Thursday, January 12, 2012

Monday Memoir: That's Don Fey ...

I spent a lot of time with my dad during some pretty pivotal years, and this period is a blur of denim accented denim, rust and German Shepherd breath. It is all condensed into a single vision: Our blue beater parked in front of the house and we're going for a ride: To a ranch outside of town where he will break horses, to a pool outside of town where a woman who has had great success with quadriplegic and special needs children will fail to teach a snot-nosed ginger to put her face in water, to The Farm, just outside of town, a couple acres of land with hiking trails, a stream, a rust-bucket school bus and tomb for toys from the 1960s, a wooden shed aged to a tilt, with no electricity and cobwebs on the toilet paper.

Any unwillingness to wear a dress growing up, any balking at nylons or religious belief that slips are optional and hoodies mandatory was pinned to my dad.

"He's the one who brought her up through her formative years," was my mom's favorite punch line for at least a decade, although she said it like more of a curse a decade later.

In those days my dad loved Marty Robbins' records and gave equal time to Paul Harvey played over noon hour on a clock radio in the kitchen. Every time I heard Harvey say "And that's the rest of the story" I wondered where the first part of the story went.

My dad could dump a leftover into a frying pan, add ketchup, stick it between bread and call it lunch. He trotted out the delicacy Cream Peas on Toast. We got a deep fryer for Christmas and he made Corn Fritters, but just once. He hid Girl Scout cookies and boxes of chocolates in his closet on the high shelf. He approved rations of ice cream. Survival instinct. He was the second oldest of eight children who grew up in a three bedroom house in a neighborhood that now has lost its sheen. I imagine the attic looked like a scene from an orphanage, a bunch of boys ranging from teen to toddler on single bed cots in a row.

The last time I was in that attic there was a text book called "Your Friends in Eurasia" and the whole house still smelled like hot linoleum and lemony dish detergent.

"We were so poor growing up that we were allowed to run through the sprinkler," he said one time. "But we couldn't afford to turn on the water."

Then he did the laugh he does when he finds himself hilarious, one eye squinched more than the other. He likes a good joke, the cornier the better, especially when he is the one telling it. No judgement here.

One day my friend Elise and I were comparing discipline highlight reels and she passed along a tip: If you're about to get a spanking, run. Just run. So I did that. Out the front door, across the lawn, up a steady grade, my dad chugging behind me. Where do I go now? I wondered. I could never outrun my father. No way. Then I stopped at the top and waited for him, laughing. Not at him, certainly not with him.

My dad cut his toenails straight across, rather than rounding the corners. In my head I can hear them clicking across the kitchen floor, but that is probably an exaggeration.

He worked nights. He slept with the phone in the drawer. My cue to wake him was the end credits of "The Young and the Restless." I can see his puffy white sleep face, a protruding red mole beneath one of his eyes, his hair a light brown mess of curls, poking out of a nubby white blanket and I can see it as though I'm standing at eye-level with the bed. He would make me a grilled cheese sandwich, send me walking the three blocks to school. Later we would all climb blurry-eyed into a two-door car in the dark and cold to drop him at the Law Enforcement Center. My mom was in school to become a teacher and we would pick her up at a turnaround spot on the community college campus.

"Here she comes," he would say. "Mama Mia with the spicy meatballs."

My dad was a deputy sheriff, an amazing thing when you are in kindergarten and it takes no more than siren-on-demand to impress your peers. A uniform, a patrol car, a gun that he put on top of the refrigerator during his lunch break when he went to regular hours. My dad worked in the civil division, plain clothes, when I was in grade school. A confusing thing when he got involved with a custody situation that involves a classmate, the only child of divorce in my class. For the rest of my childhood the mom glaring at my dad from across the church. Her daughter, my friend, unable to come to my house or hitch a ride to a high school basketball game.

"It's not my fault she broke the law," would be something my dad would say. But he never really told me what was going on.

My dad taught me to do a layup a half hour before I went to my first basketball camp. "That's it?" I thought. It was instinctual. Later, at the camp, I was one of the few kids who could do one or had ever even heard the word. He built me a section of a basketball court in our back yard.

When a kid in my brother's class when apeshit with an axe all over most of his family, my dad was involved with the case and escorted the juvenile to a facility in Texas, where he waited for his trial. This was an incredible nugget that made me feel like I had VIP privileges as the case unfolded in the news. Of course we all felt like we had VIP privileges considering two of our school mates had died and a boy with a unibrow we thought we knew had done it. A fit of satanism, was the rumor. An unyielding father, another. And it was all like trying to solve "CSI: Rochester" with Encyclopedia Brown's database.

By the time I was in high school I was terrified of my dad. Not terrified about anything he did, but terrified of his masterful look of disappointment. A shake of the head. A stony expressionless look. Silence. Or a half-yell where his voice bounced. He hated lying, cheating and stealing. "Greg has poor sportsmanship," he would say of a boy on my brother's hockey team who cried after losses and chased down refs with who-me? hands after bad calls. When I missed state, hell missed regionals, because of a case of the yips on the runway to the long jump pit, when I threw my walkman at a sophomore girl who dared to ask how I'd finished, he gave me a talking-to that was less salve for my disappointment than a life lesson: We don't act like that, he said. We don't act like that.

Most of the big rules came down from my dad. The "Dukes of Hazard" made cops look foolish, so we weren't allowed to watch it. Our curfews were strictly enforced because my dad knew what a car accident looked like in the middle of the night. Before I was born, or at least before I saved memories, my father's good friend, a fellow cop, was shot while on duty. Before his shift started, my dad made fun of him for having a stain on his shirt.

When I was 19 or 20 and my parents were away for the weekend my brother dug into the pocket of the jeans I'd worn the night before looking for my car keys. Instead he came out with a handful of beer bottle tops, counting out nine, a mix of Red Dog and Ice House.

"If dad found this he would kill you," he said.

When my dad was my age, 36, I was 12. My brother was 16. When we got the dog, rode around in the pickup truck, he was 27. That time when I ran up the street to escape a spanking he was 29. He built me a basketball court when he was 32. When my brother went to college he was 38, younger than my boyfriend is now. When I went to college he was 42, the same age as my one of my best friend's fiance. It's weird to think that we obeyed him. The idea of someone taking me seriously as a disciplinarian is laughable.

That makes him, what, 60. He's been retired for more 5 years because that's what you do when you become a government employee at age 20. He turned my parents basement into a something that resembles an upscale lodge with built in book cases, a bar, a stone fireplace, two bedrooms and a full bathroom. He has gone fully grey, but convinced my niece a few years ago that he is blond. He plays hockey with other "old timers." I called home a few weeks ago and my mom could barely speak, she was laughing so hard at a bad round of Wii Golf.

I have friends, maybe not friends, but people I talk to regularly, people whose conversation I enjoy, people I can swear in front of, who are within a five year radius of my parents. Aside from a bum hip here, sleep apnea there, my parents are staying the same age but it seems that I am catching up to them.

The Monday Memoir series is a writing project that uses Tina Fey's memoir "Bossypants" as a template for my own life story. I'm using her subjects as a prompt. Tina Fey's memoir is very funny, by the way. It just seemed so easy to do. In Chapter Four she talks about her dad, Don Fey.


chuck said...

Gosh kids grow up fast.

Beret said...

I really enjoyed reading this.

Karen said...

I like this and can easily relate. Having recently done the math myself, this certainly puts things in a more entertaining perspective. See, while I'd never call my mother's 56 y/o friend Sherry a cock tease, just last night I did in fact call my 56 y/o friend Mary one. (The little cock teasing minx.) I'd sooner throw myself into traffic than let my 56 y/o mother hear that fall out of my mouth. "Who raised you?!" she'd ask in disgust. In reply I'd point at her and burp, "YOU!" Then we'd all laugh and she'd make brownies.

debby said...

This is one of my all-time favorite posts of yours. Love it.

Katie Z said...

Love, love ,love it all. I miss your parents and you.

Sproactually said...

This was really good, and enjoyable.

When do i get my book?