When my five siblings and I discovered our father's old, clunky VHS recorder as young kids in the early 90s, we were overjoyed. The camera was massive, and I would constantly groan about weight making my 8-year-old neck and shoulders sore.
Despite the heftiness of the thing, we loved using it. Together we'd film comedy sketches, WWE-style wrestling matches, and short James Bond-inspired movies with dollar store cap guns and surprisingly coherent plot lines.
The part of movie making we relished the most was gathering around the TV to play back the tapes, oftentimes laughing at our own on-screen stupidity and shoddy camera work. I remember gathering to watch our 007 rip-off a month or two after we had filmed it. Super-attentive, my siblings and I were giggling and critiquing the complete darkness of one outdoor night scene when the tape abruptly transitioned into black and white TV static, and then just as quickly into a scene of a man and woman having sex on a mattress. The couple gyrated and groaned as my siblings and I shrieked with horror, despite the fact that this had happened many times before.
My oldest brother, having the most sense, grabbed the remote and hit the stop button. We were saved. A brief moment of silence and subtle air of relief covered the room. "Ugh, we should have labeled that tape," my sister said. We all gave her knowing nods.
My dad often recorded over our homemade movies with porn. Being kids, we rarely labeled or organized our videos and had a bad habit of tossing them in one big VHS-stacked drawer when we were finished. From there, my dad would grab just about any tape he could find and use it for his own purposes. Since no one was willing to complain to our father over such an awkward issue, we'd just shrug off the disappointment and start over.
It was difficult to reconcile raunchy hardcore scenes that interrupted our kids play dad with the man who played hide-and-seek with us in among birch trees. My father often took us for long drives around the city and lingering, tree-covered walks through our favorite forested park. He'd teach us the names of all the diverse plants along our usual hiking route. He seemed to know the name of every growing thing on this planet.
I never saw my father as any sort of kinkster or predator. I assumed all adults had the same behaviors and traits. Besides the P-room—the name given to my dad's basement porn stash by me and my siblings—and the dubbed VHS porn, I enjoyed a relatively untroubled relationship with my father and stepmother. My parents had separated when I was two years old, and I never yearned for them to get back together because their separation was all I'd known. In fact, I couldn't barely imagine them dating in the past because my mother was an assertive and independent woman, far too much so for my father who felt the need to be a dictator in most of his relationships. I think my mom had simply matured past the point of allowing herself to be with that kind of man. Nevertheless, between pick-ups, drop-offs, and birthday parties, my parents remained friends. At least, as long as their contact remained minimal.
My stepmother was a petite Macedonian woman with a year-round golden skin tone. She was always dying her hair different shades of red and brown, brightly asking me (on what felt like a monthly basis), "Do you like my hair?" I loved when she smiled, so even if I couldn't differentiate this month's color from the last, I'd tell her it looked great.
She worked with children at a daycare and a lot of the time I'd find her sitting in the kitchen late at night. She'd be cutting out animal or flower shapes in preparation for tomorrow's arts and crafts time at her work. I'd walk in and she'd immediately hold up a shape and demand I tell her what it was. I'd squint, hesitate for too long, and start smiling. She'd then throw her arms up and blurt out the answer, which of course I'd confirm for her as sincerely as I could.
Despite only being the mother to one of my sisters, my stepmom treated all of us like her children. I loved having a second mother; when she died during my adolescence, I was crushed. Even more, her absence brought out an uninhibited, hyper-sexual version of my dad that completely destroyed the closeness we shared.
My stepmother's death brought out an uninhibited, hyper-sexual version of my dad that completely destroyed the closeness we shared.
Now a widower, my dad transformed. He seemed entirely motivated by sex. Despite being 70 years old and a self-proclaimed "cripple" with a limp (all due to an accident in his youth that stunted the growth of his right leg), my father was physically fit for his age. He had softly defined muscles in his chest and arms from his daily push-ups routine. If he hadn't of lost a few teeth, one might mistake him for much younger. He still had a full head of thick grey hair which he had to have trimmed regularly. And he continued to wear the same either black or white wife beaters and green army pants which he purchased exclusively from an army surplus outlet store. He wore his clothes far past their prime but he never looked dirty or unkempt. And his deep, thunderous voice still projected throughout the entire house, as if refusing to be absorbed by the surrounding furniture, whenever he spoke.
He didn't get a makeover after my stepmother died or join a gym or even fix his teeth, but something had changed: his sex drive begun to overshadow his emotional responsibility as a parent to his own six children. This was made most evident by his unmasked determination to sleep with my now-grown childhood friends.
Monika and Samantha* were the daughters of a family friend, each of whom my father had babysat regularly alongside my siblings and me. The sisters came from a more hard-scrabble home, and I knew some of my peers considered them "trashy." I, however, regarded Monika as extremely cool and someone I was lucky to call a friend. She was naturally stunning with the most beautiful, thick dirty blonde hair and ocean blue eyes. She was the first girl I knew to have a boyfriend and to get her belly-button pierced. Her cute freckles and perfect smile beamed innocence, particularly juxtaposed against her sexy belly-tops and tight-fitting pants. She had a quick wit about her and seemed to take her family's issues in stride instead of letting them grind her down.
Samantha, on the other hand, was widely known for stealing from people, selling drugs, and hardly attending school. Samantha was three years older than us, pretty, but hardened. She was tall and thin, but although she dressed similar to Monika there was no contrast between her and her face. Her ultra-thin eyebrows and dyed jet-black hair were features you'd expect from a girl this harsh. Plus, there was something about her smile that was always more menacing than it was comforting. Still, our childhood history together had made her one of my older sister's closest friends. Together we became a crew of loyal sisters—which my father would eventually tear apart once we became adults.
Shortly after the death of my stepmother, my father set his sights on 20-year-old Monika. I'd overhear him making lustful comments about her unusually large breasts or trashing her boyfriend by claiming Monika was way out of his league. One day, my father made a move. He casually placed his hand on Monika's thigh and began sliding it upwards. Monika had viewed my father as an uncle of sorts up to this point, so she was equally shocked and disturbed by the incident. Apologizing to Monika on my father's behalf felt oddly worthless, particularly because I was equally disturbed by his actions and didn't feel he deserved forgiveness. In the end, Monika resolved to stay away from my father and, for the sake of our family's embarrassment, forget anything had happened. Eventually, she stopped returning my texts.
My father was still determined to have a woman by his side. Even by the age of 71, he was fixated on the idea of having more children, clinging to the medieval notion that his seed must carry on (despite having five kids already). Samantha was pregnant by this time and the father mostly out of the picture. My dad told her that he was especially turned on by pregnant women because, according to him, their outer labia became fatter and wetter during pregnancy. I had heard about this remark after Samantha mentioned it to one of my sisters. By that point, I wasn't even surprised and, sadly, had barely any energy left to put towards being appalled by the situation. Anger felt futile.
Samantha was about to become a single mother with no financial support, and it soon became clear that she had no qualms about putting up with my father's antics in exchange for money and favors. She became less of a part of my sister's and my world and more a part of my father's. My older sister, with whom she had been closer, occasionally attended Samantha's birthday parties and get-togethers, but I think it was more out of guilt for having once been close with her rather than actual friendship.
My father would drive Samantha anywhere she needed to go, often pinching her ass as she left the car. He would give her a twenty-dollar bill for weed or cigarettes (post-pregnancy), but he would sometimes make her bend over in front of him to retrieve it. My dad enjoyed the company of a young woman by his side, and Samantha took advantage of him every way she could without allowing him to cross a certain line.
The respect I had had for my father was now dissolved. I avoided encounters with him that were longer than five minutes. A morning, "Hello," maybe a mid-day comment on the weather, and an evening, "Goodnight," summed up most of our conversations. Just knowing who he was going to see whenever he left the house, or who he was always on the phone with, made anything he could say to me largely valueless. I didn't blame Samantha as much—probably because I pitied her and the bleak trajectory of her life. I was only cordial to her out of fear that my father would complain otherwise that I was rude, and his red-hot temper taught me to avoid all confrontations with him, if possible.
My father would drive Samantha anywhere she needed to go, often pinching her ass as she left the car. He would give her a twenty-dollar bill for weed or cigarettes, but sometimes make her bend over in front of him to retrieve it.
In my eyes, my father hadn't merely crossed the line—it lay hundreds of miles behind him. He'd often struggle to pay our mortgage or hydro bill because he'd done something like pay off Samantha's $600 cell phone charge that month instead. He'd ask my siblings and me for money, but I was the only one who refused to give him anything.
Two years ago, on his 72nd birthday, my father decided he was going to propose to Samantha. He hadn't personally informed me; instead, I was told by my older sister, who had caught wind of his plan one way or another. To make matters worse, my dad's proposal took place just two days after the anniversary of my stepmother's death. I ended up trying to explain to my 17-year-old sister, whose mother it was that had died, why her only living parent was proposing to a 24-year-old woman at this extremely sensitive time. For obvious reasons, my younger sister hated Samantha the most, but she also had the most love for my father. I comforted her in our room while she sobbed, dolefully asking me why he'd do this. I didn't know what to tell her. My father was downstairs in his best suit, anxiously awaiting Samantha's arrival with a cheap ring in his pocket. Thankfully, Samantha was not interested in marrying my dad, and, after she made that clear, the entire plan was dropped as quickly as it seemed to arise.
I'm now left asking myself just how much disappointment one father-daughter relationship can withstand. I often teeter between a sense of guilt for emotionally distancing myself from him and a feeling of downright warranted detachment. He senses my disappointment and tries, in strange, pitiful ways, to keep me close to him. He'll always make sure that my favorite foods are in the house, like bananas, and almost proudly say, "Hey, did you see? I got your bananas for you." He does this every week, with various things that he knows I like to eat. I know he's desperately reaching, even in the smallest way, to connect with me. I thank him. I appreciate that he thinks about me. I just wish it was in more ways than a grocery list.
I suppose I do understand what's going on in my father's head. He believes he has reached an age where he no longer feels obligated to worry about anyone's needs besides his own, that his time here is nearly finished, and he's determined to live out his final days doing as he pleases. (This isn't just a theory. My dad is famous for expressions like, "If I'm here tomorrow…" and "When you reach this age you'll understand.") Ultimately, his way of coping with the death—the death of his wife and his own impending demise—to give up and quit trying to behave.
His elderly revolt is against life itself and all the expectations that come with it. While I understand this, I still miss my dad and I still look for him from time to time among the birch trees.
*All names have been changed.