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Repacking the baggage

It was a pretty small suitcase. About the size of a French bulldog.

Big enough to hold two pairs of jeans, a couple t-shirts, some socks and underwear, and my bright red cowboy boots. Our house was set on a street that arced into almost a full circle, so everyone’s sidewalk would have looked like the spoke of a bicycle tire if you were flying overhead, looking down onto this unremarkable condominium community. I remember the way my neck ached on the right side from the strain of looking unrelentingly to my left. Periodically, I would stop, force myself to look forward, at something besides the cars approaching around the bend. I stopped short of turning all the way to the right, for fear that I would miss that first flash of red making the turn to our house.

His was the only red car that passed through our neighborhood, so there was no mistaking it. Largely a subdivision that retirees called home, beige Buicks and silver Impalas dominated the streetscape. And, behind their wheels, old ladies who could barely see over the steering wheel and older men who had no idea they’d long since lost their touch. The exquisite pang of relief that his gorgeous, gleaming car brought me was both the thing I looked forward to the most on every other Friday, but also the thing I most feared. As much as I waited breathlessly for these weekends, I often couldn’t wait for them to be over.

If we estimate that I did this dance on half of all Fridays in any given year, and we account for the fact that the divorce happened in 1980 and I started driving in 1991, then I suppose it would be fair to say that I sat out on that curb with my little Dallas Cowboys suitcase about 250 times from the end of my innocence to the beginning of my crushing self-doubt. Or, if we account for scheduling changes due to one of them going on a business trip or him going on an extravagant vacation, then maybe that number is closer to 200. In any case, it was a lot of time for a little girl to be waiting to be taken care of by a person who never wanted to and never would.

Sure, there were nights, especially in winter, when I didn’t have to wait long. If he was supposed to pick me up at 6, I could be speeding away in the red car by no later than 6:25. But the summer brought with it a very different attitude toward time. Long days and open restaurant patios meant he would his enjoy cocktails - with no sense of urgency - far past our designated pick up time. If it had been up to me, I would have waited all night - all weekend, even - if I could be sure he was coming for me. But my mother couldn’t bear to watch her child receiving the same disregard from the same person that ended her marriage. When I was eventually made to go back inside, unpack, and give up, I didn’t collapse in a pile of tears but I did start keeping score.

He had 4 phone numbers by which to reach him - home, office, pager, and, by 1987, car phone. When the hour got late enough, I would stand at our kitchen phone with its ridiculously long spiral cord, dialing these numbers in infinite succession. Home: ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, answering machine, plaintive message. Office: ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring - (hang up, dejected). Pager: ring, beep, enter number, press pound, hang up. Car phone: ringringringringringringringringringringringringringringring, hang up. And repeat.

If and when he finally did arrive, there was absolutely no acknowledgment of the lateness of the hour, the obvious intoxication, nor any mention of plans for the weekend. We arrived at his house about 17 minutes after the pickup and I usually threw my suitcase down on my Strawberry Shortcake sheet-clad bed, ate a Cup O’ Noodles for dinner, and waited for the night to unfold. A tin of cocktail weiners was usually offered to me but I don’t think I ever took him up on the suggestion. My father’s eating habits were, in a word, disgusting, and I was smart to be picky. As the wooden handled fork scraped at the styrofoam and I brought the cup to my lips to draw down the last salty dregs and tiny bits of carrot, I could hear the theme music for one of his favorite shows. Before joining him on the couch, I fished around in the stale-smelling cabinet, looking past the years-old diet bars and cans of corn, finding some kind of Saltine or oyster cracker on which to munch.

I didn’t care for a single one of his television programs. With its heightened affect and obviously passé values, All in the Family confused me. Despite his uproarious laughter, I couldn’t appreciate the humor in M*A*S*H. Hogan’s Heroes seemed wicked somehow, and later in life, after I learned more about Bob Crane (and, I guess, Nazis), I better understood why. If the channel turned to sports, I was definitely going back to the kitchen to watch 227 on the small set that rested on the yellow countertop.

I take it back. I did like Barney Miller. At least, I liked the theme song. And I remember wishing I had a grandpa like Abe Vigoda’s Fish.

These days I’m thinking a lot about those years, forcing myself to interrogate a past I have tried for decades to leave behind. Content with the broad strokes, I have chafed at the notion of really seeing myself there, spending a lot of time alone, avoiding participation in the more unsavory elements of my father’s life. I walked a line known only to my unconscious- dissociating when, for example, I knew he was watching adult films in the living room with his buddies in the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon. I closed the door and played with my dolls or snuck into my sister’s room to put what I thought were beautiful feather clips in my hair. I couldn’t understand why the teeth on the clips were so sharp and why the whole thing was so heavy. It would be at least 15 years before I could recognize the "jewelry" as roach clips and recalled seeing my sister’s giggly response when I asked her if I could borrow them to wear with my new jeans and rainbow shirt.

Looking closely into my past is terrifying, but not looking at it never really did me any favors. Post- childhood, my self-satisfied stance as perennial Victim has kept me from being accountable for my own parental misdeeds. I have conveniently reviewed all the mistakes my parents made while avoiding the interrogation my own. I recently heard someone say that, when we say of our parents, they did the best they could, what we mean is, they visited upon us the same trauma that was visited upon them. Consequently, if we don’t dig into the old basement that is our past and start to go through the boxes, we’re just continuing the chain of dysfunction with our own families.

And while it is good, yes, that I would never leave my daughter to wait outside for me while I caroused at a bar for several hours, I think I can set the bar much higher. It’s time for me to adopt a braver stance if I want to have a different effect on my children than my dad had on me. This requires me not to forget about that little girl and her baggage, but to love her in the way she needs.

I woke up this morning with the image of my little suitcase front and center in my mind. I can still feel it’s hard, pressed-cardboard bottom and I can smell its vinyl sides. I can see the big emblem on the side and feel those two black plastic handles, slick with sweat, bearing the weight of my expectations. And I see it now, not as evidence of my unworthiness to be loved, but as a symbol of the way the little girl who held it, survived.

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