A Celebration of Daddys: My Life in Father Figures
When your real dad is a volatile drug addict, you start looking to Homer Simpson and your landlord for fatherly advice.
My father was not the ideal dad. He was/is a volatile drug addict whose parenting consisted of sporadic flip-outs and horrible advice like buying a Snickers bar in lieu of dinner if money is tight and bizarre gifts like a grocery bag filled with ties. I grew up starving for things a father should provide. The pride from a beaming father's approval or wisdom from reasonable discipline or the inspiration of seeing someone care for his family and live his life with dignity. Not saying I needed all of this but one or two would have been nice.
A son is constantly navigating his life through the context of his relationship with his father. The things you do to gain his respect, the decisions you make to avoid becoming him, the person you become is defined and strengthened by the push and pull of your relationship with your father. That's why my sense of self, a confidence in my identity, has never fully congealed. I feel like a chalk-outline of a body someone dragged their feet through. I never got approval from him or gained his respect or even got attention in a way that left me fulfilled. I'm left in a permanent state of waiting for his notice, for his rage, for anything.
This is why I've spent my life desperate for father figures, wandering around the parking lot of life, eager to siphon off guidance from any unsuspecting family vehicles. Anybody with some scruff and sage advice is a target for my raw need for fatherly affection. Be it a gruff garbageman or prissy librarian, I'm constantly on the search for new daddies to help me figure out this How To Be A Man thing.
The first two figures I latched onto whose names I can remember (shout out to the nameless hockey coach in atom minor who gave me my first compliment from an adult man when I "used my body" to stop a forward from getting past me) are fictional. The first is Homer Simpson. For a dysfunctional family like mine in the 90s, The Simpsons were an understanding reflection. Episodes like "Lisa's First Word" soothed me, helping me believe that there was love underneath all of my father's insane appetites and addictions.
The second was Neil Young. As my father fell further into his self-destruction throughout my teens, his record collection was what I filled his growing void with. I treated his records like a lost letter from him, scouring them for lessons and values and explanations. Neil was the centerpiece. Young's creed of continual self-exploration and his sympathy for the drugged and fucked-up made his records like seeing Mufasa's talking head in the clouds.
In high school there was Mr. Flood, a portly English teacher with a caustic wit that would drink a thermos' worth of Tim Hortons every morning. He was a classic Great English Teacher in the Dead Poets Society tradition, encouraging his students to think originally while bitterly criticizing the school's uptight administrators. He was also the first man in my life that I felt believed in me. Not just in a general way, but in a way where I felt like my intelligence was seen and fostered. Flood, with his probing questions and patient attitude towards things like attendance and deadlines, made me feel like I had a voice that was worth hearing and that my self was the important project I could work on. Of course, he's probably most responsible for my attaining an unemployable Liberal Arts degree and the resulting tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Thanks a lot, Mr. Flood.
When I was 18, I spent a summer working for a local theater company through a provincial summer jobs program, specifically under Head Director Steve. (It's OK to laugh at his title, this is a judgment-free zone.) Steve was a former actor who had tread the boards in Toronto before returning home to consolidate a kingdom made up of a tiny youth theater company and his own untarnished ego. He looked like if Joseph Stalin was an amateur curler and was a shameless con man for his use of a government funded employee for his theater company by having me fix a hole in the roof of his garage ("We keep some props in here, so it's fine," was how he justified it).
He was also the first adult who talked to me about sex. He'd regale me with stories from his lothario past and gave solid advice like, "You gotta get a girlfriend, when I was your age I had one and I got laid all the time." Admittedly getting your first sex talks from northern Ontario's Brando while we went fishing on the government's dime was not the ideal way to learn about sex, but any sort of acknowledgement of my existence as a desperate horny teen was immensely helpful. It made me feel like maybe I was a normal person instead of the disgusting pervert alien trapped in a body he didn't control.
Five years later I had left home, finished university and was wondering what to do next with my life. Moving to Toronto to do stand-up was looking like my next move when the chef at the restaurant I was working at hooked me up with a summer job (father figures, like allergies, are more plentiful in the summer) with her brother-in-law Sam. Sam, a repairman who specialized in installing geothermal heaters in case you need to get off the grid, was a great boss and even better guy. He was tall, handsome and wore hip work boots. He was a hippy who raised his own chickens and loved Howard Stern, the environment and weed.
We hit it off immediately, spending our days talking comedy and mocking the grungy racists we'd encounter working in the Kawarthas. Eventually talk came to him needing an apprentice, someone to eventually take over the day to day of his company and how he'd love for that to be me. I was torn: chase my dreams or take a real, tangible opportunity. I decided to pursue stand up, preferring to have calluses on my soul and not my hands, but the three weeks working with Sam stuck with me. Between him and his wife this was the first time I felt like a son in a good way. Not in the way I was used to, where being a son meant like I was the fault line that caused my family to collapse. No, this was a taste of being an heir, a prince to be cherished and a source of hope for the future. This was the first time I like a family wanted something for me instead of something from me, as a gift that was wanted and needed as opposed to a burden or annoyance.
My second landlord in Toronto was a mailman named Frank. I cherished every interaction with Frank because he just seemed like a classic model of masculinity. He was permanently befuddled and overwhelmed, with a weary air of acceptance of his lot in life. This was a dad in the sitcom dad mold, like my own personal version of King of Queens. This was a type of dad I never got to experience, one whose entire life seemed in service to his family, to his role as father, a man who took his responsibilities seriously, who would repress his own dreams in order to keep his family supported until he collapsed from an undiagnosed heart ailment.
Once, Frank was showing our apartment to potential new tenants so my roommate and I were refraining from smoking weed inside. One day Frank delivered the good news, the search was over, he wouldn't be bothering us anymore. We promptly lit up a celebratory doob when there was a knock at the door. It was Frank. The moms of the upcoming tenants wanted to see their daughters' new apartment right now so, "Could we make sure the apartment was mom friendly." And then he winked. This wink captured why I loved Frank. This was discipline and rules and traditional masculinity but not based in irrational anger and power like I was used to but in attempting to keep your world working in benign order. This was his kingdom but there was still room for mischief. Just be sensible.
My final father figure is a bit of a cheat. It's one of my best friends, Steve. Steve and I came up doing stand-up in Toronto and bonded over our similar sense of humor and tortured relationships with our fathers. Our time together was cut short as Steve got his girlfriend accidentally pregnant (his words) and moved to Montreal to start his family because she lived there and Quebec is the only place in Canada with sensible child care policies.
Steve is a father figure to me because him and I suffered the same wounds in our sense of self, that feeling of not being a finished product but this hasn't stopped him from loving and committing to his baby daughter. He is proof to me that cycles do not have to continue, that your past does not have to determine your future and that the circle of pain between father and absent son can be closed or at least healed. He's an inspiration for what is possible for myself.
I'm also hoping that one day he'll let me yell, "Fuck you dad!" and then sock him in the face just so I can get all this out of my system once and for all.
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