Denise was another of the many women I interviewed whose story unfortunately fell on the floor of the editing room. It’s unfortunate, because there was so much she took from both of her parents. I’m glad to include it here, and finally get it published.
Denise was 45 years old when we met for our interview. She has worked as an operations assistant for an electrical distributor, a hairdresser, an administrative assistant, a receptionist, and a mystery shopper. She has two children through her first marriage and a stepdaughter. Her mother is Nancy, whom I blogged about last weekend. Denise discovered how emotional distance works its way down through the generations.
My dad was born in Chehalis, Washington, in 1939, and his family moved to Portland when he was in school, to the same basic neighborhood where I grew up. My parents met in high school. My dad is two years younger than my mother. They were 22 and 24 when they got married, in 1961. My sister was born in 1962. I was born in 1964.
He went to college at Pacific University and was finishing up some further degrees when my sister and I were very young. He worked as a PE teacher and did some classroom teaching, like health. He also refereed high school basketball. They divorced in 1972, so I was quite young. It wasn’t stormy and ugly. My parents aren’t that kind of people. It was emotional and difficult, but it could have been way worse.
What are your first memories of being with him?
One of my earliest memories—I was maybe three, four—was one time that I ran out across the street. And I’m sure I had been told over and over, “You go to the corner, you look both ways.” I think there were kids across the street, or something that was exciting to me, and I just went. My dad came bolting out the door after me and grabbed my arm and paddled my butt, all the way back across the street and said, “What did you do wrong?”
“I ran across the street when I wasn’t supposed to.”
“And what are you supposed to do?”
“Go to the corner and look both ways.”
“And are you ever going to do this again?”
When my dad was still at home, he used to invite his buddies from work over. They would play cards around our dining room table. My mom would make hors d’oeuvres and munchies and stuff in the kitchen, and I remember helping in the kitchen and being really excited about serving them, taking them out to the table and seeing my dad with his friends. And they were laughing and having a good time. That’s a really good memory for me. I would have been about five or six. And I love entertaining to this day. I love having people over and serving them food and making them feel comfortable.
Another memory is that my dad drove a garbage truck on weekends to make extra money. And every once in a while, he would come pick me and my sister us up and we’d ride along in the garbage truck with him. And, oh, man, that was the coolest thing.
I remember going to the demolition derby at the racetrack. I was pretty young. I don’t really remember if that happened before they divorced or if it was afterwards. You’d see these old beat up jalopies going around the racetrack and smashing into each other. You think that’s a boy thing, right? But from an adult perspective at this stage, I’m like, “What a cool thing. My dad didn’t stereotype enough to think, ‘Well, I don’t have a son; I can’t take my kids to go do this.’” He had girls. So what? We went.
You just touched on gender role typecasting. Did he do other things where he gave you the freedom to do what you want to do?
Yeah, my dad has always been an encourager, saying you can do and be whatever you want to do and be. He never typecast for gender or any other thing. He always made it very clear that whatever we wanted to do was great and he’d support us and be there.
My dad’s a really accepting person and he doesn’t think anyone has to think and do how he thinks and does. That’s just who he is and the message that I’ve always gotten from him. And that’s how I see him live his life around family and friends and he’s just always been that way.
He’s always been a very principled person. I know as an adult in his marriage to my stepmom he found religion. It’s when he started going to church and found a faith in God and began to read the Bible and believe that whole Judeo-Christian value system, which I think he basically already had in his life.
My dad’s just always been a good person. His request for his 70th birthday was that we bring memories of him. So I read this at his birthday party and then gave him a copy of it:
“If I were to say what sticks with me about my dad through the years, and what impact he has on my life, it would be these things:
I am always incredibly proud when I think of my dad.
There is always a sense of calm and peace when I think about my dad.
Words that come to mind when I think of my dad:
One of the things I always remember my dad saying to me through the years is, “I may not always agree with what you do, but I will always accept you.” I have passed this wisdom on to various people in different circumstances through the years, and shared with them how beneficial it has been to me in my life. Dad has consistently lived this out, and been there for me no matter what. I don’t even know for sure the times he may not have agreed with me; I just know he has always listened, treated me with kindness, respect, and generosity through whatever the situation was.
Another saying Dad uses consistently, and that I have incorporated into my paradigm, is the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This has been absolutely invaluable to me in determining what I really do and do not have control over in my life, and to trust God with it all, and it came from my Dad.
And finally, this saying of Dad’s has also been incredibly helpful to me in keeping perspective, determining if there might be a more productive alternative to handling a situation, or just life in general. This has also gotten me a few comments and a little trouble from my wonderful husband when I’ve used it on him! “And how’s that working out for you?”
This is a great story. I wouldn’t be surprised if in your adolescence or in your twenties, the effects of the divorce started to take to take hold in some way.
There definitely was. Until about age 36 or 37, I floated through life. I’ve always basically been a happy person, but I think I was pretty numb. I wasn’t really in touch with myself. And I wanted to get married and be happy. I’m quite sure that it is from the family that fragmented, even though we saw Dad regularly and he was very involved with us. He and my stepmom were both teachers, so they had the summers off, just like my sister and I did. They took us on these great camping trips through the summer and did really great stuff with us.
But you can’t erase the effects of what happens when parents divorce. You just can’t. And I remember being really, really matter of fact about it when it happened, even though I was so young. My sister was the one that got really emotional and ran out of the house into the back yard and climbed a tree. I just remember being, “Well, okay.” And that is part of my personality. I kind of take things in stride. It’s not that things don’t affect me, but I’ve come to be a real problem solver. It’s like, “Okay, here’s what’s in front of me. Now what am I going to do about it? How am I going to make this work?” And I guess that was evident even back then. I remember saying to my dad, “I want to see you every other weekend.”
And do you remember an emotional experience of shock or fear?
I really don’t. But I do remember being really angry sometimes. We had this big, vinyl recliner and I would just go and pound my fists in it, to get out, I guess, my emotions.
Now, being a divorced parent that has children and seeing the effects on my own children, it’s real easy for me to put pieces together for myself, because my son is six now. He was two when I divorced his father. There are definite effects. I’m guessing that maybe my anger and fist pounding was my way of working it out. My mom would describe me as kind of sullen as a younger girl. And that fits. I was bored. I just didn’t have a lot of spark after their divorce. I didn’t have a lot of drive and motivation.
I did well in school, though, always liked school, always got good grades. I was involved with music; I still love music. That was my thing, my solace, what made me happy, where I met my friends and the people I hung out with.
Right out of high school I went to beauty school and got my hairdresser’s license and did that for a few years. I had done office work part-time through high school and I eventually went back to doing that after I got tired of being a hairdresser and figured out that really wasn’t for me.
So I’ve just kind of floated and skated. I’ve had good jobs. I’m a good employee. I get along with people. I do well. And through those years, I was just kind of lost, didn’t really know who I was, what I wanted. Things would come along and go—“That sounds good,” “Oh, yeah, yeah, I could do that.” But it wasn’t until my later thirties, early forties that I’ve really discovered my passions and what floats my boat.
Was the early loss of your father something that left you with that longing for emotional reconnection with a male partner?
I’ve come to discover in the last few years that even though my father was absent from the home and I didn’t see him as much as my mom, I think the emotional attachment and the emotional need that I didn’t have filled was more due to my mother than my father.
My mom is a great lady. She took the best care of us. She was always there, always cooked our meals, made sure we had clothes. She had to go to work when my parents divorced, so she went to work when we were very young.
She had her sewing hobby. All my memories are of my mom sitting in there at her sewing machine. She’d still talk to us and it’s not like she was completely closed off. But my mom is not a real emotional attachment kind of person. She just doesn’t go there. She’s loving. She’s helpful in the best way that she can be helpful and supportive in the best way that she can be supportive. And she’s really grown up a lot in the last few years, I have to say.
You mentioned age 36 or 37, that you were numb until then. What happened then?
When I was 37, I was part of a musical drama at the church I attended. I was a part of a cast of seven women and we did a Broadway play called Quilters. I’ve always sung but I had not really ever acted. But being in that play did something for me. [Denise begins crying.] I don’t know what, but it did something for me. And apparently, it was really huge.
What was that feeling?
[Still crying] It showed me what I was capable of. We were together for a lot of hours for a lot of weeks. And these stories were of women who were on the wagon train. They told their life stories through their quilts. It was a really empowering thing. I fell in love with acting and being on the stage. That whole experience really just kicked me in the butt in the right way and gave me what I needed to start sorting my life out.
I was not the same after that. I started on a quest to find out what the hell was wrong with my marriage, because I knew it was really, really, really not good. I started reading books. I started talking to a counselor, a pastor, friends. I just started trying to get my hands on anything and everything I could to figure out who I was, who my husband at the time was and what in the world was wrong, because it was really wrong. And I did. I figured it out and four years later, I was out of there.
It was the beginning of your awakening.
Exactly. And I’ve used that word. In my twenties, I was definitely outgoing and bubbly. And for the most part, I’ve always been a confident person. I’ve been a Christian and a churchgoer since high school. I kind of found my religion when I was in high school and it’s just been this huge, long process in my life. So along with growing up and developing and learning more about faith and God in my life, trying to figure out what that all looked like, I ended up marrying this very conservative Christian man, who seemed to have it figured out.
I wanted more than anything to have this good Christian marriage, because that family life just seemed like it was what God designed; this is God’s plan for your life, to live a godly life and if you desire, get married, have a family, all of that kind of stuff. I met this guy at church and he had the same passion to have this great Christian family and he knew the Bible really well.
I didn’t really know who I was and I didn’t really know what I wanted when I married my husband. But this guy I was married to and this lifestyle I was living and the things I was experiencing— my favorite way to describe it was life in a box: “This is what the Bible says and this is how it needs to look.”
Through a long process, I came to find out that that is not the only way that the Christian life looks; that’s not the only way that God will accept you. I found out that my first husband just is not emotionally available. He has many wounds and hurts from his upbringing that he never dealt with and that colored his whole perspective and interpretation of relationships and life. I was always the one with the issues. If I said there was a problem, I was the problem for saying there was a problem. It was pretty much hell.
The big turning point was when it started to affect my parenting. By this time, my son had been born. He was less than two. I was still home-schooling my daughter. But I was not being a very patient parent. I was getting angry. And then, I was looking through the yellow pages for someplace to check myself into, because I was going stark, raving nuts. I really was. I was ready to commit myself, because I couldn’t function.
And what happened when you looked through the yellow pages?
I ended up calling a counselor, just to say, “Okay, I need help.” I was so raw that when I would start giving very basic details, I was sobbing uncontrollably. We had tried counseling off and on through all the years. We tried to read books, tried this, tried that.
And so, I just finally went, “You know what? He’s just not capable of doing the hard work, working through his issues, getting to a place where he can be healthy with me and I cannot do this anymore. I just can’t.” I was scared shitless. I was so scared to leave, so scared. But I had no other choice.
I was unemployed, a stay-at-home mom. I hadn’t been at work for twelve years. So, I had to regroup big time.
What role, if any, does your father play in all of this, as a support or source of stability for you?
He was definitely there for me, as was my mother. My dad came up to Olympia and went to my first lawyer appointment with me. They helped a little bit financially and when I finally fled the coop, my son and I landed in a motel room down here. My parents came and visited and offered money or support or whatever I needed. They were definitely always there.
And my dad is the type of person that will always be there for you, but he doesn’t barge in. He won’t keep bugging. You just know that he’s always available and he waits for you to initiate, which took me a long time to figure out. And sometimes, I’m like, “Okay, you know, why is he not calling me?” And then, “Oh, duh, Denise, you know it goes both ways. You could call him.”
I’ve grown to appreciate that about him, because he doesn’t meddle. And I know that if I called my dad and said, “Hey, I need this,” he’s there. But I think that there was probably a little more that he could have done through the years at certain times to initiate contact more often, just to see how I was doing. He will actually do that now, just call me up and say, “Hey, it’s time for a daddy lunch. When are you available?”
As you look back over your life with your father, what would you say are the biggest things you took from him, that shaped who you are?
Acceptance of differences, working on yourself, growing, personal growth, spiritual growth, learning and growing, mostly on a personal, spiritual type basis.
How did he convey that to you?
I remember my dad and my stepmom getting pretty heavily into Lifespring. They went to several different levels and workshops. I remember them talking about that and the different crazy experiences they would do as exercises in branching out and discovering your potential and all of this kind of stuff.
And I was always fascinated by that. My dad was a student management specialist, basically like a vice principal in charge of discipline. He worked with kids that got in trouble at school. So, he did a lot of learning and reading and training in counseling, and he would share a little bit of that here and there and that always fascinated me.
Was there anything that, as you look back over the relationship with your father, that you didn’t get that you find yourself still really longing for?
Guidance and values and talking to me about dating and discipline. I sort of had a curfew with my mom, but not really. And I wasn’t a bad kid that abused it, but there wasn’t a lot of rules and guidelines and definite values, definite rules. At the time, of course, I thought that was great. But, looking back on it from an adult perspective, that would have been incredibly valuable, especially coming from my father.
I’ve come to believe that the father’s influence in children’s lives is incredibly valuable in the whole romance and dating and sex scene. I think that fathers can have an incredibly profound impact on their daughters, for better or worse, in that area. It would have been really valuable to me.