Oh My Papa

One of the last things my father said to me, as I prepared to move to Seattle in 1985, was "You're never going to be normal, are you?"

A couple of years into the new century, when my brother ushered me into his presence at the nursing home, he greeted me with, "Barbara! Our first born." And then a whispered, "We always loved you best."

And I thought, I'll take that one, Dad.

Dad and I had never gotten along. We were, I was to realize when it was almost too late, too much alike. We were stubborn in the idea of the moment, and unable to take orders with grace. Still, we had started out well enough. He took me riding with him in the old truck, he bought me a puppy, he taught me to ride a bike, and he sided with me in my disdain for dolls and my preference for a cowgirl outfit. He was actually a pretty great dad for the first five years. My only competition was the next child, my younger sister.

Then Randy was born, and he dropped me like a hot potato.

At least, that's how I remember it. But I am an unreliable narrator. All I have to go on are the very selective memories of a jealous little girl whose daddy finally had a real boy, someone who could grow up to play football. Baseball. I was just a McGuffin until the real thing came along. A Pinocchio, with no Blue Fairy in sight.

He wasn't a kind man. He had six children, by the time he was done, and little idea of how to keep us all in line. I remember being slapped across the face - probably the worst physical punishment I ever received. I always knew why the ultimate insult was called a "slap in the face." Why it was the prelude to duels. I remember seeing red. I remember hating him. But we were never beaten.

Instead we were ridiculed, shamed into good behavior, and reminded of our potential worthlessness if we didn't buckle down and change our ways. "You're no good. You'll never be any good," still echoes in my head on a bad day. I know he didn't mean it as prophecy. I know he said it to goad me, to encourage me to do better. I know in my heart of hearts that that's how he meant it. I think it also came out of his own fear that he would fail me. I don't think it ever entered his head that I would take it as gospel. That I believed him. That it would become a lifelong struggle to overcome that belief.

I also remember both he and my mother standing up for me at times when I had no reason to believe that they would. The time a group of mothers wanted me banned from Girl Scouts, because I was reading Ayn Rand and lecturing my friends on atheism and sex. I remember how proud he was that, as a member of the School Board and therefore seated on the platform when I graduated from high school, he was able to present me with my diploma personally. The time I came home from misadventures in Chicago, bruised and discouraged, and he came in my room and told me that he didn't need to know what had happened, but he was on my side.

Mostly, though, I remember arguments, confrontations, none of which ended in any kind of mutual understanding. Sometimes you just don't get there.

In 2005, I took a driving tour around England. I had no laptop, there was no wifi, and it wasn't until Oxford that I finally dropped into a McDonald's (yes, McDonald's, in Oxford - it was the only internet cafe anybody at the carpark knew about) to check my e-mail. There was a message from my son, that said simply "Call me." For reasons I can't remember right now, I didn't call until the next day, standing by my car, outside Anne Hathaway's garden, in a suburb of Stratford upon Avon.

"Grampa died," he told me. Mom had gone the year before, so I wasn't surprised. We chatted a little further. I was relieved to hear I didn't have to come home yet - the family would plan a reunion another year or so down the road to sprinkle their ashes in their plot near my maternal grandparents' grave in northern Minnesota. In the meantime, Dad would join our mother on my brother's mantelpiece. I traveled on and by the time I had circled around to York, I knew what I wanted to do.

There is a history of the Bates family in Yorkshire, although some recent evidence has our immediate family coming from the Kentish coast. I didn't know that at the time, and Yorkshire is as good a place as any to claim. One can, to this day, climb the steps to the parapet of the medieval wall that surrounds the City of York. That's where I said goodbye to my father. I walked the ancient wall all around the inner city (modern York spreads beyond the old gates), and thought about my dad.

I started out determined to think of nothing but the good times, but all too soon they were overshadowed by my younger self's resentment, and the old arguments arose. I had long since forgiven him for any and all transgressions. Compared to some people's fathers, he was a model parent. I knew that. Still - accenting the positive didn't feel right either. Argument was where we always went. Argument was where we were still. Where I was still. The trouble was, with him gone, now it was an argument I would always win. Now we would never get closer to mutual understanding. Nonetheless, it was a good afternoon.

When I came down, I lit a candle for him in York Minster. And thanked him for my life. And for making me part English.