My Deadbeat Dad at Christmas

The last time I spoke to my father was Christmas Eve of 1990. I was twelve years old.

I don’t own a single photograph of my father, but I remember he was tall and bald. He wore glasses and sported a thick brown mustache. He was a carpenter and owned a construction company. I remember him as cold and distant. His movements were economical, almost mechanical. He smelled of booze and cigarettes. I remember him leaning against the wall, flicking cigarette ashes into the wood-stove and sipping brown liquor through his teeth.

I grew up in small, sleepy town in mid-coast Maine. I was the youngest of three brothers and when I was 1 year old, my father abandoned my mother, leaving her to raise their three sons on her own. He didn’t go far. In fact, he was soon remarried to a woman that lived just a few miles down the road. She already had children of her own and he moved in with them. My mother once told me that my father was always good with children, just not his own.

Growing up, despite our close proximity, I had little contact with my father. His second wife was a kind, timid woman and she did her best to make my brothers and I feel welcomed in their home, but it never felt quite right.

Some years later, my father ended his second marriage by committing adultery with the garbage man’s wife. He then married her and they stayed in town and I saw him less. My older brothers both dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and after stints in vocational program up in Bangor, they went to work for my father’s construction company.

I was getting older then and I wanted to have a relationship with my father. He never asked for custody, rarely came to visit, and didn’t pay child support, not even after the State of Maine started publishing a list of Deadbeat Dads in the newspaper. Then they threatened to take away his licenses for things like driving, hunting, and fishing. He started to pay then. At some point, a tradition of spending the evening of Christmas Eve at his house was established.

Some weekends, I would call him and ask if I could come over. Sometimes he would agree and sometimes he would refuse. When he did agree, he would come by the house in his pickup truck. His truck was half red and half green. He had taken two broken down pickups and melded them into one functional machine. Our visits consisted of him taking me to his house where I was free to explore and play while he did whatever he was doing that day — usually toiling with an engine, framing a shed, or constructing lobster traps. I ate when he ate and we rarely spoke. At the end of the day, he would then drop me back home.

My birthday is five days before Christmas and my father would usually designate one of my Christmas gifts as my birthday present. Each year, he would request my Christmas list via my older brother Jamie. Jaime would come home from work and say, “Dad wants your Christmas list.”

I would write a list, give it to my brother, who would give it to my father. On Christmas Eve, some of the things I requested would be wrapped under the tree. Just days before my thirteenth birthday, my brother came home and said, “Dad wants your Christmas list.”

I realized that I hadn’t seen my father once the entire year. The last we had spoken had been the Christmas Eve the year before. I decided that something needed to change. I gave my brother the list for my father. Only it wasn’t a list this year. It was a simple note that read:

I would rather not exchange presents this year.

I never heard from him again.

This wasn’t what I wanted. I had wanted to start a dialogue. I had wanted him to ask me why I didn’t want to exchange presents. I had thought that I was the child and he was the adult. I could not have been more wrong.

We continued to both exist in the same small, sleepy town. I not only finished ninth grade of high school, but also graduated with honors. I was a very active in the high school’s theater program. I placed in state speaking contests. Throughout high school, I was in the community’s newspaper at least once a month for one thing or another. I won scholarships to college. I graduated near the top of my class. He had to know who I was and what I was doing, but I never heard from him.

This is not a story that should be told without mentioning two conclusions that I’ve reached as a result of his abandonment. Firstly, I have one of the greatest mothers a child could ever wish for, supportive and demanding. While raising three sons, she put herself through college, worked herself off welfare, and became a social worker. She was everything my father was not and I call her every father’s day to tell her so.

Secondly — and this was not as easy of a conclusion to reach — I was better off without him. If I had lived under his roof, under his cold stare, under the impression that people were as interchangeable as parts in a machine, I never would have become the person I am now. I used to tell this story as a story of pity. Now I tell it as a story of strength.

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