The Summer of ’89


The Summer of ’89

If I’m being completely honest (and why wouldn’t I be?), I hardly remember the summer of ’89. I was 14 and we lived out in the boondocks, in an A-Frame house that wasn’t insulated, with no air conditioning. Every summer we managed to escape to a state park with a church group for an annual picnic and pool party, and if we were lucky, maybe a day trip to the beach (four hours there; four hours back — sometimes three of us squeezed into the front of a tiny pickup truck). The rest of the summer? I played by myself a lot (remember: boondocks), read a ton of books, and scribbled a lot of nonsense in journals.

I do remember the fall of that year though. October was the month that my mother decided we needed to leave my dad and somehow, we managed to do it all in one fell swoop of a day.

I skipped school to help move, although I don’t remember doing much of anything except puking that morning, and then holding the door open while my mom and brother moved every last bit of our lives up the 100-year-old crusty staircase and into the house — the house that had exactly three bedrooms above a three car garage, and miraculously only cost $300 a month to rent.

The next day I had to explain my absence from school. They had recently implemented the rule that you needed to phone them prior to the absence, or else it could be counted as unexcused.

I never resented my mother for making difficult choices in life — on the contrary, I thought she was amazing and brave and ballsy, and she could be forgiven for forgetting to phone the school on what was possibly one of the more stressful days of her life up until then.

‘I was sick,’ I squeaked to my attendance dean, pointing to the hurried note he held. It’s quite possible I’d forged that slip simply because my mom had forgotten to leave one for me before she left for work. The part about being sick was at least true. I tried to eek out that we had moved — but it felt hollow — like the house we’d left behind for my dad.

I remember the teacher barking back to me without even looking up, ‘You moved? Then you need to update your records with the school.’ I had hoped for a little compassion, a little understanding. So perfect a student I tried to be (and I had the straight As to prove it), that my physical vomiting the morning before was probably more stress-related to having to face the actual music teacher, than it was to the trauma of leaving my dad.

Fourteen is a rough age no matter what your home life looks like.

I did nothing wrong, and yet I was embarrassed — mortified even. I knew my mom did what she thought was best (although I didn’t fully understand how you would do anything in the world to protect the children you carried in your womb, until I had my own). It was ironic that my absent father was now the reason I had missed school.

You can understand then that Father’s Day is and has always been a weird holiday for me. There are no shortage of stories and posts on Mother’s Day lamenting the personal loss of a mom, or the grief of never becoming one. Father’s Day? Not so much.

While there is and should be a category for fathers who have abandoned their children, there is no real category for the daughter who abandoned hers.

My dad wasn’t a horrible person. He simply drank our money down the drain and after so many years of battling between bottles and budgets, my mother decided that her brood needed a better environment to thrive, and hauled us 10 miles east on the map. She may as well have taken us to the moon. Even in such close proximity, I don’t think my dad ever figured out where we lived, because back then, the Internet was mercifully not around.

I saw my dad once, maybe twice, over the course of the next two years before I got a call at work one evening telling me my dad was in the hospital. My face must have gone as white as my waitress uniform, because my colleagues hustled me out the door without question.

The next day, I got pulled out of my English class because my dad’s health had rapidly gone downhill. This particular teacher had already told me I was the worst writer he’d ever met, so I purposely ignored anything else he said, thereafter. Who knows what else he muttered as I slinked out of the classroom.

The next morning, my mom sat on the couch with me and told me mere minutes before I left for school that my dad had died in the middle of the night.

I still went to school because I couldn’t think of a single thing I’d do differently at home with this bit of news. I would never have come out and said my dad was dead to me prior to his death (I did still love him, after all), but he was seriously absent. Plus I had a test that day and didn’t want another questionable truancy thrown at me.

It’s so obvious to me now, that I stuffed a lot of emotions deep down into a hole that I thought was infinite. Thankfully, in the years to come, I worked my way through that grief. I also had several good men who stepped into father figure roles in various ways, including an editor whose death I mourned more than my own dad’s. I couldn’t even tell you what precisely they did to fill those shoes, except that they were present.

I get that the discussion of absent fathers is rich coming from me, considering I married a man who is only home for half the year. The Sailor left for a trip in early March, and is still waiting to board a plane back to us. The Peanut has literally stopped asking when he’s coming home. I sometimes worry about any long term effect his own dad’s absence might have on him, but I know that while the Sailor is by definition ‘absent’ physically for long periods of time, he is very much present, both from 6,000 miles away and in person. I’m also reminded that the narrative to my own family’s story is completely different to the one written for me as a child.

That story might be somewhat different if it were told from the point of view of my mom, brother or dad. But today, this is my story — and now I’m the narrator. I’m no longer that embarrassed little girl trying to explain away an unexcused absence in my life. While I occasionally look at ‘normal’ family photos posted on Facebook or Instagram over Father’s Day, wondering what my life might have been like, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today or indeed the person I am today, without my past and without my story.

I’ve realized over these years that I’m actually more like my dad than I ever wanted to admit. There are parts of me I know my own mother has trouble relating to, and I sometimes believe he may have understood me more now as an adult than she does. Sometimes I think she notices the same thing, especially on the days that I really seem to grate on her nerves.

Oddly, I think my dad would be really proud — both of who I’ve become and the fact that I annoy my own mother some days. And while I generally avoid any hoopla surrounding Father’s Day, sporadically I tend to raise a glass in his memory, because without him, I wouldn’t be here, and my story would be very different.

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Brenda Steffen
I spent my twenties and a good chunk of my thirties living and working in various countries. I met and married a South African sailor and I was quite content to keep traveling without kids. We landed in Chattanooga in 2013 and our son arrived over the summer of 2014. We haven’t really slept since. Sometimes jet-lag gets the blame. Or Daylight Savings, or even a good book. Usually though, it’s the Peanut. You can often find me charged up on caffeine, chasing after my son at Coolidge Park, the zoo or the library. You can also find me online on my blog.