I’ve been feeling ruminative for the past day or so, my friends. Yesterday we waited for, and then watched the freezing rain. I sat in our sun room as the rain fell and the windows iced over, and the ticking gas stove pumped out heat. I read and then watched an old movie. The Big Chill. I love that movie, hokey as it is in places. And I adore the music. Afterwards, throughout dinner, as Hubby and I watched TV, and even after I went to bed, the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” played over and over in my head.
And this morning as Hubby chipped away at the layers of ice on our walkway, and I rearranged cancelled appointments, I still couldn’t get the darned song out of my head. You can’t always get what you want. Yep.
A few years ago at a dinner one night with work friends, we talked about a colleague who was having personal issues. I was sympathetic, but couldn’t, like my friends, classify her situation as “tragic.” “Disappointing, yes, sad, for sure, but not tragic,” I said. And one friend replied, “Well, Sue, when you’ve never had to contend with not getting what you want, it’s hard to be understanding.”
Wow. I knew that some colleagues saw me as someone who always told jokes, or funny stories of life on the farm, as I swanned around in my new outfit. But I was shocked and surprised that my friend knew me so little. That she assumed I had always “got what I wanted” in my life.
I don’t claim to have had a tragic life. Not at all. I realize that I am, and have always been, privileged. Perhaps along the way I didn’t always see my life that way. Sometimes I was sad, even in despair. As we all are at times. But looking back I know that, despite setbacks, I was privileged.
This morning, while that Rolling Stones song whirled in my head, I asked myself…. so, what did I not get that I really wanted? Well, there was that fake fur coat for Christmas when I was ten. Ha. And the fact that I never really knew my father. I’ve always wished I had known him. And had longer as an adult to cultivate a relationship with him.
Not long after my sixth birthday, my parents split up. I don’t want to get into the details of why and how. One day maybe I’ll write about that, but not here. I don’t really remember anything about that time anyway. I will just say that he was an alcoholic, who had tried again and again to master his illness, and failed. And once he left we didn’t see him again. That’s the way my mother wanted it. And, according to her, he respected her wishes. Or that’s how she always explained it to me. It was “for the best.”
I’ve always understood my mother’s handling of the whole situation. As a kid I never questioned her judgement. She had me and my older siblings to consider. She’d been widowed with three children at age twenty-three when her first husband, the father of my brother and two sisters, was killed in a road accident. My next oldest sister was only five weeks old at the time. Meeting and marrying my handsome father a few years later must have seemed too good to be true. And so it was. When her second marriage went down the drain, she was heart-broken. And gob-smacked. She’d had her fair share, and more, of upheaval, grief, and trauma. And so had my brother and sisters, and even me. So afterwards, she decided to do the very best she could to make all our lives as stable as possible. And that meant that my father should stay away.
I know that their marriage was not good. Life with a recovering alcoholic who is no longer recovering can be devastating. But as I said, I don’t remember that time. And my mum never spoke ill of my father to me. She told me stories of the early years of their marriage. How her sense of humour made him laugh. How her working-class upbringing and his rather more privileged one seemed to balance each other out. The poem he wrote to her and tucked into his empty lunch box for her to find. The time when they were first married, and living near her parents, and one evening she walked down the street to visit her mother. And when she came home, he’d made a pie. “A pie!” she always laughed, “He’d never made a pie in his life.” She told me that he was the love of her life. And when I grew up if I wanted to contact him, and have a relationship with him, that was up to me.
And so I did. I was seventeen, and on my way to Grand Manan Island with my friend to visit her grandparents. We thought we were so grown up. We’d caught the bus from Fredericton to Saint John, and her Uncle Larry had picked us up to take us to the ferry for Grand Manan. On our way home, Uncle Larry dropped us off at the bus station in Saint John, and we had two hours to kill. “My father lives near here, you know,” I said to my friend. “Why don’t you call him?” she suggested. “No. No. I couldn’t. I mean I couldn’t. What would I say?” But she pushed me. And I gave in.
We found his number in the phone book, and I called him from a phone booth in downtown Saint John. He answered right away. I panicked and hung up. Then I called back. We talked. He wanted to come pick me up, to see me right then. But I lied and said our bus was coming any minute. A phone call and a visit would be too much. He asked after my mum, said he knew she had remarried, and that we lived on a farm. He asked if I liked my step-father. I said I did. And he asked if he could come to see me. I said yes, that would be nice.
A month or so later after he’d called my mum to check it was okay, he came. We were effectively strangers. He was well dressed, and thin. He’d developed cirrhosis of the liver and was quite ill. I don’t remember what we talked about. My mum and Lloyd stayed with me the whole time because I’d asked them to. I was so nervous. What do you say to a stranger who is your father? I made him tea. My mum hugged him when he left. And he drove away.
He stayed in touch after that. We spoke on the phone a few times. And he died within a year. My grandmother Sullivan and my stepfather took me to the funeral. And that was that.
So. I guess really knowing my father, getting the chance to build the relationship with him that started and never had the chance to grow, is what I wanted that I didn’t get. But as the song goes, “You can’t always get what you want.” I did get a chance to see him again. I’m very glad that my braver friend pushed me to call him that day. How I would have regretted it if I hadn’t capitulated! I’d probably never have had another chance.
I think my father’s death at age 55 is tragic. The life that he wasted, the potential that he never realized because of alcohol is tragic. But my life has not been tragic. Look what happened when I was fourteen, after my mum had been a single parent for eight years. She married my step-father. We moved to the farm. And life was pretty wonderful. For the most part.
Not that I got everything I wanted. Ha. I wish.
You know, when we were growing up, Mum always told us that even if we “didn’t have a father” we were more lucky than many kids. She told me years later she had always been afraid that sympathizing with us too much would make us weak, and not able to make our own way in the world. Thinking back on that I remember a story a friend of mine told the graduates at commencement one year when I was still teaching. The story of how the caterpillar needs to struggle to get out of its cocoon. The struggle makes its wings strong. If we help it, when it emerges as a butterfly, its wings will be stunted.
That’s kind of what Mum was doing when I came home with a tale about the boy at school saying I didn’t have a father. If she let me feel sorry for myself, I might never grow strong.
So that’s what I have been ruminating on for the past day or so. Chewing over the past, so to speak. And then writing a quite self-indulgent post. It wasn’t what I’d tentatively planned to write about. But when I sat down at the computer it all just forced its way to the surface. Blame it on the Rolling Stones.
All these things in my life happened many years ago. And as I said earlier, looking back, I know that, despite setbacks, I was still privileged. And, okay, maybe you can’t always get what you want. But as the song goes, “if you try sometimes you just might find/ you get what you need.” And clearly writing this was what I needed today.
So it’s your turn, now. What are you ruminating on this week my friends? Care to get it off your chest?