Thinking About Leftovers

But I did recognize the basic equation that Florida is a long way from Minnesota, and no matter how little I had seen my dad up till then, I would see him less in the years to come.

My feelings about Father's Day are a mixed bag. My dad left when I was two years old, and I'd be lying if I said I haven't missed him ever since. Like most divorced fathers in those days, my dad limited his involvement with my sister and me to occasional weekends. I loved those visits. Often we'd do things we didn't do with our mother, such as go to the zoo and get sticky with gauzy strands of pink cotton candy and soda. Inside the zoo building was a compact vending machine from which, for fifty cents, you could buy a molded lion that would slide out the bottom of the machine still warm and smelling of fresh, melted plastic. Other times he'd take us to play in Lincoln Park or out for a picnic on the North Shore of Lake Superior where we'd search for agates. When we didn't have lunch at Nana's, our Dad usually brought us by McDonald's on the way back to our mom's house. At age four or five, I was a slight child, prone to tonsillitis, sore throats, and ear infections, and my appetite was small; I always provided my dad the opportunity to participate in one of fatherhood's most recognized rituals by offering him my uneaten burger and fries.

Things went on this way until Dad remarried and moved to another city, and our weekend visits became less and less frequent. Eventually, my mom remarried, too, and we moved out of state. Visits with Dad dwindled to once a year. I don't remember wondering about why I didn't see my dad more often.

It certainly never occurred to me to blame him for our catch-as-catch-can relationship. To the contrary, I looked forward to visits at Dad's with unbridled joy, and lamented the arrival of each visit's last day.

When I turned sixteen, my dad sold his Central Avenue moped shop, and he and his new family moved to Florida. I remember the last time I saw him that summer before he left. His wife and kids were already in Florida; he had stayed behind for a few weeks tying up loose business ends. He was sleeping in the family camper since, if memory serves me, he had already sold the house. One midsummer afternoon he drove the camper over from Northeast Minneapolis to the brownstone apartment building where I was living with my mother and younger sister. He had come to say good-bye. We went out to lunch at a fast-food place and we ate together, mostly in silence. I hadn't seen much of my dad during the last couple of years, and our time together felt awkward. I wouldn't have been nearly comfortable enough to offer him my leftover chicken sandwich, and I doubt if he'd have eaten it. We had become related strangers.

By then I was old enough to understand the obligatory nature of our odd little visits; it made me ache in a way I hated--that stubborn lump at the back of my throat and the odd, heavy coldness in my stomach that felt like a water balloon filled with ice water. Yet I was too insecure to say a word about this emptiness and loss to him. I don't even know if I told my dad I'd miss him as we sat across the smooth orange plastic table from one another, he eating quickly and speaking little, I belaboring each mouthful of bun and chicken and wishing one of us knew what to say. Probably it didn't occur to me overtly that I could miss someone I had already missed for so long.

But I did recognize the basic equation that Florida is a long way from Minnesota, and no matter how little I had seen my dad up till then, I would see him less in the years to come. This understanding brought with it a heavy sense of finality as we dumped the paper and scraps from our trays into the trash and pushed through the door into the humid afternoon.

It was four years till I saw my dad again; my sister and I were rooming together in a modest Fourth Street apartment during college, and she talked me into sinking a little cash into an airline ticket to Florida for Christmas. It was so strange to enter my dad's new world, to take in his home, his wife, his school-aged children who'd been so tiny last I'd seen them. He'd gone and built a brand-new existence in which I had no trace of history, no place at all. Within a day and a half of stepping off the plane, I developed a raging fever and had to go to bed for twenty-four hours, after which I awoke with a severe case of laryngitis.

Voicelessness seemed an apt expression of my confusion. I was, by now, much too grown up to keep wanting what I couldn't have from my dad, yet not quite wise enough to know yet that the wanting doesn't evaporate with age.

Consequently, I simultaneously grasped at chances to be my father's daughter (holding his hand during a long stretch of walk through Sea World and liking it no matter how awkward it felt) and rejected the notion that I could ever be my father's daughter (embarrassing him by taking out my own cash at the Burger King on the way home from Daytona Beach). Unlike the summer visits to his house during my childhood, I was mostly relieved when it was time to board the plane back to Minneapolis. I had grown accustomed to being fatherless, and found it decidedly less painful to resign myself to that reality than to reopen a painful hope.

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