My grandmother, Corrine Cotten, is shockingly aware and vocal about her human finitude. When I visit, she writes my name on little sticky notes and attaches the yellow squares to items of hers I may want one day. If you open a closet at her house, chances are you’ll see a pile of old quilts, pillows, hand-made vases from her sister Norma, or jewelry from her “wild days” labeled with the names of my cousins, aunts and uncles on the same little yellow squares. You can even see the various family names etched in sharpie marker on the back of larger items that are still in daily use throughout the house. Like packing up for a big move, her house is always on the cusp of that final transition. It is a weird mix of death and life, past and present, memory and moment, and I am uncomfortably aware that nothing she passes on will ever feel the same without her around. The kitchen table, for instance, is only special if we are playing SkipBo together with a cup of coffee in hand, and the jewelry from her “wild days” is only fun when she wraps it around her body and shows me the best way to move my belly so that each metal string shakes and chimes. Heirlooms won’t have that same Corrine spirit when she’s gone, but I love her gifts that give insight into her past – even if they are tinged with acceptance and muddled with final farewells.
At age 16, she sent me off with a rad, 1970’s gold belt and the most beautiful blue and crystal screw back earrings because, as she said, “you never know what will happen”. Last year at Thanksgiving, Corrine was wearing an old shirt from a church revival that said “Riot ’88”. 1988 is my birth year and I’m obviously a riot, so I LOST MY SHIT. I raved about how cool it was for a solid ten minutes until Corrine snuck off into the back room, changed into a pretty blue sweater with blue heart appliqués, and handed me the “Riot ’88” shirt that was just on her back two minutes earlier. This is who Corrine is. She is selfless, but strong with a firm voice and a soft heart. She is the cliché perfect grandmother that every child reads about in YA novels.
People have told me you don’t need dads or moms (or anyone for that matter) to live a fulfilled life. Maybe that’s not entirely wrong, but it does seem incredibly sad and lonely to think about a life without people who know you and genuinely care for you.
Those caring roles seem to naturally stem from parental figures, but I’m realizing I also have the ability to choose those people – or allow them to choose me.
My dad left when I was about 8 years old, I could get into specifics, but I don’t have the time to waste crying about that shit for a whole day – so I’m just going to say he left, and I’ve basically been fighting for his attention ever since.
I know, I know – this is such a common issue and I’m not special and I need to grow the eff up.
But I think that’s part of the whole problem. People are always telling me others have it worse and I should be grateful for what I have. But this whole dad issue has been rocking my boat for 20 freaking years, and maybe it’s because I keep thinking it shouldn’t be rocking my boat.
In the future, I’m sure I’ll experience something far worse that will make me realize this shouldn’t have plagued me for so long, but for right now – in this moment – I am upset about a very common issue that I’m sure more than 1/3 of the world experiences.
When I was a kid, I thought the more cool things I did – the more my dad would come around. Deep down, I wasn’t into being on the cheerleading team or whatever other social sport was popular at the time, but I thought the more events I had – the more chances my dad had to show up. It turned out to be a shoddy plan filled with lots of disappointment, but I kept up with it through high school, always hoping my name would be called for the squad or homecoming court. Not because I actually wanted to be on the team or named pretty by public school kids riddled with pubescence, but because I wanted an excuse to call my dad and tell him to come see a game or walk me down the football field.
I know, so desperate.
When the sport/popularity contest didn’t grab his attention, I decided to go all in with prayer. I threw out my secular CDs, broke up with my now hubby to “focus on Jesus”, and started spending my weekend nights reading the bible. I even canceled my senior cruise to spend one month on the mission field – somehow justifying that if I was a better Christian I’d get what I wanted. I drank all the kool-aid possible, and spent every day praying that my dad would come around, or at the very least not die. (I’ve always had a fear of him dying) I took it as my personal responsibility burden to not let him ruin his life, and at 18 years old, the weight of that shit got pretty heavy.
For the past ten years, I’ve been trying to convince myself I don’t have daddy issues – I thought I left all that behind with my fake ass high school years, but here I am, 28 years old, still crying over a dad that was only actively in my life for 8 years.
I don’t get it.
My recent trip to Italy became the soul searching trip of a lifetime. I called my dad before I boarded the plane, even though he didn’t know I had a trip planned. I cried when he didn’t answer – which is why I usually never call in the first place. As the plane took off I thought about what he’d really know about my life if I died.
Morbid, I know. I’ve got daddy issues. TAKE IT EASY ON ME.
I realized he doesn’t know where I live. He doesn’t know that I’m enrolled in Lit Crit courses, or that I even have an interest in writing. He calls my husband Michael. He doesn’t know that I’m not sure about the whole Christianity thing, or that I had two miscarriages, or that I graduated summa cum laude, or that I genuinely like the taste of whiskey. If this plane goes down, he would still think of me as the seven year old driving go-carts through our woods.
Worst of all, I would die with him thinking I voted for McCain.
Our first stop was Venice, and it hit me on our second day there that I wasn’t going to keep focusing on a few years that sucked.
I have a good life, and I need to stop worrying about what happened before I got here.
I don’t know what happened in Italy, but I gave up trying to save my dad, and I gave up searching for his attention. I realized I can dictate what comes in and out of my life, and I made it my personal agenda to start that right away – in Venice where I felt altogether disconnected from the world around me, yet completely cognizant of the people I want to be in my life. Call that egocentric, or snobby, or whatever you want, but when I figured out there are some things I can actually control – I thought it best to start building a life I love.
I have people who chose to be in my life. Why am I focusing on the one person who didn’t?
It’s a strange concept to accept when you’ve been eager for the love of a specific person, but there are other people in this world who will care about you. Sure, it would be nice if it was that parent you’ve been trying to grab the attention of, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s important to be aware of the relationships you’re missing out on while you’re waiting for the one person who keeps letting you down.
Daddy issues are weird, especially when you’re almost thirty and you thought you’d be over it all by now. But the truth is, it’s a constant struggle to understand why someone who should want to be in your life isn’t.
I had a few bad years, but I’ve had just as many good years. Escaping the constant feeling of rejection isn’t me not being true to myself, my background, or my family. It’s me choosing to create a better life with people who decided a long time ago to be by my side.
Some people call that giving up, others call it moving on.
When I was in the 5th grade I won an essay contest for D.A.R.E. In the essay, I had to explain my pledge to stay away from drugs. I wrote something very cheesy and expectant for a typical elementary kid. You know, something really thought provoking like, “drugs are bad.”
I’m pretty sure my essay would have left that “Heaven is for Real” kid in the dust though… had our sentences been juxtaposed.
The essay wasn’t life changing, but I wrote it with passion. And it wasn’t because the DARE officer showed my formative brain horror videos of drunk drivers and families abandoned by victims of drug overdoses, but because I had already witnessed that in real life. When I look back on the essay, I realize it was a pledge to you. It was me promising I would never turn out like that, while somehow simultaneously begging you to come back. Today, I’m writing a new essay. Not in hopes that you’ll put down your habits (I mean, I do hope that too), but in an effort to say, I get it.