My father taught me things. They weren’t always the right things, or the best things, but he taught me all things, well.
One winterkill night while driving home alone together, he taught me his truth about lying. I was 7, then.
My mom was working as a confidante and caregiver at a private cottage for forlorn cancer patients. Her curtailed quietus watch of 11 to 7 promised us six kids we wouldn’t awaken without her.
“I’ll always be here to tuck you in and be back before breakfast,” she assured. It was enough for them, but not for me.
“I’m riding along,” I reckoned.
“Maybe in the morning, if you’re up.”
“Then, too,” I determined, set as cement.
She gently pressed the nub of my nose, lighting me up in her eyes. “You’re my little lion,” she said. “You give me courage.”
My parents weren’t friends then, if ever. Lovers once, no doubt. He as dashing as she was beauteous. Each with ebony locks. His, glossed waves. Hers, coiled curls. His jaw, chiseled. Her cheeks, rubicund. His eyes, bruin black, set tangent to an arrowed nose. Hers, bairn blue, gracing a Gaelic bob. Both seeped sheen and sensuality. The two as one? An envied ornament hung among plebeians.
But that was all ephemeral, lost long before the happenstance of me.
Oh sure, photos find him masterful in monochrome. Meritorious. Certainly indubitable. And it can be quibbled he didn’t become deriding and distant until after he began colorizing her with kids.
Regardless, I never espied demonstrative signs of affection between them. Neither gentility, nor joy. She endured his disrespect as wifeliness, while zesting motherhood. He husbanded acrimoniously, fatherly only to his firstborn.
And so it was, of all the trips we made together with mom in tow or mind, I remember that worst one best.
“DammitallMaggie,” he one-worded her. “It’s nearly 11. Move it!”
“Don’t get your dander up,” she growled back while winking my way. The dishes, nearly done. The laundry, almost folded. The house in chaos but cleaned down the middle and after-a-fashion. My siblings accounted for, kissed and sleeping. “I’m ready when you are.”
It was the most they’d spoken to one another all day, remaining silent in their seats until he skidded to the stop where we left her – just in time.
I remember watching her maneuver the hard packed snow and patches of ice while edging her way up the embankment toward that halfway house of enduring desperation. And how my father peeled off, leaving her without help, headlights, or sentiment for her safety.
During the drive home I kept my face glued toward the passenger window, contented to imagine mom in the morning, and it being my nose pressed against the frosted pane, greeting her return to us.
My father spoke to the back of my head when he said, “People lie to you because they don’t respect you enough to tell the truth.”
I remained removed; brown eyes searching boundless skies.
“They’ll cloak their words in omission, feigning innocence, thinking you’re too stupid to recognize the lie.” He paused, letting it etch.
I counted stars.
“That’s what they’re saying though. That they think you’re stupid.”
I yearned for Jupiter and Mars.
“The more deliberate and petty the lie, the less value they make of you.”
I found Venus.
“You know you’re utterly worthless when someone lies to you for sport.” He reiterated and enunciated, “Utterly.”
I ran up the stairs to my bed that night, turtlenecking the covers, shivering myself to sleep.
When my father jabbed me to say, “It’s time to go get her,” I was still tired and needing to stay put. But I dragged myself up, dressed and crept down to the living room to wait in the dark, acquiescent.
I must have sat there, dozing, for 30 minutes before being bitten by the cold quiet. Automatous and groggy, I shuffled my way to the kitchen, where I rubbed my eyes to read the neon numbers on the clock flickering over the sink.
It was 2:38.
I stood, still, listening as I looked harder, and harder, as if I was lodged in an illusion, moments before reality dawns.
Slinking back up the stairs, I halted briefly near my parents’ bedroom door to sense my father sleeping-smug, before continuing on to my bed. There, lying dressed and fetal in my red rubber boots and matching wool earmuffs, I grasped the meaning of his fair-warning words.
Oh, maybe not the exact definitions. But clearly the emotions. The shame of stupidity. The pain of worthlessness. The tears of contempt.
It’s been 60 years, so I shouldn’t still shudder – but – you know? Whenever someone chooses to lie to me – especially when it’s one of those petty, deliberate, unnecessary little lies, cloaked in omission – feigning innocence?
Sometimes, I still sob like a 7-year-old.
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This freshly edited, updated essay by Marguerite Quantaine first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times five years ago. (Copyright by Quantaine © 2008 • 2013)
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