The Flip Side of My Fear: Alone (Part 2)

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Being busy has become a status symbol. Why or when this became a thing is beyond me.

I know it wasn’t a thing before or after my dad died. Elementary school was an 8-to-3 deal. I don’t remember having anything that could be defined as extracurricular beyond taking off my school clothes, putting on my play clothes and screwing around being all free-range kid until dinner…which was around the table.

Middle school was an 8:30-to-3:30 deal. There were a few sports teams that practiced the last hour of the school day but you had to be finished in time to catch the bus so it never ran long. I took guitar for an hour per week from a guy who just tabbed out Kiss songs and showed me the chords. Still mostly free-range on most days.

Even high school ended practices by 4:30pm or so. Again, practice started during the last period of the day and a two-and-a-half hour practice is good enough for any sport. You could also be a part of several clubs if you wanted which all had a special schedule to accommodate during the school day twice per month. I’m not much of a joiner so I stayed in homeroom during that time because the skirts of Angie Mahan and Tracy McCarver needed to be chased. Mostly we weren’t good at that and played paper football.

Our coaches and teachers knew we had part-time jobs and church stuff and family deals going on so homework was pretty limited. Oh, and being an average high school player with average high school grades was okay. There was little belief that any of us would get scholarships in the sports we played. Except for baseball. We kicked ass at that.

And summer? Don’t even get me started. We actually got bored when Little League ended on MEMORIAL DAY weekend with a tournament. If you made the All-Star team you played in a couple of tournaments if you kept winning, but those were done by mid-June. We got bored. A lot.

But now? Kids are warp speed…and so are parents.

School seems to start with extracurricular practices/meetings at 6:30am. In my community it’s pretty common to see the high schoolers practicing until dinner and sometimes even beyond.

Homework seems never ending…despite rampant grade inflation. I read the other day where in 1980, 7% of students made the “A” honor roll. Today: 41%. In our state, there’s pretty intense pressure to land in the top 10% of your graduating class get some sort of guarantee into the state schools.

Most kids choose a sport or area of focus before high school. They spend most afternoons working towards extreme excellence in their chosen thing. There are private volleyball coaches, music lessons, meetings, games or whatever until well after dinner. The folks who eat family dinner at home are few & far between. Parents are on the go in the SUV to make most of those things happen or support their kid as it’s happening.

Weekends and summer? There are SAT teams. Tournaments. Private lessons. Tutoring. Vacations revolve around whatever “voluntary” practices or meetings teachers/coaches impose (if you don’t go, you will volunteer to sit the bench). Instead of 3 months of vacation time it shrinks to about six weeks as the year ends later and you have to be back first of August to excel. I don’t know of many kids who have jobs. Busy creeps into those times, too.

I just focused on the kid side of things here. We all know that work weeks are expected to be in the 50-55 hour per week range. My grandfather was a big deal for a major U.S. company and he was 9 to 5, Monday-Friday…and my suspicion is the three martini lunch was a thing too. And parenting back then wasn’t as fully engaged as it is now. There were blocks of time where my mom had no real idea where we were.

All those involvements keep you connected to people, too. We try to cram family time into those engagements. We’re at warp speed. Together. We don’t even slow down for church gathering. It’s just another thing on the schedule…and stats show most folk attends weekly service twice per month these days. We’re surrounded by people during most all that time.

And now, we’re connected even when we’re disconnected. Phones and social media and stuff.

Now, don’t think this is some scorching case of “good-old-days” syndrome, though. I’m not pining for some return to a Deep South catching lightning bugs in a jar way of living. That lifestyle had some major league drawbacks for sure. What I’m highlighting is the reality that there are some unintended consequences of

But as a latchkey kid, you learn a few things when you’re alone as much as I was…sometimes four hours a day after school/extracurricular stuff. Weekends could be from Friday night to Sunday night with nothing on the agenda for me.

And there are some things you learn from being alone and disconnected. Some very good things, too.

Like, I learned to be self-sufficient. There were a lot of things that you had figure out on your own. If poster board were needed for a project, well, mom isn’t home so you’d better figure out a way to go get it. Dinner was done by reading the back of the box or on the label somewhere. Hey, Mr. Stokes, can you show me how to patch my bike tire? Lawnmower needs a new spark plug so you use about 43 tools before you figure out which one fits and/or works and take it to the hardware store.

Sure, there was an awful lot of trial and error (ever been shocked trying to replace a car battery?) but you figured it out.

There were a couple of bonus off-shoots of being self-sufficient: You develop an adventurous spirit of sorts…you give it the old college try and then deal with the failure. Mr. Stokes also had to help me put a dishwasher back together once. But I tried to figure it out before I realized I was in way, way, way over my head.

Also, self-confidence. After a few wins you begin to believe you can do it. You may have to make a phone call to finish the job but you start by saying, “I got this.”

Second, when you’re alone you tend to get creative. There wasn’t anyone around to play these sports board games I had where the dice rolls re-created the on-field performance of players and teams. So, you devised rules so the teams could compete and you could coach both teams.

Or maybe you didn’t have anyone to work on your pitching, so you rigged up some rope and hung a quilt over it, stole a milk crate from behind Western Supermarket and poached tennis balls hit over the fence from the country club (about four miles away via bike). You then could throw about 40 pitches into the quilt from 60’ 6”, pick them up and put them back in the crate and repeat the process. As an aside, your mom will lecture you about the duct-tape strike zone and mud splatters on the quilt Nana made like 25 years ago.

And I engaged in the arts. Granted, it wasn’t like I was listening to Vivaldi or Ravel in the afternoons or reading Hemmingway or whatever. But I listened to a lot of music when I was by myself. I read a lot of books (Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe were big) when I was by myself. I wrote a lot, too. Sometimes in journals. Sometimes giving short stories a whirl, too.

Lastly, I learned that being alone keeps you centered.

What I mean is that I was surrounded by people all day from 8am to 3pm. Surrounded by their ideas and thoughts and whatever current events and such. When you come home you have to deal with the thoughts in your own brain. You have to figure out what you believe and why you believe it…or if you believe it.

You develop the ability to be honest with yourself because there isn’t anyone else to be honest to, with, or about. You develop a way of looking at the world that is uniquely your own because you have time process.

You kind of grow into yourself. You become okay with living in your own skin.

I’m convinced that the busyness and accompanying social demands are part of the reason people have lost their minds. Why these are valued is beyond me.

Being alone helped me find mine.

The Flip Side of My Fear: Anger (Part 1)

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(The last four entries focused on why I fear abandonment. It was kind of gloomy. Starting today I flip those over and look at how some good things came out of those reasons…so maybe these next few will leave you with a bit more hope)

 

“Why do you want to manage sin? I mean, they don’t have adultery management classes.”

My friend Charles spent most Monday afternoons post-gaming the weekend choices I made during my sophomore year of college. What’s weird is he seemed to enjoy his choice to—in the language of my Tribe—“disciple” me and our group of spiritual neophytes. He’d been at it for over a year.

Keep in mind most of the weekend choices I made my sophomore year were—in the language of my Tribe—unwise. The reality was that I wasn’t fuzzy on the good/bad thing. I’d read my Bible. I seemed to create an “undergraduate exemption” from those behaviors. In my way of thinking, the really fun sins didn’t work against you until you got your degree. This was the fine print I’m not sure Charles read when he signed up.

We met at the campus McDonald’s because getting coffee wasn’t a thing yet. Once a week. Charles would patiently wait until the smoke bomb I threw weekly to avoid talking about my—ahem—unwise decisions cleared. In this case, I mentioned that my mom suggested that I might want to look into some anger management classes. Surely there were some in a college town.

For some reason he didn’t wait for me to filibuster that particular smokescreen. He decided to ask a question that would change my entire perspective on the spiritual life. His filibuster had all sorts of phrases in it.

“Doesn’t affect how much God loves you

“It’s really ripping yourself off.”

“Fun and joy are different.”

“That life is not the abundant one you could live.”

“Behavior management won’t change your heart.”

“Aren’t you tired of living with anger yet? It’s been like five years, man.”

Whatever spiritual switch in my brain that moves philosophy to action flipped that afternoon. Right there over the #2 value meal. Super-sized. Maybe I just decided to grow up. Maybe that year investment Charles poured into me paid dividends at that moment. My Tribe would say that the Holy Spirit was at work in me. Maybe it’s all-the-above.

What I do know is that all our weekly meetings changed after that. We talked about grace. We talked about thanksgiving. We talked about fruit of the Spirit. We talked about living abundantly. We talked about the exchanged life with Christ. We talked about the resurrection in 33AD and what it meant in 1985AD.

It wasn’t overnight, to be sure. But the endless lifestyle cycle of wins and losses that behavioral management (which, if we’re honest, is what most members of our Tribe value and teach) leads to was broken.

And most of you know that I’m a firm believer in the Law of Competitive Balance. It’s a baseball term that means the teams that are losers work harder and the good teams stick to the status quo. One of the corollaries is that every form of strength has weaknesses, and vice versa, attached to them. Google Bill James and Law of Competitive Balance if you really care.

Anyway, the anger I lugged around dissipated over time. Sure. It still lurks. But it isn’t a characteristic of my life these days. I learned I could leverage Kingdom business because God wired my personality and gave me interests and talents that are the flip-side of the anger coin. In other words: my weakness had some strength attached.

You know what’ll be fun? I’ll use some of my favorite angry punk lyrics to highlight some of those.

Strength #1:

Frank Turner, “Love & Ire Song.”

Oh, but surely just for one day, we could fight and we could win

And if only for a little while, we could insist on the impossible

Well, we’ve been a good few hours drinking
So I’m going to say what everyone’s thinking
If we’re stuck on this ship and it’s sinking
Then we might as well have a parade
Cause if it’s still going to hurt in the morning
And a better plan’s yet to get forming
Then where’s the harm spending an evening
In manning the old barricades?

 Sometimes there are battles that need to be fought…even if you know you aren’t gonna win. And, manalive. The battles that I’ve fought behind the scenes in some church planning meetings or vision discussions were the right ones to fight, man. I knew I wouldn’t win. But I was right. The ship might be sinking, but I’m going to have a parade and manning the old barricade is honorable.

What’s peculiar to me is that God gives congregations people like this but they aren’t given much credence. That’s a shame because we all need the rabble to get roused.

 

Strength #2:

The Clash, “White Riot.”

And everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
And nobody wants
To go to jail. White riot, I want to riot

The status quo needs to be challenged. All the time. Granted, a riot is hardly the answer, but the spirit is there, man. Our tribe would do well to always be asking if what we’re doing matters…and this song from the band Rolling Stone called “the only band that matters” could certainly teach us a thing or two in that regard.

Oh, and you won’t be celebrated for pushing. You might go to any number of various jails but it’s okay to push.

 

Strength #3:

Black Flag, “Rise Above.”

Society’s arms of control
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
Think they’re smart, can’t think for themselves
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
Laugh at us behind our backs
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
I find satisfaction in what they lack
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
We are tired of your abuse
Try to stop us, but it’s no use

 Change is always initiated from the passionate fringe. When punk broke, the disdain from almost everybody was palpable. I mean, the songs on the hit lists of the late 70’s were highly polished and technical and written for stadiums full of people. Here were clubs full of angry kids stripping it down and cranking it up. Skill was irrelevant.

Things changed. Want proof? Take a look at any list of greatest albums of all time and then make note of how many punk bands are on it. Then look at how many are in the top 10.

But take a look at how major changes take place in society or churches…and those things that were once derided become celebrated…and if you stick around long enough you’ll notice that the celebrated things become derided and the process repeats. We need to pay attention to those on the outside and pressing in. They might be right.

 

Strength #4:

Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen.”

God save the Queen
The fascist regime,
They made you a moron
A potential H-bomb. 
God save the Queen
She ain’t no human being
There is no future
And England’s dreaming

 The music of anger was about something. You might not have liked the fury of it. You might not have agreed with the points. You might not like their anti-authority stance. But you couldn’t deny that it wasn’t like the fluff of Peter Frampton or Jimmy Buffet or Abba. Substance mattered. And if you needed to shock to get attention, then you might want to use hyperbole to make that point.

As Wayne said in “Wayne’s World,” “Led Zeppelin didn’t make music that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.” You might not like it, but you’ll have to deal with it.

Whoever told you spirituality had to be polite lied to you.

 

And there are more and I could go on…

…but what I learned that the way God wired me is okay. My Scotch-Irish molotov cocktail heritage. My thick skin developed from being on the fringe. My understanding of the role He has given me to play. The beauty I see in fighting for principle even if you know you’ll lose. The constant questioning of the status quo. The passion of caring about stuff that matters. My tribe calls it “prophetic leanings” if that makes it more palatable for you.

 

That matters.

It matters to me.

It matters to the Church.

It matters to God.

To be less and straighten up and fly right would be to deny Him. I am needed. I am wanted. I am loved. I am a masterpiece even if others don’t get it.

So it goes. When you don’t try to manage sin but focus on letting him flip it over and on how He wired you and step into that…isn’t that beautiful?

Reason Four I Fear Abandonment

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“If we were in a war, I’d want you beside me in a foxhole,” he said.

In a past life, I did informal family counseling. That particular afternoon was tense. His wife was loud and emotional, but I kept calm, cool, and collected. Despite her attacks and complaining about my supposed failures in this long-term situation, I directed the family to stay focused. That long hour-and-a-half left us all focused on how to make the most loving choices for all involved so I took his statement as a compliment.

“But,” he continued, “I don’t think I’d want you dealing with my platoon in the aftermath. You were pretty linear and factual. You dismissed her feelings and emotions, not to mention mine. This is the relationship between a mother and child, and a husband and a father. There is passion and pain involved and you kept pushing past all of it. You may have given us a strategy—and a good one, at that—going forward but I’m pretty sure she feels like you don’t really care. I know I feel that way. You might want to work on your bedside manner, Brent.”

I didn’t argue.

Honestly, I couldn’t. He was right.

I’ve been fantastic and disengaging from my emotions since I was about 8-years-old. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s over four decades of choking back all the good things and bad things that life has thrown at me.

See, my mom and dad were born behind older siblings. This meant that their graduations, weddings, home purchases and baby-making were all at least 10 years behind. All the grandparents got their nicknames by older cousins and family traditions were laid down before my parents got married.

This also meant that death came into my life earlier than it did for my relatives. My grandfather had achieved mythical patriarch status and died when I was 8. Later, it was great aunts & uncles. Then my dad’s heart attack five years later. By the time I was 25 I didn’t have a grandparent living. By the time I was 40 my sister and I were adult orphans. I got a nice callous regarding death.

Add to that whatever it was that I told myself about being the man of the house and needing to be strong. Nobody asked me to do that. I somehow assumed that was what I was supposed to do. My mom cried a lot and I guess I felt like I shouldn’t give her anything to worry about so I just bucked up.

Mix in some degree of whatever passed for Southern Manhood strength and teenage testosterone and late-70’s/early-80’s movie tough guy and, well, there’s that.

Combine that with a teenage broken heart and you can add another layer of callous. Don’t ever say a teenager can’t be in love or dismiss those relationships as “puppy love.” That pain might be age-appropriate but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

As an added bonus, we had a steady slew of coaches who were telling us to control our emotions. Have short memories. Stay in the moment. Win the next play. Even when something good happened, there’s a lot of game left. Act like you’ve been in the end zone before. Stay poised. Stay confident. Keep your head in the game.

Lastly, throw in my mom’s two signature responses to life. First, she was like a Dane by nature. You know, from Denmark. The Dane’s are generally regarded as the happiest people on earth because they have such low expectations from people or life that anything positive that happens for them sends them over the moon. My mom was an expert at keeping the bar of expectation low. “Don’t count on making the team. There’s lots of good players at your school.” If you made the team, you were happier because you had already resigned yourself for the worst.

Second, her drug was staying busy. She woke me up the day after my dad’s funeral by saying, “Wake up. It’s time to get ready for school.”

“We’re going to school today?”

“Yes. We have to get up and get moving. If we don’t get going, we’ll stay here.” She said “stay here” so that the only possible interpretation was negative. My guess is having something to focus on—besides figuring out a way to pay the bills and raise two kids on her own–kept her from her own personal mental death spiral.

So, I’ve got a nice little recipe of externals that make for quite the emotional robotics.

Supposedly, studies have been done on adolescent teenage brains after traumas that show that the areas of the brain that deal with emotions don’t develop in whatever ways “normal” is supposed to be in teenagers. My sister sent me a medical study once that listed all these semi-abscesses and their resulting behaviors. Most of what I remember is that you’re out of touch with your emotions.

And, that’s even in the good things.

We had sports success in high school and I remember thinking the wins were pretty cool and high-fives all around but we have to work on getting ready for next season starting Monday.

Seeing my wife on our wedding day for the first time (back when you didn’t see her until she came down the aisle and made everyone wait a half-hour for your picture taking session)? I made a dumb joke about angels and how low they apparently flew.

Birth of kids? Stayed busy even though they both took my breath away. Focus on Tracy and if she’s okay and getting food after labor. Take the baby to the baby aquarium so the grandparents can get their first look. Call all the friends. Keep moving.

My kids had plenty of success in their various childhood extracurriculars. Kid1 started a rally to upset a great team and they won the city rec-league championship. They were jumping around and going crazy and I smiled and winked at her but that was about it. Kid2 stole more than one show in ballet and got standing ovations from people who knew why she was good and got into prestigious summer programs. Same reaction. Sure, I’d tell them I was proud and give real hugs but when it came to my emotions they were subdued.

A university graduation with honors for Kid1. Hugs and winks. Same for the Kid2 giving the valedictory address at her school.

Wedding day? I had a game of catch with Kid1 so I could stay loose. There was an open bar which certainly kept me on an even keel.

Stand in an internally displaced people’s camp in Congo? Spend an afternoon with young women rescued from sex trafficking in the Philippines? Stay busy. There aren’t words and there are too many emotions, so you just listen to the guide or find some neutral activity to enjoy so you don’t have to deal with that kind of emotional impact.

My team makes the world series and a home run in a crucial moment and I’m there? High five my wife and friend and say, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” My college football team kicks and field goal on the last play of the national championship game and I hugged my wife and smiled. They lost the national championship on the last play three years later and I said, “Their kid made a great play. What can you do?”

Never too high. Never too low.

It’s a great survival skill and all…no matter if it’s learned behavior or even has some brain wiring gone sideways.

But try going through life being the guy that’s wanted in a foxhole…

…but can’t empathize with folks who are going through the real stuff—the good and the bad–this world can dish out. And you know if you fake it, well, that’s even worse, IMHO.

Want to be that guy? Didn’t think so.

Reason Three I Fear Abandonment

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(as an aside…I know the recent slew of entries has been a bummer of sorts. I’m aware…and you should know that there will be a corresponding amount of entries about how each of these reasons has been flipped over. Just got one more reason I fear on Wednesday and those will commence)

 

I heard a memorable line in a forgettable movie that the greatest feeling in the world is to be “gotten.”

That means that somebody really understands you. What you dig. What you don’t. What sets you off. What shuts you up. What your Starbucks order is. They intuitively know when to dive in with insight and when to shut the hell up. The kind of person that makes you a playlist and it’s perfect. The kind of person that would bury the body with you. The kind of person that knows the you behind social-media you.

You can’t explain it. They just “get” you. Manalive.

The reality is the converse is true, too. The worst feelings are when you aren’t “gotten.”

I discovered this not long after my dad’s casket was wheeled out of the church then driven to Elmwood Cemetery where it would be lowered into the plot my grandparents had purchased back when they got a sweet deal on a block of four. It was understood that whichever of their kids went first got the other two.   My mom’s maiden name—Childress—was already on one side of the headstone honoring my grandfather. My own surname showed up on the other side.

It was at the graveside that well-meaning pop-culture theologians felt the need to say something—anything—to me.

“Your dad’s in a better place.”

“God has a plan for your Dad.”

“You’ll see him again one day.”

Granted. A funeral isn’t the best place to expect folks–the kind of folks who knock off work to pack a church and sit Protestand Shiva and bring too much food to your house—to say the right thing. There isn’t a right thing.

But these strangers-to-me shook my hand as they spoke sunshine. They put their hands on my shoulder as if to emphasize the importance of their happy-talk. They made a world of promises about being there for my mom. They told us both that if we needed them for anything they would be there for us. My family was surrounded by nice people trying their best to show us they cared and backing it up with their presence and food…

…and I’d never felt so lonely–which, if you’re asking me, is wildly different than being alone. It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy.

See, these true and nice folks didn’t “get” what I was going through. They couldn’t “get” it because they hadn’t been through it. You know they’re trying but there you are:

The cheese. Standing alone. In the way you see the world. In the way you experience the world. In moments like…

…failing to realize how much damage an untrained impromptu theology lesson would do to a 13-year-old’s spiritual progress. They’d have just showed up, hugged me, said, “I’m so sorry and I care about you” and worked the room instead. You feel alone in your existential self.

…when my friends would back off the Friday plan to sneak in to see the “R” rated Halloween movie because their “stupid parents are making me go to my sister’s recital” you’d think that you wish you had stupid parents to make you do stuff instead of having all the time in the world to screw around. You feel alone in your family self.

…when your buddies use all sorts of expletives and make fun of your punk tribe when you try to introduce them to the music that means so much to you and you want them to listen. The all-in-good-fun crap they give you is a gut punch to your very identity…and you can’t understand what’s so great about Molly Hatchet or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Foreigner or Loverboy or Def Leppard. You feel alone in your social self.

…when you are out and about and the guys are trying their first beers and you get laughed at when you say you aren’t going to because your mom will cry if she smells beer on your breath…you can’t really explain how much your mom cries to them in that moment and don’t have words to tell them why not wanting to be the reason she cries matters so much. You feel alone in your emotional self.

…when there is a father-son tournament and you have to call your uncle to go with you. And even though you know he really is thrilled to stand in for your dad you still feel like you’re imposing. You introduce your uncle to the other guys’ dads and you are alone in your keen awareness of life-station.

…when it’s parent’s weekend at the fraternity house and your mom comes but gives you all the reasons why it’s scary for a single lady to drive that highway by herself but she’ll figure something out…and when all the other guys’ dads go golfing with them you just go to lunch with your mom. You are alone in your pragmatic self.

…when you opened your diploma from Auburn with your mom and you know how much your dad would’ve loved that moment. You are alone in your celebratory self.

…when you glance at your bride walking down the aisle and take a glance at your mom and Charlie Mae (remember our family’s housekeeper I mentioned earlier? Yep. That one) sitting where your dad should’ve been. Or when the kids are born. Or when they graduate university or as a valedictorian. You are alone in your life moment self.

…when you are with friends at a party and they’re all talking about how their grandparents are starting to get sick and they don’t know what they’re going to do “when they actually go.” Grandparents? I haven’t had grandparents in 20 years…and my own mom has been gone almost 10 years now. You are alone when surrounded by real friends with real problems self.

Look.

I get it.

But I’m not looking for a pity party here. And if you are pitying me, well, that only reinforces the point.

I’m just explaining that not only was I alone as a kid, I was also pretty lonely, too.

And that loneliness…that feeling far afield from my fellow man…still flares up all the time. You can be in a room full of people and be lonely.

But see, my current life station is that I have family and friends who do understand me. They know what I dig and what I don’t. They know what sets me off and what shuts me up. They know to order a caramel macchiato. They dive in with insight and shut the hell up when that’s the best course of action. I have friends who could make the perfect playlist for me and then refuse to listen to it with me. I have people that would bury the body with me.

It took a long time to find these folks. My life is more abundant with these folks, no matter how often I see them or how far we live from each other or even if they live in my house and/or have genetic links to me or if I see them every freaking day. I’m always on the lookout for more of them, man. I’ll take as many folks who get me (and I them) as I can get.

And that’s reason three that I fear being abandoned. I know loneliness.

And, that might be the worst feeling in the world.

Reason Two I Fear Abandonment

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I wasn’t the only kid coming home to an empty house.

Divorce had become a thing in my Generation X upbringing. The two couples that lived across the street both wound up with them and lots of kids at school were having it happen. I remember my 8th grade French teacher lost it in class because her husband told her he was leaving her. Moms were hitting the workforce in bigger numbers but that wasn’t all that prevalent in my neighborhood. As far as I knew, all the women in my neighborhood were homemakers.

Media even came up with a term for us: Latchkey kids. I like that one better than “day orphans.” Supposedly we were the least parented generation in history but I don’t buy that. I don’t think my grandfather or great-grandfather were into relational parenting. You can be there and not be there, you know?

Before my dad’s death things were a 60’s family sitcom. We walked home from school in a pack. When I walked through the back sliding-glass door I’d drop the book bag, put on my “play clothes,” and hit the neighborhood. Wars were fought. Games were won or lost. Trees climbed. Forts built. Playboys discovered. 360’s and 180’s were attempted. G.I. Joe even had his hair set on fire and thrown from a roof simulating an ejection from his plane and parachuted down. Near-death experiences were fairly common but never spoken of in front of grown ups.

The streetlight would come on we’d hit our houses for dinner around a table. We talked. Then we’d watch Fonzie be cooler than Richie but the Cunninghams loved him anyway or we’d watch Charlie’s Angels trying to hide the only way teenage boys could watch Charlie’s Angels from our parents or some dumb show called “Battle of the Network Stars.” Then we’d bathe and go to bed. This was pretty much every day of my life as I remember it.

I earned my key in 1980 after the tectonic shift of my dad’s death but the reality is things were starting to change, anyway. Some of my neighborhood tribe had already started high school. The rest of us were riding the bus home from the new middle school that opened when we were in 8th grade. The neighborhood afternoon fabric had already started to fray.

She wasn’t far behind my opening the latch. My job was to make sure my little sister, who was still walking home from the elementary school, got in the house safely. My mom would roll in and ask about our days and do mom chores until about 5:30pm. Then she was off to work on her Master’s degree and wouldn’t come home until around 10pm.

Once I’d checked in with mom and was free from assigned chores, and since the neighborhood had fallen victim to age-related dissipation, I got my boom box (did I mention it was 1980?), loaded the backpack with punk cassettes and a thermos of water, wedged my bats on the handlebars and rode the 10-speed to the batting cages.

The unlimited pass my mom purchased gave me about two hours a day of self-therapy. Two hours of pounding baseballs with punk rock providing the soundtrack was all the therapy I’d get…and I looked forward to it. My mom later told us she didn’t think of getting us professional help. “Therapy had a very different stigma back then,” she said. I believe her.

The streetlight rule still applied, and I’d fire up the microwave or toaster oven and forage.

And I was alone. (To this day, I don’t have any recollection of what my younger sister did during that time)

For four hours.

Every day.

In my room.

I listened to a LOT of punk music. I started reading Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. I journaled. I created solitaire rules to play board games that statistically simulated college football teams and professional baseball teams so the dice rolls caused them to perform like they did in real life (look up Bowl Bound and A.P.B.A. baseball…I still have the football game). I watched our new cable television that had all sorts of re-runs of old TV shows. I watched baseball if it was in-season. I don’t remember doing it much, but I’m sure whatever homework was assigned got half-assed done.

Things could get dark, too. What’s going to happen if my mom had a heart attack and died. Do we have any money now and are we going to have to move in with Mama Jeannie? What do I do if the power goes out? What do you mean, tornado warning? I can’t figure out how to half-ass my homework there isn’t going to be anybody to ask until about 10 or so. How do I keep my mom from crying so much? How am I supposed to get the money to Tim so his dad can buy us Kiss tickets? Probably sneaking into Halloween wasn’t the best idea and now every creak in the house is Michael Myers. My mom already said she can’t take me to the end-of-school dance and Angie is going to be there and I have to find a ride. How do I turn off the noise in my head?

There’s a reason solitary confinement is a punishment. Over time it wears on you, man. And it wore on me. Like Dr. Suess said, “Sometimes you’ll play lonely games, too.  And they’re games you can’t win ’cause you play against you.”

In my room.

Every day.

For four hours.

So, you want reason two that I fear abandonment? I know what it’s like to be truly alone. And it’s way worse that coming home to an empty house.

Reason One I Fear Abandonment

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I am a Molotov cocktail of a person.

When God knit the masterpiece that is me (His words, not mine), included were a short fuse, an indiscriminate flash-bang and a slow burn. I’m not much for initiating a war but more than happy to riot when I’m backed into a corner. I fit the profile of my Scotch-Irish heritage, that’s for sure.

God also made sure that I was a first-born with a healthy understanding of the difference between mischief and trouble. It was a nice check-and-balance for me. If I’d been a part of the Boston Tea Party it’s likely that I’d have been at the Green Dragon rousing the rabble and then signed up for the role of lookout when it came to time dump the tea. I want to get my point across but I really don’t want to go to jail or get shot if I can avoid it.

Now, I know my dad didn’t intentionally abandon me. He didn’t choose the heart attack. In fact, he’d prepared for his demise with a will and life insurance and all sorts of wise choices in the event of an untimely demise. Doesn’t change the fact that he untimely left and never returned, though.

Anger became the primary emotion. That’s how it works when you feel cheated.

When expectations, unrealistic or otherwise, aren’t met the natural reaction is to take it out on somebody. Gunslingers in the Wild West killed over palmed cards. Kids howl when they don’t make the team. We all get edgy when the texting driver next to us swerves into our lane. Punks riot when the band they paid to see cuts the set short and won’t be giving refunds. So it goes.

And my unrealistic expectation was that my dad would live to hold his grandkids and be at my next little league game. You bet I felt cheated even if I wasn’t thinking that far forward when I was a kid. I mean, you expect your dad to come home from work when he left that morning, right? Not irrational or unreasonable, but you can see it’s unrealistic, right? Bad things are out there, man. We’re all one phone call away from a very different life than the one we currently live.

Compounding matters was that there wasn’t one lone villain to exact vengeance on. The doctors? The hospital? My mom? My dad? My God? The effects of “The Fall?” The world’s being an imperfect place where screws fall out all the time? The answer was “all the above” and “none of the above” at the same time. Frankly, it would’ve made my life easier if anyone or anything wore the black hat.

Instead I got angry and everything and nothing all at once. It wasn’t like the guy in Inside-Out who had the full-time job of being angry. No. Anger can’t maintain that pace. Anger has to rest but it’s a light sleeper.

You’re walking around being 13—and every single thing that entails—with your friends and that kerosene soaked fuse on my Molotov cocktail would ignite…

…Poster promoting the father/son golf camp out.

…My mom crying because Jimmy has a dad that can pick up at the arena after the hockey game downtown but he commandeered the daylight drop-off shift instead.

…after the game all the parents were there but your mom had school and, oh, yeah, Frankie’s parents tell you they will take you home and you get to sit at the pizza place with their family feeling all third-wheel for an hour while knowing you’d find the house empty when you got there.

…when you’re heating up hot dogs in the microwave or making soup or Mac & Cheese or Steak Umms (old school reference there, kids) or grilled cheese to eat by yourself for who knows how many nights in a row after a lifetime of family meals together.

…when Danny’s dad would be giving us advice on how to score points with the girls before he dropped us off at the skating rink on Friday night.

I won’t go on. I’m not trying to get pity (that sets my hair on fire, too), only trying to give you a few examples of what ignited the fuse.

This is where I remind the newbies here at The Diner that my family’s life changed dramatically from late November 1979 until late 1982. My mom went back to school to get her teaching certificate up-to-date and get her Master’s degree…and my Cleaver life disintegrated (more on that with Friday’s entry). This would include any church attendance—which was fine by me since I’d made a deal with God.

The theologically accurate/practically benign statements of church folks at my dad’s funeral ensured that even though God’s plan put my dad in a better place, well, my view was that the plan had a few holes in it and his current location wasn’t near me. I’d be okay if God stayed on his side of the universe and I stayed on mine. Interesting to this day that I never doubted His existence through all that.

A bit more for the newbies: When you’re mad at everything and nothing all at once, all the time, you seek out ways to blow off steam. Booze and drugs were out since first-born me was sure my mom would find out and she’d cry some more. Too young for girls (this is what those of us who weren’t good with interpersonal relationships with the opposite sex say). No car. But I found a tribe of angry folks in the punk scene. That music sounded like the way I felt, and a night of moshing (fun fact: it was called mashing until the singer of the seminal band Bad Brains—who was Jamaican—said it and people just repeated what they heard) to music that was about something gave anger a sleeping pill.

That’s the rub, though. Remember? He’s a light sleeper and whatever valve the steam came through would get shut. Booze/pills. Sex. Stuff. You can induce naps for him that way, but he remains a lather-rinse-repeat deal for everybody. Anger was a lifestyle for me. A lifestyle that’s hard to maintain even if you have the check-and-balance of being a first-born.

Insider truth: That makes it worse.

See, as a first-born, you don’t want to evoke pity so you never answer with the truth when they ask how you’re doing. You tell everyone what they want to hear because you’re tired of creating awkward pauses. You stay composed when you feel like bashing someone’s/anyone’s head in because everyone is waiting see when/if/how you’re going to lose it. You can’t dissolve and stay in the fetal position sucking your thumb because then they’ll see you’ve lost it. You second-guess almost every emotion you have.

So, first-born me found a punk tribe outlet that was rabble rousing but at least accepted within the framework of society…this means grown ups would put this in the category of “teenagers rebel” and let it go. Well, as long as you didn’t bring it to school or drag their perfect kid into it and for god’s sake please turn down that noise.

Here’s reason one I fear abandonment: If I’m abandoned, anger is a guaranteed side effect.

If you’ve ever lived with the Molotov cocktail of anger as a way of life—let me emphasize that again—as a way of life…

…you know how hard that life is. If you throw the bomb there will be consequences. If you hold on to it, it’ll explode in your hand. Crazy about those options?

Yeah.

Me, either.

The Day My Father Died

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The phone rang not long after the game was over.

It was my mom.

“He’s gone, son. I’ve got some paperwork to sign but I’ll be home real soon.”

Technically, those were my mom’s first words to me after my dad died but those were over the phone. The real first words that meant the most came in-person about an hour later when the house had filled up with the people who fill up a house when the type of people who fill up a house are needed:

“Brent, your daddy would’ve been real proud of those Auburn Tigers today.”

She cried. She hugged me. Then she got lost in a sea of the type of folks who fill up a house and say things because the silence kills them even though it would be the best thing for you.

If you’re not from Alabama those words might seem like you’re avoiding the issue at-hand. Those peculiar words might’ve been the most perfect thing she ever said to me. I mean, what are you going to say to your kid who has been aware of his dad’s impending death all week?

My dad died on a Saturday in November of 1979 but from what I gather he was on life support after a heart attack on Monday.

This is where the story is a reverb/distortion/feedback of notes gleaned from my mom’s mythology and third-party perceptions of folks looking from various angles and distances. My higher-order life-living younger sister has done some investigation among living witnesses whereas I accepted that I’ll never get much closer to the truth that I am.

See, my mom’s narrative was laced with a high degree of protecting her children from the demons that may (or may not) have chased my father. There was a story of diagnosis with narcolepsy that led to some type of treatment with amphetamines. Keep in mind I was 13 and wouldn’t have known if this was true or not. Dial-up modems and AOL or Netscape would’ve been seen as witchcraft in the seventies. Not that the internet would’ve necessarily helped find the truth of my mom’s stories, but I might’ve fact checked in the moment rather than just accepting things and moving on.

Subsequent discussions led us down paths of possible alcoholism. Maybe a mix of that abuse and the amphetamines? Other stories have led us down paths of friends who might’ve procured prescription meds for my dad based on some sort of undiagnosed depression. My sister’s research has uncovered all sorts of interesting data regarding job promotions or lack thereof, anecdotes of car wrecks, fishing stories…all of which leave me with more questions. My guess is that if she were to blog, it would be much more interesting than my account. We’ve never really compared notes, but we’ve shared discoveries here and there.

At issue is the reality that the key eye witness, my mother, stuck to her guns even as we became adults with mortgages and kids of our own, and even while in hospice care…when I was sure she’d fess up. Southern women can be (in the words of my oldest daughter, and professional writer) “unreliable narrators.” While they might have the best stories they are agenda driven, and my mom’s agenda was protecting her husband’s legacy. The lack of discovery wasn’t for lack of trying on my part, I assure you. But the truth of the matter is somewhere between a normal 36-year-old guy having a heart attack and an alcoholic pill-popper punishing his body. It isn’t much for you, patrons, but I’m no doctor. What I do know is my dad had a heart attack and died.

So, Monday was the heart attack. This caused the domino effect of all the actual causes (like “renal failure”) I’d read on the death certificate as “cause of death” that I came across in the documents file while looking for my birth certificate to sign up for sports.

There was a doctor who lived next door. He was the kind of guy who paid me way too much to babysit his kids that gave me spending money, gave me a condom once (which me and my 8th grade buddies opened not long after because we’d never seen one in person) the summer before I started high school and later let me drive his Porsche 911 and his wife’s Jaguar after I turned 16. I think Mom enlisted him to clue me in on the state of play but I don’t remember anything he said. I just know he came over on Wednesday and sat in my bedroom underneath the poster holy trinity of Farrah, Loni and Jaclyn to tell me that my dad wasn’t going to get better.

Friday night, my mom sent me with a fake aunt (everybody in the South has their mom’s friends from high school who we just called aunts and uncles) and her husband to watch the local high school’s football team in the state playoffs in Huntsville. It was two hours away which meant I was out of the house all Friday after school until after midnight. I’m pretty sure she needed that afternoon for all sorts of arrangements future widows have to make. I’ll never forget walking into my den at around one in the morning and my mom telling me that “we’re going to have to let him go.”

This was polite. From where I am now in life, I’m staggered by what my mom was going through at age 36 with a 13-year old son and 8-year-old daughter. She was making a decision to end life support for her high school sweetheart and love of her life. I. Can. Not. Imagine.

Saturday morning, my great aunts, Aunt Nonie (who always smelled like her husband’s cigars) and Aunt Annie (who had a pool that me and my real cousins used whenever we could) took me to buy a suit. Apparently, this was going to be a necessity for upcoming events. So we went to the anchor tenant of a local mall and purchased the clothes I’d wear to the funeral.

I was taken back to my grandmother’s house and Charlie Mae, our family’s housekeeper (Please don’t ask. I can’t explain Southern social “norms” of the day) fed me. I was alone as the rest of my family was at the hospital in a hopeless vigil. My mom never let me go to the hospital to see him or say goodbye. She said she didn’t want me to remember him that way…I didn’t argue. I still don’t.

At 1:30pm I turned on the radio to listen to the Auburn Radio Network. Muscle memory, I suppose. Football Saturday at 1:30pm you turned on the radio if you didn’t have tickets or yardwork to do. I had neither but even during the week I was well aware that the heavily favored Georgia Bulldogs had a shot to win the SEC and the only folks standing in their way were my beloved Auburn Tigers.

I was listening while on the couch in the dark in my grandparent’s converted garage “playroom” and heard Paul Ellen describe the tackle of the Bulldog quarterback (Buck Belue, which might be one of the greatest quarterback names ever) in the end zone for a safety on the first play of the game. Their starter broke his ankle on the play but the favored UGA team had the lead at halftime 10-9…

…and then the underdog Tigers took control of the 2nd half, scoring 24 points and holding the Dawgs to a field goal to upset Georgia 33-13.

Then the phone call and the people.

We buried my father a few days later…and in retrospect I may have overdone the background on “how” I began to fear abandonment. On Wednesday we’ll start digging around a little on “why” I still fear being abandoned.

In other words…the last three entries are all prelude, and thanks for giving me the space to give such a lengthy backstory.

Polaroids of My Dad

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Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my fear of abandonment, I feel like I should give you a few more snapshots of why I described my dad’s death at age 36 as leaving a “howitzer sized hole” in my comparatively stable childhood. It had to be more than a round of golf and a sound byte of theology, right?

So, a few polaroids from his “don’t tell your mom” file:

He bet me twenty 1974 dollars that I couldn’t hit the bird that landed beside the row of tin cans that lined the back chain-link fence with the pellet gun. He paid up right then and there, too.

We had to call the fire department as we’d started a small brush fire that went beyond the reach of our garden hose behind that same fence in the aftermath of a bottle rocket war.

The great Bactine dousing that followed the skateboard road rash incident in which legendary Savoy Street got the better of the no pads/no helmet tank-topped me. “Stop yelling before your mom comes out here,” he whisper-yelled in the garage.

“Say that word to your mother again and I’ll knock your teeth down your throat and you can pay for the next round of braces. We clear?” It was more terrifying because he never ever raised his voice. Calm. Matter-of-fact.

An awful lot of long summer days on the Warrior River. We fish off the pier or out of a small aluminum boat that had a trolling motor that he’d let me use. There was also a depth-finder but I’m not sure what it did or if I ever used it correctly. Don’t even get me started on the fun of water skiing or having a boat full of buzzed uncles pulling you and your cousins on an inner tube.

A vacation sample (we always went to the beach with extended family): Playing for a few hours in the ocean with red flags that were meant for other people. When our moms figured out they were meant for everybody and the storm kept going, they took us to play ski ball and pumped in nickels all day. One night he and my buzzed uncles were going to the dog track and let us pick a dog in a race and said they’d make a bet for us. He taught me the difference between a quinella and a trifecta. I lost two 1975 bucks.

Uncountable hours shooting baskets, hitting baseballs, catching passes, stopping pucks, and all that. The bumps and bruises and scrapes were intentionally kept from mom, especially when they involved mouthguards and braces. I wasn’t into fishing and hunting and I suspect he gave up more than a few opportunities to drink and fish and hang with his cronies so he could coach me when I was on teams or just have a catch until it got dark and dinner was ready.

But where we really connected was regarding Auburn sports. You can’t explain a culture to people who aren’t in that culture so I won’t try. My grandmother told me years after he died that “Your dad just loved the dirt of that place, and you do, too.” I don’t know if it was genetic or learned, but in either case, I know it’s possible to love a place.

[Whispering and shaking me] “Shhhh. Wake up. Don’t say anything and don’t make a sound getting dressed. Auburn shirt. Don’t forget shoes, either.”

“What’s happening?”

“We’re going to the Auburn game today. Gotta get on the road before your mom wakes up. I’ll call her once we’re halfway. Shhhh.” (My mom later divulged that he’d clued her in on the deal about three days earlier but he thought this was fun).

Keep in mind that Auburn football was not only a bad football team for most of my childhood, but they were constantly in the shadow of the Evil Empire across the state and their legendary coach (who shall remain nameless here because people in my home state name everything from dogs to children after him to this day) were winning all kinds of championships. My mom graduated from the Evil Empire as did my maternal aunts and cousins. My dad and I were underdogs in both football and family.

A lot of stories were told to me about my dad’s less than stellar performance at AU. His inability to make grades kept him off the freshman team (they had those back then) and my mom told me that he was sincerely worried about being pulled out of the line at his graduation ceremony as were the folks before and after him because they failed a needed class that semester. He joked that if I ever went to Auburn I should talk to somebody about transferring the extra “quality point” he no longer needed to graduate. I dunno, either. It had something to do with how they computed grades back then.

If the Tigers played in my hometown, we went. If we didn’t have tickets for a game on campus, we’d sit outside and hold up fingers to try to buy them from what used to be called scalpers but is now referred to as the “secondary market.” If that failed, on more than one occasion, we’d loiter at the pass gate where the Boy Scouts who cleaned the stadium in exchange for free admission entered and when some troop walked we’d get in line at the back and he’d lie to the attendant that I’d forgotten my uniform and he was just a dad trying to get the leader’s attention. It worked almost every time, too.

We watched them lose. A lot. He always took me to the homecoming game, too…so we’d be guaranteed to see them win at least once a year. We’d go early and walk around campus visit his buddies and walking into that stadium…

…oh, man. The agricultural roots of the school guaranteed green grass even in the Fall. The orange and blue block-lettered “War Eagle” on the press box that existed before the numerous expansions that came when we got good. The famous “Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Tigers!” when they ran out on the field in those navy blue home jerseys. The clapping along with the fight song and screaming “Give ‘em hell!” twice (don’t tell mom). The living and dying that took place during that three-hour block of time back before all the games were on television. Before we went in, he’d give me his honest opinion of the game, which was mostly, “Son, we’re probably gonna get beat pretty bad today.” When his prediction came true, when we got in the car before he fired up the Caprice Classic, he’d say, “I’d rather be an Auburn fan and lose than be for anybody else.”

When we couldn’t go to the game we’d have a radio on the front porch and we’d nervously throw a football for a while, stopping when things got tense and recreating touchdown plays right after they happened. Of course, this was after the yard work was done. In Alabama, on a Saturday, something is getting mowed.

My guess is that Auburn football Saturdays were his church. When you think about it there were a lot of similarities:

Fellowship = tailgaiting with friends

Bulletin = a game program with a cool cartoon Tiger defeating the rival mascot on the cover

Passing the Peace = saying “War Eagle” and having it returned by everyone

Call to worship = pregame festivities

Hymns = Fight song/alma mater, both of which I knew the words to by age 4.

Service = the game itself, with emotional highs and lows and talks of miracles needed and wondering what we did to anger God so much he punished us with that football team

Benediction = “The final score, Auburn 52, UT-Chattanooga 0. War Eagle, and please drive safely.”

When I got older, I didn’t have to pray about what school to attend. My mom saved his 1964 class ring for me and told me I could have it once I checked the box on my application for class schedule that asked, “Graduating this quarter?” Several times during my less-than-stellar undergraduate career there she asked me if I needed his extra quality point.

I tell you all this because it’ll explain my mom’s first words to me the day he died…

 

(see you on Monday)

The Day My Taciturn Dad Talked About God

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This all started with people who wanted me to graph my life map’s peaks/valleys and the encouraging me to exercise catharsis on my blog therapy couch.  If you’re here, in many ways, you’ve just been promoted to the undesirable role of “Brent’s Shrink.”

We’re here to dive into my fear of abandonment and those folks who stared at my life map’s first valley said that the death of my dad would be a logical place to start.  “But that was nearly 40 years ago. I’ve pretty much moved on.”

“Start writing.”

[Outwardly] “Okay. Sure.”

[In my brain] “(Expletive) you.”

Just know that you’re diving into a moment in time that shreds context.  This means that my mom was predictably happy and a good mom…and my dad certainly had his demons.  Big, fat, nasty ones, too.  But you know people like I do. Maybe that goes without saying.  I’ll delete this paragraph later.

There was one over 40-year-old incident that might shed some light on why having a heart attack of a 36-year-old dad would rip a howitzer hole in my American Dream Norman Rockwell childhood stability:

“EDDIE McKINNEY! DO YOU EVEN CARE THAT OUR YARD LOOKS LIKE THE DUMP?!”

My dad’s steel-toed boots toed the rubber while he eyed the catcher’s signal. He’d traded his hard hat for a trucker’s cap that said “Panama City Beach” on it. The unfiltered Camel hung out the side of his mouth. Pabst Blue Ribbon unironically at his feet. He cut his eyes at my mom on our front porch, then back at the catcher’s mitt. My guess is he didn’t want to balk. He took the role of pitching for both scrubby pick-up teams seriously.

“EDDIE! DID YOU HEAR ME?!”

He came to the stretch, then called time-out.

“Yes, Charlotte. I heard you.” Calm. Matter-of-fact.

Mom’s rant was a high-decibel blur of suburban conformity mixed with some previously unknown marital expectations and, for some added flavor, a bit of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. Or in our case, the Hines’. Al, our neighbor, won the hand-painted wooden daisy Yard of the Month award twice one summer. The trophy was being subjected to my mom’s three minute soliloquy along with the neighborhood 9-year-old kids.

Dad made silent eye contact until she punched herself out. We just stood at our positions. We were kids. It was our last standing order.

“Charlotte…”

“WHAT?”

“I’m going to ask you a question. I want you to think about it before you answer it because it’s going to tell me what I’m going to do with the rest of the afternoon. So…”

“WHAT’S THE QUESTION, EDDIE?”

“Charlotte, are we growing grass or raising kids?” Calm. Matter of fact.

My mom’s teeth clenched. So did her fists. She turned around and slammed the door behind her. Storm. Displeasure communicated.

“So, fellas, what’s the count and how many outs?” Game on.

This wasn’t the first time our yard had embarrassed my mom or been a suburban faux pas of the highest order. On an earlier occasion, Iron Ed decided to let the grass grow for three weeks or so which I don’t think was that much of a stretch for him. Then he set the mower as low as it would go and cut the best putting green he could right there in the front yard. We embedded an old soup can for a hole. We worked on our chips and putts with little whiffle-ball golf balls.

He had a set of golf clubs he’d picked up at a garage sale but I don’t remember him ever going golfing. Likewise, he’d gotten another set of clubs somewhere and some guy at the steel mill cut them to my 9-year-old size. For the next few weeks the neighborhood kids made all sorts of games involving chipping and putting little whiffle-ball golf balls. And divots, massive divots that only 9-year-olds working on their short game can make.

Not long after that, my dad some how, some way, got me a get-out-of-jail-free card from my mom’s Sunday ritual involving Episcopal liturgy and covered-dish lunch to head to a par-3 course near our house.

He grabbed his pitching wedge and putter and put them in the hatchback of his Buick Skylark. “You may want to grab your five-, seven- and nine-irons and your putter and put them in the back, too.” So I did. I had to ask him which was the six and which was the nine. How are you supposed to know which one the line means?

It took about three Johnny Cash songs to get to the course and/or one unfiltered Camel. We went into what passed for a clubhouse and a guy he called Jelly gave us a scorecard and a small shoulder-bag that held four golf clubs.

I set my ball on the oversized rubber tee set in the astroturf tee box.

“What club do you have? Good choice. Now…Set your feet. Head down. Eye on the ball. Breathe. Arm straight in the backswing and follow through.”

The ball clicked off my sawed-off seven iron and I looked up to see the ball bounce twice and roll just past what passed for the fringe onto what passed for the putting green. “Attaboy.” Calm. Matter-of-fact. He rubbed my head and I could feel the pride he didn’t show.

We both wrote a “3” on the scorecard with the little pencil. I don’t remember any of the other scores that day. I do remember him teaching me all the little things people who play golf are supposed to know. Like who goes first at the next hole or who gets to hit next or not to step where a putt is going to go or when to take a flag out and what to do with it once you do. We laughed a lot, mostly at all the shots I took that weren’t as good as that first tee shot.

“Here,” he’d say, throwing another ball at my feet. “Hit another one. We’ll go get that one in a minute. That was terrible.” He rubbed my head and I could feel the patience he did show.

At some point during the round, I made a comment about how much more fun I was having than if I’d gone to church with Mom. Dad’s involvement with church was the variety that pastors often make fun of from the pulpit. He’d show up on Christmas Eve or Easter or whenever they were taking the family photo for the church directory.

“You know, son, I don’t really feel God when I’m at church. But I can tell you this much…: Out here…Cool spring morning…Walking out here with you..maybe on a charter boat with my friends in the gulf…fishing for Marlin all day…at the river with Nana and Grandaddy…getting up early and going fishing…yeah…that’s where I feel closest to God, and that’s the truth.

…Here. Hit this one. That last one was terrible.”

That was the only conversation I remember about church or God with my dad.

He got a lot right, too.

I wonder how much it influenced me then and influences me now.

And I wonder how much all the conversations that didn’t happen after 1979 influenced me then and influenced me now.

 

For Accountability Purposes…

One of the definitions Merriam-Webster gives for “abandonment” is “to leave and never return to.”

It’s my biggest fear.

I come by that honestly, I suppose. My dad died when I was a kid. You can draw your own lines between points A & B on that deal.

That’s where some friends who have been pushing me to write have been after me to start exercising the writing muscle.  If I’m following their logic, they think my ability to draw on something emotional will be inspirational and keep my butt in the chair.

It won’t be for publication anywhere but here…

…it’s just a place to start.

So on Monday’s, Wednesday’s & Friday’s for a couple of weeks or so, I’ll be writing memories of my dad and shining a flashlight in the closet of skeletons of my fears.  I’m about to type my first essay…

…so I’ll post one tomorrow after I write, sleep & edit.  Then I’ll follow the M-W-F plan.

Just putting this here so you can all chide me on various social media outlets, text and personal interactions if I somehow fail to keep the schedule.

As an FYI:  I’m really starting to get annoyed with those friends.