If you live in New England, you’ve probably seen a lot of posts about shoveling and snow today. As I write this, I’m sitting cozy in my bed, wearing a hoodie that once belonged to my Papa, acutely aware of the fact that there is a minimum of 2 feet of snow covering the ground outside. Why am I acutely aware of that fact? It’s not all the Facebook posts. It’s the fact that I spent about 2 hours today shoveling it.
Growing up in New England secured shoveling as a familiar task to these arm and leg muscles. Now that I’m a bit older, I can safely add back muscles as an affected area, too. Despite the physical strain (and the pain I will no doubt feel tomorrow), I’ve always enjoyed shoveling. It’s quiet. It engages your whole body, but is so repetitive, it leaves plenty of time to let your mind wander. It’s nostalgic, in a strange way. For me, each shovelful of snow scooped up digs up memories along with it. Tossing that snow to the side leads to a lot of reflection on the past.
When I was very little, snow storms meant playing in the banks my Papa made as he shoveled the driveway down to the cement. That was one of his things. He shoveled with a precision no plow could ever hope to achieve. Don’t believe me?
Look at these shots of his handywork in the snowstorm of April 1997.
That’s no photoshop or trick of the light; this man, at the age of 77, did that single-handedly with his $20 orange shovel from Hoxie’s (an Ace Hardware/ convenience store up the road). My Papa’s idea of shoveling was insane perfectionism personified.
I, too, have channeled my perfectionist tendencies into shoveling, though not in the way my Papa did. (Back road living simply doesn’t allow you to shovel down to the ground, as the dirt is frozen and uneven and there are sporadic clumps of grass in the way). My perfectionism was in my strength. I was in a constant, unspoken, competition with my brothers, to prove that I was just as strong, to prove that I could do anything they could do. I took pride in my ability to clear the driveway without help. It validated my strength. It also elicited a genuinely proud “Wow! Good job, Sheil!” from Tom, my stepfather. And isn’t praise from one’s father what every child wants more than anything?
As I was shoveling today, listening to the same ’90’s music I listened to through my Walkman back when I was shoveling with Tom, I started thinking about how complicated my paternal relationships have been. I guess the association of shoveling and being praised for it and the idea that it’s traditionally a “man’s” job got the thoughts churning. I thought of that snowstorm in ’97, I thought of snow fights with Tom, I thought of times sitting in the snowy woods alone thinking about my life and God and the nature of love and fathers when I was a kid (I have always tended to wax a little philosophical, I suppose.)
I’m not even sure where to start digging in to those complex connections. I guess I’ll start at the beginning.
These three photos are all precious to me. There’s my mom and my biological father with little 6 month old me, then one year old me and my Papa, and finally 13 year old me and my stepfather, Tom.
My dad wasn’t around when I was a kid. He struggled with heroin addiction and Bipolar 1 and was in and out of jail for most of my formative years. I don’t want to sound silly or overly sensitive or anything like that, but having basically no contact with my father left me feeling pretty lost as a kid. My mom did her best to assuage this by answering my questions with honesty when I asked, but the truth is, not having your dad around leaves a sort of hole in the core of your self image. Father-Daughter dances were out of the question for me. Father’s Day was confusing. (It still is, sort of, honestly.) No one “gave me away” at my wedding. When I was in school and the other kids would talk about their dads and ask about mine, the reactions to the fact that I had a stepfather were almost always shame inducing. (Baptist school, remember.) And, as kids are prone to do, the curiosity would get the best of them and they’d ask, “Yeah, but what about your real dad?” And that shame would grow along with the burning in my cheeks. Because I never knew what to say. And almost none of the other kids had any frame of reference for someone not knowing their father. I felt, deeply and at a very core level, that there must be something wrong with me. And all of the talk of “God the Father” was simultaneously alluring (maybe God can fill this hole) and discouraging (I don’t even know what that word really means.) When I would pray to God to fill the hole and be my father (a prayer I uttered frequently) it never seemed to work. Maybe I’m saying it wrong, I would think. Or maybe I’m just not meant to have any father at all.
I want to be fair, despite my father’s absence, I did have father figures. Papa was my constant growing up. In truth, he was the biggest and most influential father figure I had. He taught me how to ride a bike, tie my shoes, play basketball, throw a punch, sail, and gave me my sarcastic sense of humor. Though he lived 300 miles away for most of my life, I talked with him and Nana on the phone every single night when I was a kid and visited them every school vacation. As I grew older, if I was in trouble or needed advice, Papa was the first one I would call. He loved me as his own daughter, and I never doubted that for a minute. But, try as he might, he could not fill that hole of not having a “real” father.
Then, there was Tom. Though he told me explicitly not to call him “dad,” he was also a father figure. While there were many times in my life that I was scared of him, I also have a decent stash of good memories – camping in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, driving around listening to Pink Floyd, watching Star Trek, and playing Monopoly and Poker are some of the highlights. Tom was not an overly affectionate man, though. At least not to me. The picture above is one of probably 5 hugs I received from him in my childhood. And I cherish that picture as I cherish the good memories of Tom I have.
When I was admitted at Dartmouth, part of the intake process was explaining what brought me there, which meant going into some of the specifics of what caused my PTSD. After a few days on the unit, a nurse was checking in around something (I can’t remember what exactly, my first few days there are pretty hazy from a lack of sleep coupled with med changes). What I do remember, very clearly, is this nurse saying, “This man, if you can even call him a man, Tom… god, who does that?” She spat out his name. She had no regard for the fact that maybe I had some good associations with this guy along with the bad. (As children who grow up in chaotic or abusive homes often do.) I felt that old creeping shame at her comment. I’m not allowed to love Tom. I shouldn’t love him. But I do. And I realized in that moment that all these complicated feelings from when I was a kid didn’t just go away because I grew up. That sad, ashamed little girl is still alive and well in this grown-up’s body.
Now, I need to make something explicitly clear. I love my father. I’m happy to say that I’ve been in touch with him for the past 10 years, and I have been very grateful to get to know him and to have him not only in my life, but also in my daughter’s life. But having him in my life starting at 19 cannot undo the fact that he wasn’t there when I was 9, or 16, or when I went to my first prom, or when I graduated high school with honors, or when I was accepted to college.
I loved my Papa. For my entire life, he was there, and I placed him on a pedestal. (I imagine the same pedestal that most kids place their actual fathers.) His ability to perfectly shovel the driveway is the exact analogy for how I viewed him and everything he did: perfect. In my little girl eyes, he was absolutely perfect. But, as an adult, I can see that he was not without his faults and struggles. He faced many adversities in his life, and his mentality was to just keep shoveling through. Keep your head up and just keep pushing. And he occasionally did things that caused me pain. When I was a child, he told me not to tell others about what was happening at home. Hearing from him, the man I trusted and loved more than anyone, that I needed to be secretive and keep everything to myself did help cultivate that shame I felt so deeply. And, of course, eventually, my Papa was not able to “keep pushing”, and he left us in the messiest way possible when he died and took my Nana with him. Which was, and remains, the biggest curve ball this life has ever thrown me.
And, yes, I love Tom. Truly, despite everything. I love him for being there when I dislocated my knee in seventh grade. I love him for the time he and I hiked into Sawyer Pond a day before everyone else to set up camp and woke up with the sun to go swimming and cook oatmeal over the campfire before the rest of the family arrived. I love him for the entire summer that he spent introducing me to classic films like Casablanca and Cool Hand Luke. I love him for the time he said, “I promised you when you were 6 years old that if Pink Floyd ever toured again, I’d take you. I don’t think that’s going to happen, so I’m doing the next best thing.” and we took a trip to see the Australian Pink Floyd Show play in Manchester, New Hampshire. I love him for the times he threw me across Kiwanis Pool when I was a kid, and the times he’d “A-Bomb” splash me and my friends from the high dive. I love him for every joke, every laugh, every happy memory he gave me. But there are plenty of bad memories, too. PTSD-inducing bad memories. And those can’t be simply ignored or brushed over.
But I love him because I recognize that, through everything, he was doing his best. And my Papa was doing his best. And my Dad was doing his best. They were all doing their best. It wasn’t ideal. But it was what I had. And I can’t change that.
Psychologically, I understand now why I always gravitated toward tasks of physical strength, like mowing, moving heavy furniture, and yes, shoveling. Because, from my frame of reference (Baptist) those were “man’s” jobs, and if I could prove to myself that I was strong, maybe life without a “dad” was a little less scary. If I could handle doing those things on my own, maybe I’d be ok.
My relationship with my father, and with my stepfather, and even sometimes with my Papa, wasn’t at all what I hoped and prayed for when I was a kid, and there’s still that little girl inside of me wishing things were different, trying to make sense of everything and find her place in this world. Trying to balance the good with the bad, and internal strength with the ability to fall apart and borrow strength from others when she needs it.
And maybe it was her outside today, shoveling for hours through high drifts and layers of packed, heavy, wet snow and memories and thoughts and feelings. Hoping with each motion to prove her strength. Hoping to validate her adulthood. Hoping to prove to herself that she’s ok, even though she didn’t grow up with a “father.” Hoping to live up to her Papa’s standards of working hard and pushing through. Hoping with each scoop and each heave, to get somewhere closer to the truth, to understanding, to acceptance, to forgiveness, to healing.