This essay is a reprise from another blog I had a couple years ago.
It seemed appropriate, today.
(Photo courtesy of my dear friend, Lance Apple, the very present father of two fine young men.)
I come from a legacy of absentee fathers. I was an absentee father. Who was son of an absentee father. Who was son of a father who was just plain absent. Though, in fairness to my own father, he was gone a good deal of time in Southeast Asia, keeping their dominoes from toppling all over American living rooms. If that sounds cynical, well … ya got me. My bad. You may remember that we lost that war. But I have yet to see a statue of Ho in any American city. Though I haven’t been to all of them. I may have missed one. Caught me, again.
You might point out that the war ended when I was still a boy. Dad spent the rest of my youth teaching young soldiers to be absentee fathers.
I have one child, a daughter, who was nine months old when her mother and I separated. Though I have tried since to be involved in her life, I felt inadequate to the task.
Her mother named my daughter Abigail. It is a name from the Hebrew Bible, meaning her father’s joy. And so she is, though it was touch and go there for a while. The scriptural Abigail was one of King David’s wives: a woman originally married to a parsimonious ass who may or may not have been the first man murdered by David for his wife. The Bible doesn’t tell it that way. But David’s propagandist spun his yarn to fabricate an epic tapestry, though not without visible seams for those with eyes to see. There is no mention whether that Abigail was a joy to her father.
My daughter’s full name is Emily Abigail Matzeder. The Emily part kind of vanished early. That’s not unique in my extended family. John Matthew is Matt. Treva Marie is Marie. Clarence John is Jack. John Michael is Michael. Almost from the beginning we called her Abbey. Spelled just that way. Not A-B-B-Y. Not A-B-B-I-E. Abbey. Like the house of a religious order. I don’t know why. Years later, when she was in college, she performed in a show with The Virginia Stage Company Norfolk. My high school drama coach saw a performance and was delighted to see Abbey onstage. “Oh, yeah,” she later recounted her reaction upon opening the program, “Mark named his daughter after Abbie Hoffman.” It was just synchronicity, I swear.
She has since eschewed the diminutive, insisting we call her Abigail. She says Abbey sounds juvenile.
Many years ago I conceived the hypothesis that a child’s brain develops as a reenactment of the evolution of human consciousness. I was eager to see how that played out as my daughter grew. It wasn’t as if I played Skinner and stuck her in a box. I just delighted in watching the development of her intellect.
She early showed her inquisitive mind. She must have been four or five years old when she asked me, “How can two right-handed people have a left-handed daughter?” I sat beside her and drew up a Mendelian chart. Her maternal grandfather was left-handed—so I knew her mother must have a recessive gene—and I have a left-handed sister, so both my parents must have. Abbey paid close attention to my squares of Rs and Ls.
I have no idea what, if anything, she took away from that lesson. I tended to speak over her head. I was lecturing her on geopolitics as we brought her home from the hospital.
She must have garnered something of genetics, though. Anna once called me and narrated an anecdote of driving with Abbey in the car and hearing, “Mommy! Look!” from the back seat. She checked the rear-view mirror to find our daughter, strapped in her car-seat, sticking out her tongue. “What?” “It’s curling!” I had told Abbey that the ability to curl the edges of one’s tongue—which I could do but her mother couldn’t—was hereditary. She was showing off what she had acquired from me. Perhaps only a parent can truly appreciate that.
(Something else she “got from” me got me in trouble with her mother when Abbey came back from a visit to my house singing the Ramones’ “I Taught the Brat With a Baseball Bat”.)
In the next few years I moved to California and back. Anna and Abbey moved to Connecticut. One year, my mother bought Abbey a bicycle, and we drove up from Virginia for Thanksgiving. Mother gave Abbey the bike. I spent an afternoon with her as she learned to ride it. That is an archetypal experience of American paternity. I am forever grateful to Anna for allowing me that.
After Anna and I separated, I used to envision a 12-year-old Abbey appearing on my doorstep, suitcase in hand, pleading, “Dad, I can’t take it any more.” I was a year off. (And she didn’t really say those words. That was projection.) She asked me, “Can I come to live with you?” one night at bedtime, as she was visiting me and my second wife.
In retrospect, I have come to see the question as springing from something Abbey and I share:
All our lives we have wanted to be part of a normal, functioning Family. It is true I am the eldest of six children, but The Waltons we weren’t. I consider “dysfunctional” a kind definition of our family dynamic, though other members might see it otherwise. My desire for a normal family is likely why I married Anna when I was so young.
Abbey hoped for years that her mother and I would reconcile. I gave that up before Abbey did. When I remarried, I think she wanted to be part of that Nuclear Family the way I did. It didn’t work out that way. She lived with us less than a year. During that time she experimented with changing her name (she wanted to be called Gayle, which I didn’t learn for many years was because her stepmother told her Abbey was a little girl name) and hair color. We let her pierce her ears. We arranged equestrian opportunities. But the stresses of family life rarely mimic Father Knows Best, and in the end she preferred the devil she knew. She went to her mother’s for the summer and stayed.
The advent of Instant Messaging provided us with a whole new dimension of communication. It’s the perfect form of communication for parent-child relationships. (Maybe especially for minor children. Stark, written words with no real permanence, devoid of the cumbersome baggage of expression and intonation and gesture. The recipient can imagine all of these things: choosing from the best of the transmitter’s repertoire, and fancying real communication where perhaps none exists. For absentee parents contact with one’s child can increase algebraically. No more awkward and inconvenient telephone calls. No more hunting for the words one thinks one is supposed to pass on from the years’ accumulated wisdom and experience. With IMs—and especially with the later-appearing text messages—a conversation can remain open forever. The Tyranny of Immediacy is overthrown. Abbey and I took (and take) advantage of the tool.
One weekend—and I don’t even remember the circumstances—I stayed with Abbey in her mother’s home. I had my own computer connected to one telephone line; she had hers on another. We sat at opposite ends of the room, IMing and giggling at each other.
As a high school senior Abbey auditioned for a student play. She won the role of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. With memories of my own Thespian experiences, I went to watch her perform. Can a parent ever be objective? Several other members of both sides of her family were there, among them my mother and ex-wife. One thing that fascinated me was how much Abbey looked and sounded like her Aunt Michelle onstage. Even facets of what actors call “business”—those mannerisms that bring life to a character—reminded me of my sister. It was possibly prescient. (Michelle is the sister who followed her Theatre dreams to New York City.)
After the show various family and friends walked to the stage area to congratulate our particular actors. Members of Abbey’s fan club/family added our praise and congratulations to the stream of bons mots washing over the cast and crew. In the periphery of my vision I watched some other student’s parent, whom I did not know, approach my daughter and gush, “You were so good! You could do that professionally!”
Before I could dam my impulse, I whirled on him and cried, “Don’t tell her that!” (an act for which I was scolded by my own mother.)
My instincts were natural enough. I had long languished with an unrealized creative degree, and knew that a high proportion of Equity is out of work at any one time. I wanted to protect her, not stifle her.
(Years before, some people said I was good, too. I don’t know. I was always too self-conscious of people’s judgments of my role. It wasn’t a critique of my acting I feared, but judging the relative merits of the character’s character and projecting those onto me. I once refused to audition for a part because I didn’t want to play a cop. Turned out he was the villain and the best role in the show. I should have known.)
As it turned out, Abbey graduated from college with a degree in Fine Arts: Acting. Then she moved to New York—as her aunt had years before—to follow her theatrical dreams. I respect that, a lot. She showed more grit than I ever had. And that delights me.
One final image in this reflection on how Abigail has fulfilled her name:
I was lamenting one day—as I am wont when I get depressed—how my future was to die alone, on a park bench, shivering beneath an old newspaper. “Don’t worry, Papa. I’ll give you a magazine for a pillow.”
That’s Love, Matzeder style.