Yesterday, I was in the midst of a cluster of moms at Mae's preschool as they found fault with their husbands:
"He gets the kids all riled up right before bedtime!"
"Doesn't he know any better than to feed them cookies while I'm making dinner?"
"He has no patience whatsoever for tantrums!"
Without thinking, I jumped right into this mother-moan session: "Oh yeah, I have those same problems with my dad!"
The mothers stopped talking, and one of them kindly nodded at me. I realized how weird that must have sounded. My dad is not my husband. But, be damned, sometimes he acts like he is.
How did our boundaries get so blurred? My dad fell in love with the first grandchild in our family straight away. When he came to visit baby Mae in New York City, I took pictures of him in the rocking chair, nervously cradling her head in his elbow. He celebrated her first birthday with us and carried Mae everywhere in the Baby Bjorn, her little legs kicking over his belly. My first Mother's Day alone, it was my dad who flew across the country again to spend the weekend with us. He read books to Mae and kissed her toes. As she piled sand onto Grandpa's black dress shoes, I realized how much I appreciated him.
An affectionate, chubby, red-cheeked 66-year-old with a strong Boston accent, he's a pro at making up silly songs spontaneously. He and Mae have a gibberish language they speak together, which no one else understands. At age four, she pleads, "Shoulders!" and he swings her up for a ride. But somehow, along the way, I've failed to see how much control I let him have over our lives.
We moved to California just after Mae's second birthday and stayed with my dad for two months in San Francisco while I searched for my own place. That summer, he and Mae ate macaroni and cheese together every day and played a continuous game of hide-and-seek. When Mae started preschool, he helped me pay for it. Nowadays, two days a week, he picks her up for hours of fun on the swings and meringue cookies afterward. He buys Mae new shoes, dollhouse accessories, and pre-K workbooks. But most of all, my dad gives Mae something her biological father cannot. It's more than just reliability and affection; I know that he will never walk away from Mae as her own father did.
Or, as his father did. My grandpa split town when my dad was four years old, and he was raised by his mother and older sister in the Jewish "ghetto" of Boston. My dad never heard from his father again, and the only thing I heard about him growing up was, "He's dead." (I found out later that my grandpa was very much alive in New York City.) My dad seems proud of me for parenting on my own, but I sense his sadness in this repetition of history.
As much as I've leaned on my dad, it seems that he must lean on me, too. In the past few years, as cancer spread through his sister's body, my father became deeply depressed. He went to Florida for months at a time to be with my aunt, his only sibling. Last fall, my dad was at his sister's bedside when she died. When we returned home from the funeral, I expected him to be mournful, but he told me that he'd grieved during the time he spent with her.
My dad did not cry, and the way I see it, pushing away all of his grief has made him manic. Today, he calls me four or five times a day, and he gets frustrated if I don't pick up the phone. Often, he's calling to criticize my parenting. He's outraged that Mae wears hand-me-downs from her friends. He tells me repeatedly that she's too skinny. He says that I let her dictate to me, when I should be doing the dictating.
He is so angry at life that he has to lash out at someone: me.
Sometimes, I want to give him a time-out and put him in the corner to cool off. Other times, I want to reach out and hold him to ease his pain. I worry that his anger and hurt are getting out of control and that I'll have no choice but to cut him out of our lives -- which means he will lose two of the few remaining family members who still talk to him. Recently, he has let loose so angrily at my sister and two of his best friends that they no longer speak to him.
It's one thing if he pushes my buttons, but things hit a deadlock between us last week when Mae came home in tears. "Grandpa called me a little beggar girl," she said.
I pulled her into my lap, wondering what the hell had happened during their regular afternoon at the park together. "He was teasing me," she sniffled. "Teasing isn't nice!"
I grabbed the phone and marched into the kitchen, out of Mae's earshot, as I dialed my dad's cell: "You told your granddaughter today that she looked like a little beggar girl?--"
"Well, she did!" he retorted. "Why do you dress her in those rags?"
Alone in the kitchen, I held back tears. Without a partner in my life, there was no one to defend me, no one to take my side. Mae picks out her own clothes, and she would much rather wear the frayed and faded dress -- the one with a flower missing -- from her best friend in New York than the brand-new, crisp dress smelling like starch that Grandpa got her at some chi-chi boutique.
"That's downright mean!" I yelled into the phone. "All her friends know that teasing isn't right, and just look at you!"
He doesn't hear me. "I'm embarrassed to take her out like that, looking like a refugee."
Does he forget that his own relatives were refugees from Poland? But I know this is not really about clothing. When he feels out of control on the inside, he wants to control everything around him. He wants to manage what Mae wears and how much she eats. He tells me how I should discipline my daughter and who I should date.
This morning, my dad crosses the line: He sends me an email detailing all the mistakes I've made in my life. He tells me, for instance, that Mae's father "was just a breeder, like the slaves on the plantation."
Enough is enough! I am enraged and frightened by the intensity and heat of his temper. These tantrums of his are as bad as any four-year-old's -- even worse because he knows just which words will wound me the most.
I shoot him back an email: "We are no longer communicating, we are fighting. This is traumatizing for me. No more phone calls until we meet together with a third party. Do not pick up Mae this week. This is not permanent, but we cannot see you until we can meet with a mediator."
Later, with Mae asleep, I cry, thinking of the pain my dad must be in, and I dread losing yet another important man in our lives. I don't know where all of this will go, but I do know that as important as my dad has become to Mae and me, I value our sanity and safety more.
I tiptoe back into Mae's room and kiss her forehead, knowing that I will always be there for her. It's just you and me, I think. It will always be that way, our snug little family.