real lj idol | week 34, prompt 1 |833 words
Barefoot, uphill, both ways.
When I was little, I believed all my father's stories were true.
Not the ones where he was obviously joking, the ones that began "When I was a little girl…" just for the sake of hearing his children shriek, "Daddy, you were never a girl!"
No, it was the outlandish histories, instead. These might have once contained some seed of truth, but it got lost somewhere in the cycle of iterative embellishment. These were the Shoshone blood-brother stories, the faceoff with the Junior Golden Gloves Champion, the turning-point weekend-in-the-Psych-Ward adventure. The lesser recountings of Halloween pranks or episodes of By-God-I-Was-Smart were probably closer to the truth, and no one doubts his secretly sweating out a rattlesnake bite suffered in the middle of a family camping trip in Utah (at the motel afterwards, everyone saw the proof).
My father made sure that all five of his children knew the importance of always telling the truth. That was why it took me so long to suspect that any stories that sounded made-up probably were.
I don't know how my mother feels about all this. The more outrageous stories date from the years before he met her, and I don't know if she once heard simpler versions of them that would contradict their later incarnations. If she had, I doubt she'd tell us. She's been enabling his ego past intervention and adversity for decades now. I'm sure there's a formula involving octogenerians and victimless lies that kicks in for her every time the issue comes up.
A tendency to inflate the truth usually comes from feeling insecure. I'm not sure why my father feels his actual accomplishments aren't good enough, unless it's that my mother did all those same things while also battling outrageous sexism and having to work as a crop-picker and carhop to put herself through college and medical school. Or perhaps it's that he was the youngest of ten children and thought all his siblings knew and did everything so much better—especially his next-oldest-brother, the college football star killed in the second World War, who was forever exempt from being out-triumphed.
Did the lies begin early or late? What set off the shift from anecdotes to outright fabrication?
My father's first wife's family was newly American, a transplanted group of old-world Italians with more history in their family name than anything new-country pioneers could hope to accomplish. My mother was his second wife, and her family's legacy was not noble, but it outstripped most for sheer fortitude and pride. Her father left London at age thirteen and came to America as an indentured servant, working until he'd bought passage for himself, his mother, and two sisters (his own father having abandoned the family when the oldest was five). He married and had his own children, working as a carpenter and just barely bringing his family through the Depression. He had only an eighth-grade education, but he was inured to hardship. He and his wife managed to rear a minister, a doctor, and a schoolteacher with no help from anyone but themselves.
Was it my mother's father who was so intimidating? Even if there was honesty in my father's stories of walking to school in snow so high you could unscrew the light bulbs from the street lights (assuming street lights even had screw-in bulbs in the '30s?), they paled in comparison to walking seventy miles to Enterprise from an Eastern Oregon homestead, just for the purpose of getting basic supplies.
My father is in his mid-eighties now, and I know we probably have less than ten years together at best. It pains me that his need to entertain or impress stands in the way of really letting us know large parts of who he is. The events that propelled him into psychiatry as a medical specialty, for instance—did any of those happen (and which ones were they?), or is it possible even he can't remember anymore?
The truth is this: he was the youngest of ten children, born to a Utah farmer and his wife, and his mother died when he was eleven. He joined the Navy during WWII at age 17, skipping his final year of high school and then later going to college on the G.I. Bill. His naval supply ship saw unexpected combat, and he got hit in the head with an oxygen tank and was given a medical discharge. He married his first wife in college, and went on to medical school afterward. He became a psychiatrist, had three children, and got divorced, and then married again. Two more children followed. In the years after that, he was well-respected and professionally acclaimed, and all of his children are now grown with families of their own. At eight-six, he's still healthy and has led a good and interesting life and met a lot of great people.
So now, based on those simple facts alone, I still don't understand his thinking: how is all of that not already enough?
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