Yesterday afternoon it occurred to me that I am often rude to my father. To anyone who has seen me speak to my father, this is old news. Sometime after my 19th birthday I gained a false confidence that allowed me to bite – not always back, but just bite. It was always there, brewing. My mother always said, “We could never control you. We could never tell you to do anything you didn’t want to do.” And it was true. I have always thought, “What do they know?” They mostly being my father.
As a child, I would wait at home for my father to bring me books from the library, where he’d stop by on his way home from work and pick out a few picture books for me to read. He reads. I read. He is where I get it from. I got older and started to check out books for myself, rolling down literary hills like the proverbial stone, gathering moss until one day it seemed my tastes would never change. I was stuck in fiction while my father hoped, what with all our magazine subscriptions and shelves filled with reference, history and business books, that I’d transition my tastes to non-fiction. Useful stuff.
“There’s little to be gained from reading fiction,” he would say, “Or at least low-quality fiction.” And perhaps it started then, perhaps it didn’t – but I began to suspect at some point that my father did not and would not understand me. Ever. I admit for many years I read low quality fiction. And while I falsely considered myself a reader from a young age only because someone had pointed out to me in middle school that I always seemed to have a book in hand, it wasn’t until I met other, truer readers – boys and girls whose reading levels seemed years ahead of mine and whose favorite authors wrote single novels about extremely well-developed individuals rather than a series involving a boy named Leroy aka Encyclopedia Brown or soulless novels with gruesome covers that ultimately disappointed in the end (Christopher Pike, anyone?) – that I realized where the really good reading was.
He reads no fiction now, preferring history and finance books on Sunday afternoons, but my father is extremely well-read in classic Chinese literature. Fiction, yes, but vastly different from the emotive, English literature I prefer. Or so I’ve heard. I won’t knock it until I’ve tried it, but this is more than my father is capable of. He sees my novels and glossy fashion magazines and wonders (sometimes correctly, oftentimes not so much) that my brain is all fiction and fashion and frilly.
Misunderstanding breeds contempt, and while my father can never harbor contempt for me, I let my contempt for him grow because I did not – do not- understand how he cannot understand me. It is always a shame when your child is someone you cannot get along with, but my father is blind to this. He likely thinks we have a wonderful relationship, filled with smiles and laughter and understanding – and to a certain extent, in small doses, thirty-minute intervals (or however long it takes to eat dinner), we do. I admire my father for many things: he is calm under pressure, he is knowledgeable, he is organized, a good cook, generous, kind – he is all these things and many more wonderful things. But he is also loud, obnoxious, self-involved, a poor-listener, humorous in a way I find contemptuous rather than truly funny, and alarmingly narrow-minded at times (“No one will read your blog,” he has said, “If you only write about personal things.” Oh father, I beg to differ.)
In college, I began to expand my reading tastes. Thanks to the likes of Jon Krakauer, Russell Baker and Erik Larson, I learned that non-fiction can be just as fascinating as fiction if not more so, as it was real. I ate up biographies, social studies, and eventually opened myself to business books – or at least books that seemed more business like. In the back of my head, I thought perhaps it would give me more to talk about with my dad, but (and this may seem small, but day after day it can become exhausting) he is always more interested in showing what he knows and testing to see if you know it to, in which case, if you don’t, you’re in for an irritating session of “How can you not know this?”
It is not a fun game, especially if one has as much pride as I do.
So my contempt. What is it made of? One part exhaustion – frankly, I am tired of my father. We do better when I am far away. One part empathy: he has none, so I make up for it. Who knows whether it is actual strength or a missing link, a gaping hole in his emotional makeup; I have a hunch however, that it is a enigmatic mixture of the two. No one, and I mean NO ONE, has ever seen him cry. When my grandfather died, he merely smiled and patted my sobbing cousins on the back. “It’s the way of life,” he said. When his mother passed away some forty years ago, he paid his respects and then called my mother, whom his mother extremely disliked. “My mother’s dead,” he said, though perhaps a bit more eloquently, “Let’s get married.”
He is a thinker, but in the most pragmatic way. I am a thinker too, but in the most useless, ineffective way. He sleeps anywhere, without issue. I can no longer sleep. He is a businessman. I like to write personal essays on a blog. All these things caused our personalities to butt heads, but now as I get older, I see that I’m the only one butting.
My father tries now, to accommodate me in every which way. And this is where his vulnerability lies: he does not want his children to be very far away, except that my brother has already flown the coop and may never come back in the way that he came back, just a year ago. And while I’m nowhere near financially ready, my father can probably sense that my feet are itching to go. He does not mean to smother, and honestly I cannot say that he does, but my irritation with him, my narrowed eyes and sullen face and one-word monotone responses that too soon give rise to sharp, ungrateful tones and sarcasm smother our relationship and threaten to unravel an already thin string.
But this Father’s Day, I recognize it is I who needs to change. Not my dad, whom I thought was set in his ways and incapable of change, but me, a kind, happy girl to anyone else but to her own father, who can’t cry or hug or listen or understand, but who loves.