struggle, so he signed up for the military, graduated from a community college, continued his course work after they moved back east to get a graduate degree. Somewhere in there, his firstborn son and namesake, Butchie, was born, sickly and tiny and severely retarded in all development.
And when other fathers would have left the building, my father persevered. Shit happens, you know. You can stop or you can press on.
They went to church, they had a few miscarriages, they made more babies. A gifted child with visual and hearing impairment would follow and a son who never clicked with my father in the way my father probably hoped. And then there were the rest of us, too, all crowding the house, needing food and new sneakers. And still, my father wanted a dozen children. He loved this shit.
But then there was The Operation, the one where they took out his digestive system by mistake the one where the doctors probably even thought, “No way this guy is going to survive this shit.” Yet he did, for eighteen more years.
During this time he took us trick-or-treating and to fourth of July fireworks. We drove to Cape Cod once a year to walk barefoot in the sand. He started collecting teddy bears that he’d talk to when the pain was at its worst. He taught us about Benny Goodman, built us a large screen television and a huge multi-component stereo system from scratch, taught us to work the centerboard on his little sailboat a couple times a year, all with a tube hanging out of his nose or chest and piles of pills, mosaics of medicine, spread before him at every meal. He told inappropriate jokes all the time and cried at Thanksgiving dinners when we’d go around the table saying what we were thankful for. He was thankful for so much.
Summers he smoked cigarettes and drank extra glasses of gin and then sat outside at night to watch the beautiful flesh of his children as we’d dive and swim in the inground pool in the backyard to a symphony of crickets.
I remember running along the pavement around the pool, wet feet slapping, chasing my sisters in the darkness. I’d look up every once in awhile to see my mother in the house, silhouetted in the kitchen window washing dinner dishes. And at the edge of the pool I’d see my father’s cigarette trace an arc of light in the darkness while he looked after us from his perch on the chaise lounge, watching us, loving us.
My father was not a martyr, he didn’t die for a cause. And he was certainly no angel. But he was deeply, definitely, decidedly a proud and devoted father. And in the joy he brought, the sentimental love of his children, the pride he had for all we did, he was a hero.
Shit’s up were the last words he said to my mother, his way of saying that he felt that low, lower than whale shit.
But maybe his point always was that shit’s not all that bad, that for better or worse our lives are always going to be filled with shit, that shit happens, you know?
But love, love endures.
(Happy Father’s Day to my father, Bruce F. Groeber 1937-1997, and all the other fathers out there trying their very best to share their gifts with their children. What you do matters.)