Oh Deer

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This might be the hardest month yet to write a blog post for me.  I have never missed a month without writing at least one entry.  It has been hard to find a topic during this horrible time…with the coronavirus and people being ill and losing family members and being unemployed.  I don’t want to complain because I am healthy and getting a paycheck.  I have racked my brain to find something to write about that is not negative or offensive or insensitive and I finally thought of a topic…deer skulls.

In the northeast region of our country, it is very common to see deer everywhere.  Just on my two mile drive home from my sister’s house last night I think I counted 8 of them.  Some people think of deer as a nuisance because they cause car accidents, while others appreciate their beauty.  When I think of deer, I think of a specific memory with my father.  It was a singular moment so insignificant in my life, I am surprised I even remember it at all.

One day, we were exploring some trails in the woods behind my childhood house.  My father and I were walking ahead of my mother and my sister and my dad was pointing out various wildlife and plants.  A squirrel would skitter along the path and he would shout “squirrel!”.  He warned me not to touch poison ivy and explained how to identify it (a skill I still find useful as I am VERY allergic).

“Whoa! Check that out!” My dad pointed to something round and whitish on the ground a few feet in front of us.  As we got closer, I realized that it was a skull of unknown origin.  A dead person! was the first thought I had until I realized the shape and size of it could not be a human.  My father, in true dad fashion, leaned down and plucked it off the ground with his bare hands.  He turned to me with a sly smile and then reached his arm out to try to touch me with it.  I jumped a mile and screamed, “groooooosssss!”.

My father carried the skull all the way home and by the time we arrived, he had determined it was from a deer, even though there were no antlers attached.  By this point, my initial shock faded and I was pretty interested in the skull, with its gaping eye sockets and teeth still attached to the jaw bone.  He soaked the skull in soapy water and cleaned it, while my mother disapprovingly kept asking, “what are you going to DO with that thing?” After the skull was clean, I was so fascinated with it that my father gave it to me.  This is most likely the strangest “gift” I have received. I sat for a half hour just wiggling the teeth, until one popped out into my hand.  I was able to put it back into place with much satisfaction.

I kept that deer skull on my bookshelf for many years.  Once I got my own apartment, I decided that it did not really fit with my decor scheme and that it was weird to have to explain to people why I had a deer skull in my home.  I gave it to a science teacher at the high school where I teach English and he gladly displayed it in a case in his classroom.  Over the years, once in a while, I would pop into his room to look at the deer skull, the memory of that day running through my mind.

Children remember the strangest and most random things.  My niece is only three years old and probably won’t remember anything from this time in her life.  Or maybe she will? My sister and brother-in-law are both unemployed and home with her all day now.  Maybe she will remember making tents out of all the couch pillows, baking cookies with my sister, or helping her dad rake sticks in the backyard?  I have a very poor memory and cannot recall much from my childhood.  And unfortunately, by the time I turned twelve years old, my father was a full blown abusive alcoholic, so there were not many happy memories made during my teenage years. Yet, there are these random moments, burned into my memory, that I fondly remember.  My dad was fun (and cool!) at one point during my childhood and now that he is sober, I hope that my niece will make memories with him that she can look back on someday to remember her grandfather.

My deer skull still is on display in the science lab classroom.  I am sure over the years, many students have seen it and assumed it came from a school supply magazine or they really do not think much of it at all.  Some of them are my students as well and they have NO idea that they are looking at a piece of my childhood…a tangible, albeit very odd, reminder of a happy memory with my father.

Through my eyes

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One of my early childhood memories from before my dad started drinking was standing with my feet on top of his.  I was seven or eight years old, he would hold my hands and I would stand on his feet and hold on as he walked around the room.  We were not really dancing, but it was fun and my sister and I would take turns.  I think a lot of little girls do this with their daddies and it is a sweet memory I have of him.

When I was in college studying literature, I was very drawn to a particular poem:

My Papa’s Waltz 

by Theodore Roethke

 

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

 

There are a lot of different opinions and interpretations about what this poem is describing.  Some readers interpret it as the happy childhood memory of a young boy playfully dancing with his father in their kitchen, while his mother gazes on.  Other readers believe that the dance is a metaphor for physical abuse by a drunk father.  The first time I ever read this poem, I instantly believed it depicted abuse.  However, I wonder if that is because my father became an abusive alcoholic (while my mother helplessly watched on).  I always tell my students that this is the beauty of literature- the reader is able to interpret what they read in their own personal way.  We all (sometimes subconsciously) are influenced by our own life experiences and as a child of an alcoholic, that was the lens I saw the world through.  Yet, I got a feeling that this boy still loved his father, which was another part of the poem I could relate to, because I still love mine.

I know without a doubt that if my father was not an alcoholic, he would have been an awesome dad.  Just like I know that if my exboyfriend did not suffer from the same addiction, he would have been a wonderful life partner.  When I went to an Al-Anon meeting recently, someone used the phrase “detachment with love”.  I realized that I unknowingly started doing this with my father years ago.  I have his nasty emails blocked, his ringtone on my phone is “silent”, I immediately erase his toxic voicemails and I speak to him as minimally as possible, especially if I know he is drunk.  When I see him, if he is sober, I chat with him, but I stopped letting him “in”…I try to no longer let his behavior negatively affect me.  I accepted that I was not going to be able to change him, so I stopped trying to.

I am currently detaching with love from my exboyfriend.  While I never felt responsible for my father, I did feel VERY responsible for my ex.  By protecting him and enabling him, I was actually hurting us both, which I am able to see now that I have some space from the situation.  I cannot protect him from the consequences of his choices and I do not want to continue to suffer because of his actions.  By releasing those feelings of responsibility for him, I was able to start focusing on myself and my needs.

I love my father and I love my exboyfriend, but I hate their alcoholism.  My father, the man who should be the one to protect me, physically hurt me and still verbally abuses me. My exboyfriend, the man I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, lied to my face and cheated on me, violating my trust.

I think I will always see the world as the child of an alcoholic and as someone who deeply loved and was in an eight year long romantic relationship with an alcoholic.  It is just a part of who I am, woven into the essence of my being.  However, I know that they both made their own choices, but that I also had the ability to make a choice for myself.

And my choice was to detach (with love) from both of them.

Nature v. Nurture

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During my therapy appointment on Monday, we discussed the concept of nature versus nurture.  I was curious about where she stood professionally on the topic.  She believes that it is a 60/40 split (60% nature/40% nurture), although she emphasized that an individual’s personality is a makeup of multiple factors.  I agree with this, but I think I have been affected more by “nurture” in my life, rather than “nature”.

My family moved to NJ from TX when I was in the 6th grade.  Shortly after settling into our new home, it quickly became apparent that something was different about my father.  My dad actually moved almost a year before we did so that he could begin his new job and supervise our home being built.  During that time alone, my father’s social drinking became full-blown alcoholism.  Once our family was reunited, things seemed to change overnight…for the worse.  My fun, easygoing dad had turned into a monster.  I would get into bed at night and wish that we never moved.  In my mind, if we had stayed in Texas, nothing would have changed.

I have wondered a few times in my adult years what my life would be like if we had not moved.  Would my dad be an alcoholic? Would my sister and I be as close as we are now? Would my parents be happily married? These are questions I will never have answers to.  I do believe I would probably be a very different person, though, had we not moved.  I am a type A personality.  I like things organized.  I am task-oriented.  I prefer things to be done a certain way (aka my way).  Those aspects of my personality, the “nature”, would most likely remain the same.  But my anxiety, my desire to please people, my need for control, my inability to make decisions…I know that is all “nurture”.  I am a pretty textbook case of a child of an alcoholic.  I have never wanted to blame things on the fact that I was raised in an alcoholic family, but there is no way to deny that it affected me very deeply.

Where do you stand when it comes to Nature versus Nurture??