“Is that a new outfit?” my father would ask.
It never occurred to him to say, “What a pretty dress or I like that skirt or pantsuit.” My father could talk less about us as individuals than he could about the items we wore. There was always a snide remark waiting in the wings to throw out, just like the daily newspaper or garbage. While he was completely capable of noticing the beauty of someone else or something new on us, my father lacked the ability to acknowledge that my mother, sister or I were actually wearing them, let alone that we existed. It was as if the clothes were inanimate and had been pinned on us like tails on a donkey, thereby allowing him to justify him making his cruel remarks without guilt or recrimination.
If somebody made a statement like, “your daughter is beautiful”, my father’s patent (pending) reply was always, “Vhy, I’m such an ugly?”
Big laughs all around for everyone.
This was one of the standard recipes of our existence.
By the time things had turned very sour in my parents’ marriage, my mother and I often took to going out for lunch on Saturdays followed by spending the afternoon shopping at the mall. We would plot our escape from the house (and my father) while he was out doing business or running errands so we wouldn’t have to see or deal with him until sometime later in the afternoon or early evening. Usually, when we returned home (with purchases we hid in the closet for several months before actually putting them on for the first time so that we could say, “No, these aren’t new; they’re a few months old” without lying), my father would be asleep in the family room and wouldn’t even hear us come in the door. Other times, we weren’t so lucky.
“Do I hear shopping?” he would yell from the den as we quietly tried to sneak back into the pressure cooker house of anger and silence. Our new clothes always hung on hangers with plastic sheaths; we did not allow them to be put in paper bags when we bought them. The noise from those bags would bust us.
“No, dad,” I would reply. “It’s just dry cleaning.”
In subsequent years, I would come to loathe any phrase that began with the words, “It’s just”. For any child who has lost a friend, broken a toy, expressed disappointment and had every single event repeatedly minimized as being trivial or unimportant, it is hard to figure out what does really matter if seemingly nothing about you or your existence ever really did matter in someone else’s eyes. Especially if those eyes belonged to your father.
It’s not just a concert, a boy, heartbreak or another promise that goes unfulfilled or dismissed or a missed opportunity when it happens to you. It’s not just a pair of your favorite shoes or boots or your bicycle when they get ruined, tossed aside or stolen. It’s not just words or feelings that have nowhere to land because you aren’t allowed to own or express them. It’s not just a chance that you may never have again that you exchange for repeatedly trying to please someone who can never be pleased and won’t ever forgive you for not becoming what he wanted so he could wear your achievement on his sleeve like an expensive suit on his own body.
Maybe it’s just the business of life.
It’s not just at all.