It was a beautiful summer afternoon and I was sitting in my usual spot – draped across two chairs on the screened-in porch with a book in my lap. Mom was frantically running around getting ready for a date my godmother, and next door neighbor, set her up on. Every few minutes she would stand in front of me, demanding my attention and opinion on the latest outfit change. After the fifth or so interruption I was ready to let her have it, but I thought better of it and held my tongue – she’s very sensitive and I knew that, after her last failed relationship, she was more fragile than usual.
While I cannot sympathize with her decision to stay with an abusive husband for 25 years, I can appreciate how hard it must have been to rejoin the dating world after a soul sucking divorce. And just to add insult to injury, the first man she dated was a complete and utter lunatic. If she ever liked anything about him, beyond the attention, I would rather not know about it.
My father was a difficult man to live with and an even harder man to love. I know what it’s like to love him, to hate him, to crave his attention, to wish him dead – and I’m only his daughter. When I ask myself how she could care for the man, the only answer I can come up with is that I should take my feelings and amplify them times 10 – but that’s really not an answer at all and I know I’ll never completely understand.
So instead of yelling at her to “stop bothering me, I’m reading”, I helped choose her outfit, jewelry, and makeup. I complimented her on her shoes and straightened her hair. I’d done those things for her often enough (sometimes I feel more like her stylist than her daughter), but that afternoon I was nicer about it. I didn’t sigh every time she asked me a question and I didn’t yank her hair and demand she hold still. Instead I asked about their plans and assured her she’d have a good time.
When her date arrived she brought him to the porch for introductions. While mom went inside to finish up, he sat down at the table. My cousin, sister and I grilled him like a cheese sandwich. After the last guy caused such an unwelcome stir I was determined to weed out any psychotic tendencies right away. I was in complete obnoxious mode, but he just sat there smiling, laughing, and taking it all in.
He was a big bear of a guy with a casual smile and demeanor. He talked fishing with my cousin, laughed at my jokes, however inappropriate, and when mom returned he seemed content to stay and chat. They ended up leaving an hour later and I remember saying to the others, “I think I like that guy.” His name was Ray.
Over the next few weeks they went out constantly – we rarely saw her at all. He played in a pool tournament every Tuesday night and she started accompanying him. On the weekends they went to dinner, movies, and parties with his friends. It was a big deal, a huge change from the way her life had been – stuck waiting at home wondering where her husband was, never allowed to do much of anything, not being able to keep friends because of the way he behaved. She was having fun and we were happy for her.
My godmother had known Ray for a long time. He was a quiet guy, never volunteering much about himself, so we gathered our information from her. He’d been in a long relationship with a woman, I think about four years, and they lived together. She cheated and he left her. When he started dating mom he’d been single for a year or so. After leaving his previous girlfriend, his father started having health problems so he moved in with him to help out.
By the time he and mom were a thing, he was ready to move out of his dad’s house again. My godmom was newly divorced and renting the house next door. She needed a roommate and thinking it would be pretty cool to have mom’s boyfriend living so close but not living-in, she asked Ray. He said yes.
Over the next several months it was chaos. Ray couldn’t stand having to share the TV with my godmom’s preteen daughter, and vice versa, so we sometimes found him passed out in front of our TV with the remote clutched in his hand. Football, fishing, hunting, racing, and repo shows – that was Ray’s standard fare.
He wouldn’t sleep over, unless it was on the living room floor, so mom spent a lot of nights next door with him. That suited us just fine as she had the most comfortable bed in the house and we would take turns taking it over while she was gone. He ate with us, he went to Sunday dinner at Grandma’s with us, and he started attending my sister’s cheerleading functions.
After one too many mornings of tripping over his bulk on the way to the bathroom, I finally shouted at him, “No one cares if you sleep in her bed, Ray! For the love of god!” He officially moved in shortly after that.
It was anticlimactic, as most things with Ray are. One day he was sleeping on the floor, the next we were clearing out drawer and closet space, and instead of sports programs being on only in the late evenings, they were on constantly. There wasn’t really a period of adjustment – he just fit right in with our odd, all female, group.
The fights between my mother and I are legendary, especially in relation to the raising of my daughter. One of our biggest issues is that she undermines my authority - undoing any disciplinary action I’ve taken, whispering remarks in the kid’s ear and mocking me to make her laugh, allowing her to do things I wouldn’t normally. When Ray came along, I finally had an ally. He was usually quiet, but whenever he saw mom pulling her shenanigans, he called her down. And though she would never listen to what I had to say, she certainly listened to him. It was brilliant, and though we still have a way to go, I can honestly say things have gotten better because of his support and occasional interference.
He would sit on the couch wearing his standard evening fare – tube socks pulled up as far as they could go, grey sweat shorts, and a Clemson t-shirt – while we screamed at each other across the bar. Without pausing in his patting of my cat Nugget, who’d switched loyalties and became Ray’s most adoring follower, he would shout, “That’s enough!” Then, “Alright, this is the way I see it...” and using his hand palm out like a flight attendant, he’d point at each of us in turn and say who was right, who was wrong, and to what degree. Often mom and I would find ourselves so amused by his simple breakdown of our longest, most trying battles that we’d simply give up and laugh.
He and I bonded long before he and my sister did. We were the ones snickering in a corner at family dinners and making jokes about the men at the recycling center. We’d stand, shoulder to shoulder, in the kitchen and peer into a pot of mom’s latest concoction, look at each other with half smiles and raised eyebrows, saying “huh uh, I’m not eating that” without uttering a word. He’d watch my TV shows, complaining for the first few minutes then forget that he wasn’t supposed to like them and start firing questions – “Who is that? What’s she doing?” In turn, he got me addicted to football in a way I’ve never been – to the point of actually knowing the name of a play or what a flag was thrown for before it was announced. He became my friend.
I can’t pinpoint when he became more like a dad. Maybe it was seeing him wear the parent’s t-shirts to support the cheerleading squad and my sister every single weekend during competition season, showing up to every football game and sports banquet. Maybe it was hearing him shout “Hey Hanny” every time Hannah and I walked in the door in the evenings and watching him help her with her homework. Maybe it was hearing him sing his made up song every morning to wake us up when our alarm clocks wouldn’t (“Everybody! Everybody! Everybody in the house get up!”). Or maybe it was when, after being gone for a week to Oklahoma, my sister and I returned well after midnight and crawled into the bed with him, each of us settling into the crook of an arm. And it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
But of course, like any other family member, there are days when I want to throttle him. Days when he’s eaten the last of the cookies or drunk all the Pepsi, days when we fight over control of the remote because we want to watch our reality shows and he wants to watch the fishing channel, days when he can’t pick up on my bad mood and teases me past the point of sanity, days when he is so stubborn and opinionated and such a...southern man...that I can’t stand to be in the same room with him.
Yet all those things I listed make me smile, because honestly, when I look at the big picture, having a dad that irritates me and hogs the remote is a great deal easier than having one that’s an alcoholic and a borderline sociopath. I will always love my father, but the majority of the reason I do so is, sadly, because I have to...because it’s what my blood dictates. Loving Ray hasn’t just been easier, it’s been healing.
For the past year, of the two Ray and Mom have been dating, everyone kept asking me when they were getting married. I’d asked both of them that question myself, together and separate. Together their answer was, “We’re not”, or a joking, “When the other one asks me”. Separate, their answers were more definitive. Mom definitely wanted him to ask and he seemed scared to death of the idea. While mom had been married for over 20 years, Ray had never been. (He’s actually 34 to her 44, which I’m sure made a difference.) The only answer I could ever give people was, “I have no idea. Maybe they won’t.”
Then, just two weekends ago, they went on a trip to the mountains in Tennessee. They came home that Sunday afternoon laden down with gifts from the outlet stores and restaurant reviews (which, as far as our family is concerned, is the most crucial aspect of any vacation story). Hannah and I sat on the couches pawing through our bags of goodies and waiting on my sister to return from cheerleading practice so we could paw through hers too.
When she got home Ray told us that he’d bought us both Christmas presents and if we wanted, we could have them early. He was visibly excited, while mom was visibly exasperated. Apparently she’d tried to rein him in, make him wait until the holidays, but he simply couldn’t help himself. It was endearing.
“Is it electronic”, I asked.
“No. Why”, he said.
“Because if I open it, it has to be something I’ll want to use a lot between now and Christmas. Otherwise, I’d rather wait.”
He laughed. “No, it’s not electronic.”
“Can I wear it?”
“Alyson”, mom shouted in reproach.
Ignoring her, I soldiered on. “Is it black or brown?”
“Why only black or brown? It could be purple”, mom replied.
“Nope. I have a feeling it’s one of the two.”
“Do you want it or not”, Ray asked, avoiding all of my probing questions.
He brought them out one at a time, grinning from ear to ear. And they were, of course, Coach bags. Beautiful brown Coach bags (though mine is bigger and more beautiful than my sisters. Ha!).
But while we were oohing and aahing over every zipper and compartment, mom left the room unnoticed. It wasn’t until they were both standing in front of us and Ray said, “And look what I got your mother”, that we looked up.
Expecting to be outraged by a handbag larger than my own, my jaw dropped. She held out her left hand and wiggled her sparkling finger. For a minute there was silence – then utter chaos. My sister and I vaulted off the couch and rushed not mom, but Ray, hugging him and shrieking our delight. I was completely out of the blue and it was clear that though they didn’t expect tears, they weren’t expecting such a powerful response either.
The past two weeks have been full of excitement – telling everyone about the engagement and talking about wedding plans. Mom never had an actual wedding so even though it won’t be a lavish affair, it definitely won’t be another trip to the courthouse.
It didn’t occur to me until just the other day, though, that after it’s a done deal things might change. Will they move? Will Ray act differently? Will mom? I haven’t asked them about their long term plans yet and, even if I did, I doubt they’d be able to give me an answer.
I’m hoping he still plays a large part in my day to day life and if they move, they don’t move far. Because I’ve gotten used to shouting “Hey diddy” when I walk in the door, arguing over who is going to eat the last taco, and getting bear hugs at the most random, yet always appropriate times. I’ve gotten used to trips without drama, fights without bruises, and dinners with more laughter. I’ve gotten used to having the kind of family, and the kind of dad, I always wanted.
1 week ago