Life With Dad Was Never Boring
A version of this column originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on Father's Day in 2012.
Let's see. I told you about the time my father quit his job to join a carnival, didn't I?
I've also mentioned that he once persuaded me to skip school and go to the racetrack with him because "A kid can learn more handicapping horses than she can in algebra class."
And I'm positive I've written about him letting me drive the family station wagon from Wyoming to Illinois - with the entire family inside - when I was just 11.
But did I ever mention that he was, well, unbalanced? Not merely eccentric. Or impulsive. Or fearless. We're talking electroshock therapy-Thorazine-brief-commitment-to-an-asylum unbalanced.
Nope. I didn't think so.
Dad's mental illness wasn't something we discussed much at home, let alone with strangers. But you're no longer strangers to me. And bipolar disorder - manic depression, we called it - isn't anything to be ashamed about. Not anymore.
This being Father's Day, I might as well admit that my dad's condition was a big part of who he was. And I loved him in spite of it.
Don't worry. We're not going to boo-hoo over bad times today. Let's just say that growing up in our house was like buying a ticket on a high-speed crazy train. Sometimes that ride was exhilarating. At other times, it was frightening.
Am I sorry I was an involuntary passenger for the first half of my life? Absolutely not.
Here's the thing. For years, I didn't realize there was anything wrong with my father. I figured everybody's dad had wild mood swings that took him from euphoric to gothic in an instant.
A "nervous breakdown" that sent my father briefly to an institution when I was about 10 changed all that. In its aftermath, we tried to keep his dark side to ourselves.
We were often unsuccessful.
When my eloquent younger brother offered to give the eulogy at my father's funeral, my mother worried about what he would say.
"I hope he doesn't mention that your father was nuts," she fretted.
"Good grief," I replied. "Everyone who knew him figured that out. Those who didn't know would never believe it anyway."
She needn't have worried. My brother focused on one of my dad's endearing traits: The fact that nothing ever seemed to be too much trouble for him.
Short on cash? Dad would whip out his wallet.
Need a ride from the airport at 2 a.m.? Dad was waiting at the gate.
Craving a slice of coconut pie at midnight? Dad knew just the diner.
When I bought my first car in 1975 - a Fiat 128 - my father was ecstatic. He told me the best way to break it in would be with a long road trip.
"The ponies are running at Hialeah," he said with an impish smile. "Wanna go?"
Thirty minutes later, we were on the Jersey Turnpike. We stopped at South of the Border to call my mom from a pay phone, telling her where we were. And to stock up on "cigarette loads" - hilarious little explosives my dad liked to plant in Mom's cigarettes to discourage her from smoking.
For five sunny days, he and I bounced between Florida's racetracks and jai alai frontons. We swam in the ocean, sipped umbrella drinks, handicapped horses and placed bets.
When we won, we ate steak. When we lost, we ate filet mignon.
Naturally, those idyllic days were chased by unsettling dark ones.
But on Father's Day, I don't dwell on that. I remember the good times. And there were lots of those.