Small Joys with Imperfect People

I am ten, and my Dad…is everything. He’s handsome (is he handsome? I don’t know, I’m ten, so he is Dad-handsome I guess, which means he looks just like my Dad) and smart (but Dad-smart, he knows how to explain long division and often makes puns that I don’t always get). His jokes tend toward dark, like he trusts me to get it, which makes me feel mature and special. Because I think my Dad is funny and smart, when he gives me his attention it makes me feel funny and smart (and I will try, as often as humanly possible, to make that happen). If my parents' marriage isn’t particularly loving, well…I am ten, and I’ve never been in love and have never seen a marriage that was loving, so to me this is what a marriage looks like. I don’t know yet that it could look different so it looks…fine.

I am ten and my Dad will sometimes make us grilled cheese with ham and play poker with us at the kitchen table and every now and then you will say something that makes him laugh and the whole sun shines on you. I am ten and things were bad before and they will get bad again but right now I have no real memory of before, and later, well. Later hasn’t happened yet.

Our house has rules (the way most houses do), and while I am sure there are plenty of them, I really only remember a few:

Don’t play near the china cabinet.

Don’t cut through the alley when you are walking the dog.

Don’t touch Dad’s Coke in the fridge.

My dad, he drank. In the before (which I can’t remember because I am ten and those childhood memories are squirrel-slippery) and in the after (which isn’t after yet), it was whiskey, but here, in this moment, it’s coffee (black, always) or Coke. Maybe he drank water, I guess he must have, but as far as I recall it was always coffee or Coke paired with the ubiquitous cigarette (Marlboro Red) in his left hand.

The thing about memories is they are so flawed, so colored by our experiences that they can’t really be trusted. Honestly, I can’t be sure if the thing about him was that he was able to make the things he loved seem special because he loved them so much, or if the things he loved seemed special because I loved him so much. But there were certain things that he loved that just seemed…magical. The brown leather jacket that he called his superman jacket (it smelled like leather and cigarettes and protection). The Snickers bars that seemed somehow superior to any other possible candy bar (even when given the chance to buy one I wouldn’t because somehow they seemed too precious to waste on a normal day), the van, a Chevy Lumina APV, gold and spaceship-like (he would joyfully yell “Lumina,” and wait for us kids to parrot back, “APV!”) and that red can of Coke (given the rare privilege of being in the refrigerator, unlike the kid soda that sat warm on the back staircase). These things are just things, jackets and candy, soda and cars, but they were, at ten, foundational. They were the building blocks to every adventure.

I am ten and my dad is everything to me. He feels cool and dark and edgy, and in hindsight, it probably sucked for my mom to have to always play the not cool and not dark and not edgy parent, but I don’t know yet about how resentments can simmer and how narratives in marriage play out, I only know that my dad sometimes lets us stay up late and watch R rated movies with him and wants to talk about them in a way that makes us feel adult, that he likes Edward Gorey and sometimes will take the mouse that goes with the advent calendar at Christmas time and makes tiny little nooses for it (which is funny to us because later hasn’t happened yet). When you’re with him you want his approval and when you get it, those moments where you know you’ve done something to make him proud, to make him light up…you shine. There is nothing that feels as good as making Chris Sully’s face light up in shocked delight, nothing that feels as good as knowing you made him proud.

My Dad, he loved to drive, loved adventures, big and small and sometimes, you are ten and he will load you into the car (“Lumina”…”APV!”), put on his superman jacket, and with his left hand holding a cigarette (Marlboro Red, always), head out. And these drives, they are just being a kid in the car, it’s not really magic, it’s just cheap paperbacks (Babysitter’s Club and Fear Street when you can, but anything will do in a pinch) and daydreaming out windows. Being in the car is fine, unremarkable. But, every now and then he’ll pull into the gas station and your heart will squeeze with hope that maybe this will be one of those days. Most of the time it’s not. Most of the time he gets the gas and buys himself a drink (coffee, black or Coke, always and only), lights a new cigarette (Marlboro Red, always), and you head out. But sometimes (just enough of the time), he’ll come out with a bag and as he gets into the car he’ll hand you, with no fanfare or explanation, a Coke and a Snickers bar. There is nothing, not before, and not after, that will ever taste as good as sharing that Coke and Snickers with my Dad tasted. Not one thing.

I think a lot about my childhood, which I remember only in patchy bits and pieces, now as I now raise my own kid. I worry often about falling into the same patterns and traps that my parents fell into, of repeating mistakes, big and small. I worry about my genetics, check in with my brain frequently just to be like, “yo, you good up there, today’s not the day we fall apart, right?” It feels, often, like a timebomb. But I know this one thing. I know that even though before was a wreck, and even though after was a dumpster fire, that there was a moment in the middle that felt, at ten, to be perfect. I know that even knowing what happened before and what will happen after, that I can still recall the magic of feeling my Dad’s approval, of sharing in those moments that felt fleeting and special and like an invitation to the absolute best club. So I know, even if I am often a wreck, and heading into a dumpster fire, that I can do this for my own child. I can teach her to play cards at my kitchen table. I can show her my approval, my absolute delight, when she surprises me in the million little ways that she surprises me. I can share jokes with her that feel just a little dark and let her into the beauty of knowing I trust her to get it, to get me. I can take her on adventures, large and small, and occasionally (just enough), I can pass, from the front of the car (with no fanfare or explanation), a Coke and a Snickers bar.

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mother, teacher, West Wing fan

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Sabina Sully

Sabina Sully

mother, teacher, West Wing fan

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