Tag Archives: Daddy

Singed

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A couple of years after Nancy and Ellie came to live with us, we experienced a major tragedy together. Our home burned to the ground, along with most of our possessions.

It happened on a beautiful Fall day: crisp, cool air, just a few white fluffy clouds in the sky, leaves just beginning to change. While working in the kitchen, Mother caught a whiff of that awful stench: melting plastic. She frantically looked around the kitchen, but found nothing. Then we all heard a pop, followed by crackling.

Mother ran into the living room and ushered us all outside. She and Nancy did a headcount once we got to the curb and realized my brother was not with us. Mother ran back inside and found him hiding in the hall closet, clutching his blankie and crying quietly. She scooped him up and ran.

After depositing him safely in “Mommy Nancy’s” arms, she ran back in a second time, and then a third, and a fourth. Over and over, she ran back in. I remember increasingly large puffs of smoke pouring out the front door each time it opened. The neighbors gathered at the end of the driveway with us, watching in shock. Nobody tried to stop her.

After each trip back into the burning building, she ran to the end of the driveway to deposit an armload of things in a growing pile. Mostly photo albums and family movies, but she grabbed other things too: nick knacks, blankets and pillows, whatever she could snatch from the flames’ path. She only stopped when she went to open the door one last time and the flames singed her hair.

My dad came flying into the cul-de-sac around the same time as the fire engines. I remember him hoisting me up into a bear hug and asking Mom if everyone made it out OK. We watched the jets of water shoot into our crumbling house. It seemed like hours before the smoke began to slow. The flames won, rendering our home nothing but piles of black rubble. A neighbor brought blankets out to wrap around the children. She invited us in for cocoa to help us warm up while Mom dealt with the police, firemen, and insurance agent. I think I only took a couple of sips of cocoa. I remember staring into the thick, sand-colored mug in shock. Grown-ups were talking around me, but it sounded distorted, like I was under water.

We spent the night in a cheap motel, then moved into a rental house for several months while our house was rebuilt. I don’t remember much about the rental house except for drab, grey walls, and a window seat overlooking the back yard. It was my favorite spot in the house. Somehow cozy and magical, it made me feel safe, and provided the perfect spot to immerse myself in a good book or day dream. I’ve loved window seats ever since then.

Daddy did not live in the rental house with us. This was one of the separations when we didn’t see him much. The fire took the only home he’d ever known and left him devastated. He lacked healthy coping tools, so he withdrew and sunk deeper into his addiction. As soon as our new house was ready, he came around again. I don’t know if he moved back in, but he was there every night after work, playing, reading stories, tucking in, eating dinner.

Some of our things were salvaged and professionally treated for smoke damage, including my favorite doll. I cried the day Mom brought her to the rental house. I hugged my dolly tight and didn’t let her out of my sight for months.

I developed PTSD after the fire. I had a recurring night terror about it for years where I was trapped in the burning house and couldn’t get out, complete with feeling the heat and smelling the smoke. I haven’t had that particular one in a long time, but I do still get occasional night terrors about fire. I’m still pyrophobic. If someone lights a match or lighter anywhere near me, it’s all I can do not to panic. I DID panic until a few years ago. I would scream and back away in terror, seeing the flame burst out of control before me. This got some weird looks, and I had to explain about the house fire to many friends over the years. None understood. I was never evaluated for PTSD until college.

Family Economics

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Mother had a stable but low-paying career working with children. Daddy worked at the family business, with a few short breaks. It was an extremely profitable but seasonal business. We maintained certain standards year-round: If we wanted a new toy or other luxury, we could either get it with our allowance or wait until Christmas/our birthday. We occasionally got a small amount of “allowance credit,” but were not taught anything about long-term planning. We didn’t go out to sit-down restaurants or order pizza very often (although we did eat a lot of fast food during the busy season.) We didn’t attend many movies, skating rinks, Chuck-E-Cheese, or other places that charged money for entertainment; except for special treats. And even during the brief time we were on food stamps, Mother always made sure to put a little something in the offering plate at church. My parents also maintained some luxuries whenever possible, even if that meant forgoing groceries or other necessities: Mom’s hair was always salon-dyed (as was mine once I reached the proper age), nails always painted, make-up always done. Mother forced me to have my hair dyed for years, but I could manage to avoid the nails and make-up if I really worked at it. She bullied me and sometimes withheld privileges if I failed to comply. We occasionally received hand-me-down clothing from our cousins, but we never purchased clothing or toys second-hand. Dad frequently traded his sports car or pickup truck for a newer model, owned the biggest TV on the market, and had a personal computer before anyone else on the block, in addition to the recreational drugs. We had a cleaning lady most of the time, but would occasionally cancel her services for a few weeks during the slower months. Even when the cleaning lady was on hiatus, we had very few chores.

During the busy months, Mom and Dad saved for the slower months, but it seemed they never put back enough. They kept a specific fund that could not be touched unless a dire emergency arose: the Christmas fund. Christmas was an elaborate celebration in our family. We wore brand-new matching outfits to the Christmas eve service at church. We opened our brand-new matching Christmas PJs Christmas eve, to wear to bed and then for pictures Christmas morning. Mother prepared a feast for our extended family on Christmas day. And the gifts, oh, the gifts. Each year we prepared a list of desired presents at Mother’s prompting. This list had to be long enough to share with the extended family and still leave enough to flood the house with gifts from Mother, Father, and Santa on Christmas morning. If the first list wasn’t long enough, we had to add to it. Gifts would be piled everywhere, under the tree, on the furniture, under the dining room table, around the hearth. Mother would choose the items from our lists that she found acceptable and would pass some of them on to extended family to purchase for us. The rest, if she deemed them acceptable she tried to find them at the best possible prices. If she could not glean enough gift ideas from our lists, she still felt compelled to drain the Christmas fund, so she purchased things seemingly at random, or things that fit her taste, things she wanted us to like.  As an example, once I reached the appropriate age, I usually received large amounts of make-up, especially kits, either from expensive department store brands or even occasionally drug store brands. Mother trained us not only to smile and say thank you, but to effuse over each gift and spend some time playing with it enthusiastically for the camera. Christmas meant more than just gifts, of course, but I will save the rest of the traditions and memories for another entry.

So even though an abundant Christmas fund sat in the bank, if the money ran out during the slow season Mother and Father would not touch it unless a true emergency arose. This meant that sometimes we ate nothing but pasta and hamburger for weeks at a time. Other times it meant we had three meager meals and no snacks, left with rumbling tummies for much of the day and night. Complaints about hunger elicited a number of responses, ranging from denial to charges of ungratefulness, belittling to annoyance. Meal and snack times and amounts were set and they had better be enough or we could “get over it.” Sometimes I would sneak food, even hiding boxes and wrappers in my room or in strategic places around the house. If I got caught I was reprimanded, and punished by missing the next snack or meal. As I got older, I would gorge myself in secret on grocery day so that at least for one day I wouldn’t go hungry.

We also had to wear worn-out and out-grown clothing and shoes until Christmas, and then whatever we got for Christmas had to last us until the busy season, growth spurts not being accounted for. This meant that some years we went without winter coats, appropriate shoes, and occasionally no socks and one fitting pair of underwear. If we got down to no underwear that fit, then mother would pick up a few pairs, but that was pretty much the only exception. Child Services got involved on a couple of occasions, but that would only fix the clothing situation for that year. The following winter we reverted to the old way of doing things.

During the busy season, we lived the high life. With Daddy’s first big paycheck or two, Mom and Dad would catch up on the mortgage and any other lapsed bills. Then, right before Spring Break, we’d go on a huge shopping spree for our Spring wardrobes. We shopped the sales racks first, but after exhausting those we paid full price for the remainder. We’d get new water shoes or flip flops, sandals (sometimes two or three pairs for the girls), hiking boots, sneakers, at least two pairs of dress shoes, at least two swim suits and a cover-up each, church clothes, school clothes, and of course, play clothes for the long summer. We’d also each get one especially fancy outfit just for Easter. After Easter, the special outfits might be worn to a Summer wedding, but we usually only wore them once or twice and then donated them. We always did something for Spring Break; sometimes just an inexpensive camping trip to the lake or a park, other years Disney World or the beach or a water park, depending on how the busy season started out that year. We would have another huge shopping trip at the end of the school year to replace any outgrown clothing and fill out our Summer wardrobes. During the Summer, we always made at least one trip to an exclusive beach resort or theme park. We stayed in luxury suites, condos, or even rented a townhouse. We attended lots of summer camps: some VBSes, some educational day camps, and some sleep-away camps. We did lots of what people now call “staycation” stuff, seeing local attractions and such. And some years, we took an educational trip, such as visiting Washington, D.C.; Colonial Williamsburg, VA; the Grand Canyon; Mt. Rushmore, to name a few. Some of these trips early in the season went on credit cards that my parents then ended up making payments on into the Winter, contributing to our economic difficulties in the lean months.

My parents saved for retirement, but a tragedy wiped out most of those savings in my teen years. More on that later. They did not, however, save for our college educations and even with an upper-class income between the two of them, they paid for a lot of things with credit for a long, long time.

My Junior year of college, Mother called me out of the blue one day to tell me that there was no more money. And that was that. I’d chosen an intense major and didn’t even have time to look for a job, let alone actually work one. It was too late in the semester to drop any classes without penalty to find work, so I did the only thing I knew how to do: I paid for everything with credit. Car insurance and gas, cell phone, prescription medication, and any incidentals that came up. That semester I flunked out, mainly for unrelated reasons but it would be naive to say that stress had no effect on my studies. I don’t know how my brother managed to get by. My sister managed to pick up more hours at her part-time job, and allowed her boyfriend to help her make ends meet. Mother has no recollection of this. She and Dad managed to get through that Winter somehow.

Prince Charming

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I grew up a total Daddy’s Girl. He was big and strong and fun and smart, and he gave the best hugs. I wanted to be just like him. He’d rough house with us, but I always felt safe with him. My Daddy would never let anything bad happen to me. I’d watch him and emulate the way he sat, stood, walked, even his posture when we rode an escalator. I would do just about anything to spend time with him.

As I got older, he spent less and less time at home. He and my mom separated sometimes, and he would still come play with us after work, but then would go wherever he was living after we went to bed. As a child I didn’t understand.  I knew that I missed him terribly when he was gone. I found out sometime in my teen years that he had struggled with addiction since before I was born. He left to protect us. Sometimes someone from his community of dealers and users would threaten his family, other times the drugs made him paranoid. For years, he kept the drugs from my mom.

My great aunt taught my mama how to go to war in prayer. They prayed that any bed but his marriage bed with my mother would feel like a bag of rocks. A couple of the times when he moved out he asked her if he could take their mattress with him because he couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep anywhere else!

Near the end of my childhood, he stopped coming home to see us every night. This was new, and I hated it. I felt angry and confused. When I asked my mom where he was, she averted her eyes and made excuses. Sometimes we’d go nearly a week without seeing or hearing from him. I needed my Daddy. I began waiting up for him, sometimes falling asleep in odd places. One day, something happened at school and I really needed to talk to my dad about it, but I didn’t know how to reach him. It had been a few days already since he’d come home, so I hoped all day that he would show up that night. He didn’t. I was crushed. So I wrote him a note. I told him what happened at school, and how much I needed him there to talk to me and help me through it. How I missed him. I poured my little heart out into that note, and solemnly gave it to my mom, asking her to give it to him if he ever bothered coming back. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I handed her that pink envelope.

Since the letter was for my Daddy, I never thought that she might open it and read it first. At her desk she sat, weeping over my words, my hurt, late into the night. In the morning she called him and read him my letter, barely holding herself together as she felt my pain meet her own for the hundredth time. Where her tears and begging met with stony resistance, seeing the pain he had caused his daughter was too much. He came home that night and stayed for a couple of days. Then, he gathered us all at his knee and told us that he had to go on a trip. He didn’t know how long he would be gone, but he promised to call every day and send postcards and letters when he could. My sister and I cried and begged him to stay, but he said this was just something that he had to do and that when he came back, he would see us every day. I believed him. I was willing to part with him again for a while if it meant getting to be a real family again.

For my dad’s “trip,” he spent a couple of days detoxing on the couch with the one “clean” person he felt he could trust. The detox nearly killed him before he finally gave in and let his friend take him to the hospital.

I remember visiting him in rehab. I didn’t like it there. It felt like a weird hotel, not a home. It bothered me knowing he had to sleep there. And I didn’t feel like we could be ourselves there. I wanted him to come home. But Daddy was sick, and this was a special hospital where he could get better. When we visited him, he’d read to us or we could play cards or board games with him. I liked that, it felt more normal. As time passed, he seemed different. I remember feeling hesitant and unsure about the changes I saw in him. Some days, he seemed sad and didn’t talk much. He’d be distracted while we played. Other days he was much as he’d always been, just my happy, fun, big strong Dad. But even on those days, something was definitely different.

I remember the day he came home. It felt like a dream, I was so afraid I’d wake up and he’d be back in the hospital. I wanted to never stop hugging him. But he was actually home, and he never left us again. He’d hit rock bottom and found Jesus waiting to pick him up. He started going to church with us, and soon we got baptized as a family at the church that helped my mother pray him out of addiction without even knowing what exactly they were battling.

My dad doesn’t know how to do anything half-way, so when he met Jesus he dove into the relationship head first and immersed himself in the Bible. After a few years, he felt the need for a solid Biblical education, so he went to divinity school and became an ordained minister. Now, he is my “go-to” guy for questions about the Bible and theology. He and my mother are deeply in love and devoted to one another. They’re that sweet older couple you see still holding hands in public, teasing and grinning at each other like a couple of teenagers. They’ve been that way, with surprising consistency, for over a decade. My dad has ministered to countless addicts over the years, some in prison and some on the outside. He’s performed several weddings and been a guest speaker in churches in three different states, telling his story. As a family, we have seen so many prayers answered, so many miracles. I hope to share many of them with you soon.

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