Last week I asked my friend Steven if he still had a copy of a cartoon he’d drawn for me in 2002 or 2003. The cartoon illustrated a true story I’d told him about my childhood, which culminated (not really — it got a lot more exciting actually) in my dad beating me with a lawn rake.
I did not think I had kept a hard copy of the cartoon, which I remembered as a panel cartoon, and remembered it as being drawn on a computer. Steven said he’d look in a notebook. He messaged me back, saying he hadn’t found it yet but the notebook from that year was depressing him so he was going to stop looking, but that he’d draw it for me again if I wanted him to.
I went into the basement and allowed myself to look through one box — that was all I wanted to deal with — to see if a printout of it was there, but it wasn’t.
I began looking on my laptop, in case, since I remembered the cartoon as being drawn on a computer, I might have kept it as a file. I found a folder of images that did go all the way back to 2002, but did not find the cartoon.
I found another cartoon, from The Oatmeal, which it appears I saved on June 16, 2013. My guess is that was Father’s Day that year. I remember e-mailing this cartoon to Tucker, who was probably two rooms away when I sent it to him. By June 16, I’m pretty sure we’d heard about my dad’s dementia diagnosis, and Tucker was certainly having issues of his own concerning his father; issues that would, in the long run, be managed by him moving here.
For the general reasons it pertained to both of us, I’m not surprised I’d have been sharing this with Tuck. (The year before around Father’s Day, I think I’d sent him Phillip Larkin’s This Be The Verse). This Oatmeal cartoon was particularly funny to me, at the time, because of the bottle of WD-40. At some point in my adulthood, my father had gone to a gathering at his sister’s farm in Punxsutawney and there had been some sort of gift-exchange game, where things went in a pile and you could either keep what you’d drawn on the first go or turn it in for something else. This was pretty foreign behavior for me to imagine for my family but apparently it did happen, and when my dad told me about it, he was very happy that as a “joke” gift someone had put a case of WD-40 in the pile. My dad wanted this case of WD-40, and got it.
He had been excited to tell me about that. He had played a game, and he had liked the result. That was a pretty big stretch for my dad. In his usual way, he seemed to be testing his own reaction to the event in the telling of it to me. Whenever my dad liked a thing, he assumed he’d done wrong in doing so, and would check in to see if he needed to be corrected. I told him quite a few times, over a number of years, that it was okay that he had wanted the WD-40, even though it seemed that the WD-40 had been brought as a joke gift that other people would not want. I told him he had played the game fine, and possibly even made it better for somebody else who didn’t then get stuck with the WD-40.
Tucker, in 2013, and in the house with me at the time I sent him The Oatmeal cartoon — noticed the can of GoJo in the Robot Dad’s hand. (I wouldn’t know this until this past week.) He’d had GoJo at home because of his own dad for years, and had in fact told me about it for the first time just weeks before me writing this. When I found The Oatmeal cartoon a few days ago, the GoJo was the first thing I saw.
I haven’t created a robot dad. Tucker hasn’t. We have each spent enough time in the last three years navigating what is left of the flesh and blood ones.
The story from my childhood that my friend Steven had illustrated, had happened when I was about five. It was before the birth of my sister. I had been playing in the sandbox that my dad had built me, a concrete brick enclosure with plywood coverings that we dragged off of it in the mornings to play with it. And my father was raking brush — it was late summer — down near the edge of our property, which sloped sharply into the woods that led to the Neshaminy Creek. The slope was too overgrown and steep for me to ever step directly down if I wanted to go into the woods, which I was able to do alone from a very young age; I would, then, go into a neighbors’ yard, where slate steps had been placed for this purpose.
I was not in the woods nor headed there, and my dad was on the slope that separated our yard from the woods itself. To me, this was an uninteresting and impenetrable zone of weeds and skunk cabbage. I was happy doing what I was doing. My dad came over to the sandbox.
“Over there where I was weeding,” he said, “There’s a raccoon nest. There’s a raccoon mother and four or five baby raccoons.
“But don’t go look at them. The mother might bite.”
I was, again, about five. Much of what had just transpired slid through the wide colander of my brain, leaving me with only the things large enough to have caught my attention. Baby raccoons — over there. My dad had come and told me this.
He went back to another part of the yard, away from where he had said the nest was.
It took me about as long as it took to walk from the sandbox to the part of the yard that looked directly over the slope where the nest supposedly was, for me to have rewritten my dad’s edict as a directive: Go see the baby raccoons!
I walked parallel to the slope, going to peer at where he said the nest was. I did not know what a raccoon “nest” would look like. I did not walk towards it. I did not take a step down the slope.
But my father saw that I had, by some definition, defied him.
And, since all he had been trying to do was keep me safe, he chased me into our house, beating me with his rusted wire rake.
I am a parent, and have experienced the huge adrenaline rush of being afraid for my child’s well-being when they are doing something totally boneheaded. My son talking to neighbors on the sidewalk, while meandering backwards directly into the street. My daughter taking a bite of a hotdog half the size of the hotdog, and without chewing once, stuffing the remainder into her mouth. The terror that your child has endangered themselves needlessly combined with the relief of the near miss can definitely be expressed in anger.
But no raccoon mother would have left the nest to bound up the incline to the lawn (where now, a lawnmower was also being used). My father was mad that I had, as far as he was concerned, disobeyed him. He had drawn my attention to something that I had had no interest in looking at or being near in the first place.
Then I was in danger. Or, I suppose not, because no one helped me — not my mother, not any neighbor outdoors at that time, and if I’d been in danger, someone would have helped me, wouldn’t they?
My father chased me into the house, beating me with the wire rake. I was told to sit on my bed with the door closed. That was a standard punishment, but usually was not meted out with a running time. It was more of a relief to think he’d forgotten me completely, than to be told I could come out.
I sat on my bed. The house next door was so close to ours that I could see our neighbors, Beth and Chuck, inside, watching TV. They were a newly-married couple in their twenties. Beth smiled at me. I was embarrassed. I was sure she’d heard me getting in trouble. (Around this time in my life, Beth would announced her pregnancy. I had told her then and every subsequent time that I saw her that she was having twin boys, until my mother told me to stop saying it. Which worked out fine, because around the time I stopped saying it is when Beth’s doctor confirmed that she was having twins. They were boys.)
My dad was still doing yard work outside. I was still crying from the stinging tines of the rusted rake. There seemed, through my crying, to be more noise outside than there had been before. Something was happening. My father was cursing.
I’m still not sure how I found out — if I actually had the nerve to stick my head out the window to look down the “side yard” (the three feet between our house and Chuck and Beth’s) to the backyard, or if my mother came and said something. My father had run the lawn mower over a hornet’s nest in the ground, and had been stung all over his arms and legs.
I was still crying, but I crowed with laughter. As loud as I could. I didn’t care if he heard me or not.
I guess the whole scene threw the rule book out, as I was soon in the backyard again, watching my dad soaking rags with gasoline, and lighting the nest afire. Hornets flew out of the smoke. My dad did not say, “Don’t come too close to this flaming hornet’s nest, the angry and terrified hornets leaving it might sting you.” But he’d invited me out to watch him kill them. So I stayed.
Using an extention cord, he brought our vacuum cleaner outside, sprayed the bag with Raid, and vacuumed up any hornets in the ground that had ostensibly lived through the fire. I thought that was very clever.
I don’t know that I ever told anyone about that incident until I told Steven in 2002 or 2003, and it was a surprise to me when he presented it to me as a cartoon. I guess I felt naive, or embarrassed, that I had not understood what a really awful story it was.
The incident with the raccoons and hornets was not the only one where animals had joined forces in our yard to punish human misdeeds. One of my earliest memories is running back and forth barefoot across clover with a tin cup, filling it from my wading pool and pouring it onto our cat. My mother told me that the cat didn’t like it and to stop doing it; I was definitely too young to care about what the cat liked. I kept doing it and stepped right on a bee, my first sting, and it was definitely because of what I’d been doing that the sting had happened.
Possibly a year after that — at age three or four — I was out with the inflatable pool again, and, my mother having had done to me what any loving parent did when they left their kid outside alone in the summer in the 1970s (slathering me in Johnson’s Baby Oil), I did the same thing to a toad.
I showed my dad, because I was proud of my nurturing thoughtfulness. He was, in this instance, too distracted by the fate of the toad to punish me much (then again, I was also littler, and I don’t believe the very bad hitting started until I was five or so). I was told to “sit and think” at the picnic table (again, no estimated running time) and watched, really interested, as my dad rinsed and rinsed the toad in my pool, trying to get the oil off of it. I had not known that toads needed to breathe through their skin. He said he did not know if the toad would live. This was definitely worse than when I had painted the dog’s toenails. But the look of concern and sadness on my father’s face — his worry for another living thing — was entirely new to me.
We moved to a different house when I was ten, and it had a much bigger yard, and my father found a moebius strip of work there, none of which produced any changes in how the yard looked. “Breaking up sticks” was one of his prime occupations, and it never once occurred to me to question it. We had a “stick pile” larger than a car. If it was a weekend, he was “breaking up sticks”.
There was a tree in our yard with a branch which overhung directly into the rain gutter of the neighboring house, where an elderly couple lived. The woman had complained to my father that her husband was too old and sick now to get up on the ladder and continually clean the leaves out of the gutters, and she wanted the tree cut down. My father offered to cut the limb, but not the tree. This led to years of courthouse appearances between this woman and my father, which for him were sources of utter glee and which I found very frightening. Pulling into our own driveway and seeing this woman in her yard made me very nervous, and I would dash out of the car and into our house for years.
She had continued to dismiss the solution of cutting the limb, would settle for nothing but removal of the entire tree, and so neither thing happened. Her husband was indeed too sick and old to get on the roof and clear the gutters of leaves, so she started to do it, still complaining that it was her husband who was at risk, and that it was my father’s fault. She was very succinct about this; in fact, she would chant, near the tree: “If he dies, you die. If he dies, you die. If he dies, you die.”
My dad enjoyed this immensely and loved to mimic her. “If he dies, you die. If he dies, you die. If he dies, you die,” he would sing around the house, never seeming to catch on that it might be alarming to his daughters. The old man next door was going to die, we had seen the hospital bed be delivered to the house. This woman seemed to be promising to murder our father as soon as her husband was gone. If I expressed any fretfulness about this to my father, he laughed at me.
The day our indoor cat dashed out of the house and ran straight for this woman’s front hedge, no one would go after him. Not even my mother. I went eventually, and took the cat from this woman’s arms. She did not say a word to me. She did not murder my father. I presume she is dead now too, like her husband.
I moved out of my family’s home first at eighteen, then again at nineteen. Then my father threw my mother out, which was a legitimate move. Another few years, and my sister went to college. My father was alone in the house, and still tended the yard on weekends, often complaining about how much he had to do, how far behind he was, and how out of control it looked. Once, he received a notice from the township; someone had reported the stick pile. It was considered a danger, as it could easily draw nesting animals such as skunks, opossom, or raccoons.
Sometimes he saw rabbits in the yard, and he liked that. “I saw a baby bunny,” he would tell me on the phone, “Just this brown baby bunny. So I stood there and talked to it.” He would tell me what birds he had seen. To his chagrin, bluejays nested in the yard in the same tree, year after year. I wouldn’t have known, but bluejays are not friendly birds, and if the nesting mother was protecting eggs or chicks, my dad would have to be careful when he used the lawnmower near that tree, or she would attack him. He seemed to take this more personally than the attacks of the old lady next door, and was frustrated that the bluejay didn’t understand his implicitly benign mowing.
One evening he called me, after a solitary Saturday, clearly spent ruminating over his unlucky morning. “I’m mowing the lawn,” he told me, “and thank God I stopped the mower for a second — I thought I saw something, like a rock — and I didn’t want to hit it. And goddamn it. It’s a fucking baby bluejay that fell out of that goddamn nest.
And I said to him, ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do now? What do you want me to do?'”
That was a little jarring. I was not sure whether or not we had changed tracks in our conversation. “You what?” I asked him. “You said to the baby blue jay, ‘What the fuck do you want me to do?'”
“YES! Because of course, if I try to pick it up and put it back in the nest, she’s going to attack my goddamn head. And I see it right there, the nest. And all the other babies in there. And I’m right there. And I have no idea if she’s there or not. And this goddamn baby almost just went through my fucking mower. And so I’m saying to him, ‘What am I supposed to do? What the fuck am I supposed to do?'”
I had come by that time to understand that an enormous amount of my father’s interaction with humanity was like this, and it was disappointing and frightening — one of the very early signs, really, that something was really “wrong” with my father. Not Asperger’s, but wrong. Yelling, in anguish, at a baby bird. Because he had almost put it through the power mower. And he felt unwelcome to save it now that he hadn’t destroyed it.
This baby bird had a mother who would come to its rescue if my father put a finger on it. I had not. But he could still yell at it. I don’t think that trying to communicate verbally with a bluejay hatchling seemed like any less successful a prospect than talking to a person, for my father. And that is sad. That is where I see the Asperger’s, and therefore that is where I see the possibility of growth, understanding, and solutions that never happened.
My dad was frequently misunderstood, considered suspicious or unpleasant, or outright disliked. He was the kind of person about whom you might want to ask others, “Give him a chance,” but he made it so clear that he did not want that chance, that it would have been a waste of time and an embarrassment to ask that of anyone else. So frequently when I picture him, I picture him in his fifties, standing alone in the yard, yelling at a tiny baby bluejay on the ground: “What am I supposed to do now?”
In my mid-thirties, I fell off a curb while walking home and broke my ankle. A woman and her daughter helped me to my door; I got inside and called Ben, who headed home immediately. And I called my dad. I was screaming in pain, lying on the couch, and watching — it was hideous — watching my foot inflate, and what looked like a blueberry scone appear on the side of my ankle.
I had kept the phone in my hand after calling Ben, and had called my dad very reflexively. From all my experiences with injury, I know realize, that at least I, if not most people, will look for someone. And I howled in pain and in the grossness of watching what was happening to my foot, and my dad yelled back. A chant. “I’m in Langhorne, you’re in Philadelphia. I’m here, you’re there. What am I supposed to do?”
I had no idea this was not just a rhetorical question, asked in irritation of my interruption of his work day. “I’m in Langhorne, you’re in Philadelphia. I’m here, you’re there,” he kept saying. “What am I supposed to do?”
My father had been a nurse for his entire adulthood. He had been an emergency room nurse. He had undoubtedly at some point used small talk or diverting conversation to keep someone from passing out in fear and pain. But outside of that environment, and being called into action on his own merits as a father — and I don’t think that he felt he’d done much of a job at that — he really had no idea what to do, and I see now, that there must have been so many times when his “What do you want me to do?” was taken by my mother, my sister, or myself, as rhetorical, as dismissive. And he had been begging. He had been begging us to tell him what to do.
I lay on the couch and screamed, “I WANT YOU TO STAY ON THE PHONE AND TALK TO ME UNTIL BEN GETS HOME SO I DON’T PASS OUT!”
And he said, “…Oh!” And just started chatting as though there was nothing wrong with my ankle at all.
“…Oh!” he said, sounding almost embarrassed, or maybe even flustered with emotion at the surprise of being wanted. He sounded like a child, a surprised child, a child who had just found something sweet and unexpected, like a baby animal. And he sounded hesitant, like someone whose instinct is to reach out and show love, but who is sure that who or whatever is coming up behind him has better love — and more rights to it — and is approaching only to draw blood, with claws and beaks, and to teach him a lesson.