Days after my father gave up his paternal responsibilities by abandoning his wife and two teenage boys, it was Father’s Day, and we were left in a bad situation. We had just moved into our fifth house in four years, and it needed extensive renovations. At first, we were all happy about the purchase of the new house because it meant we were establishing roots in our new town. We had been renting a townhouse since we moved from Texas the year before to chase yet another job, this time in Southern New Jersey. We had come back to New Jersey after having lived in Texas for three years in two separate towns. We moved a lot; it was wearying, but our new home promised peace.
I had not taken the move back north well. I spent my time holed away in my room with my black and white, rabbit-eared TV as my only company. After months of this existence, my brother forced me to join the stage crew at the school. He had joined at the start of the school year for the Fall drama, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and met many new friends. He told me that production was starting on the Spring Musical, “Bye Bye Birdie,” and that they needed more help. I later learned that it was a blatant lie.
When we arrived, the theatre was abuzz with the whirl of circular saws, banging of hammers, and classic rock blaring from the sound system. I saw that the production did not need my help; on the contrary, I realized that I desperately needed the stage crew. My brother handed me a staple gun and put me to work stretching muslin over a wooden frame. I was making stage flats that would be reused for years as the walls of a Siamese palace, the Von Trapp chalet, and Prof. Higgins’ study.
My 17-year-old brother saved me that day from a growing depression. He shared his friends with me. He didn’t have to do it. I’m sure he didn’t want his little brother hanging around to witness all his teenage mischief. I guess his mischief became our mischief. I guess it was brotherly love.
In the new house, my brother and I were expected to help our father with the needed renovations. My brother had a part-time job at the local grocery store, so his hours at home were more limited than mine. Being a selfish teen, I avoided helping repair our new home and escaped to the theatre to help build a fake world. Only on weekends when the school was closed did I reluctantly help my dad with ripping up carpet or tearing down walls or installing new fixtures. As the school year ended, the house was still in a state of disrepair; the summer promised more hours dedicated to the refurbishing of our home. It was not to be.
Dad left the night of my last day of my freshman year, leaving our home in shambles.
My Uncle Tom, my godfather, stepped in as a steadying hand. After he and my aunt took us on a trip to Lake George so my mother could process my father’s betrayal, he took over construction of our new house while still running his own business. We helped Uncle Tom install the fixtures, tape and spackle the new walls, and lay the flooring. He finished the job my father had quit. Once the repairs were completed, my mother put the house up for sale; she could not afford it alone. When it sold, we’d be moving to our sixth house in four years.
I did not spend a lot of time at home as we waited for our house to sell. I sought solace amongst my new friends. We played basketball from 2PM until the failing evening light made seeing the ball difficult. The older guys, including my brother, all had cars. So, our teenage horde would pile into the Camaro and the T-Bird and the Cavalier to head to the local diner. I’m sure the waitresses hated us. We bought very little and spent many hours around a large table laughing loudly. No one ever mentioned my dad, and I was glad for it.
Unknowingly, that summer I cobbled together all the masculine love an abandoned teen boy needs.
My uncle protected me; he built me shelter and shielded me from the raw hurt of a new wound. My brother’s love saved me from self wallow. He was burdened with being my brother and fathering me in the best way he could through his own hurt. My brother opened his life up for my happiness by sharing his friends.
I am indebted to him for that act even now, thirty years on, when I sit around a small poker table with some of those same friends for our monthly game. Our fraternity began when we were mere lads. They knew me when I had two parents and became my chosen family when my real one fractured. They knew me before any girlfriend, before my wife, before my children. These friends and my brother are the yard stick by which I measure my life.
Life accelerated for me that summer, compressing my memory’s timeline into soft focus. Father’s Day of 1988 must have been difficult for me, but I don’t remember it. I must have been floating in Lake George on the day, but there is no earmark in my mind for it; my aunt and uncle did their diversionary job well.
The emotion that remains from those days is love.
A teen needs love. An abandoned teen needs an abundance of it. Teenagers do not have to have a parent walk out to feel abandoned. I’m reminded of this when I see the hurt in my teen daughter’s eyes over the loss of a friendship, and I dread the inevitable day when she or my son sobs over young love gone awry. I remember those hot tears.
Each Father’s Day, I am reminded of that time thirty years ago. I hold those that made me a father a little tighter, because I know we will soon be parted. In the coming years, my children will be building their own homes, and I’ll feel abandoned again. At least when that day comes it will be in the natural course of events, and I’ll be prepared for it.
Happy Father’s Day to all those who protected, nurtured, and loved me as a kid. A dad is hard to replace. But, love is a good substitute, and I had it in spades.
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MJ Bove is a married forty-something parent of two teenagers and one live-at-home twenty-five-year-old. His kids are far better people than he ever dreamed to be and he wonders how a kid fending for himself in a broken home grew up to raise such good kids. He’s using his mistakes to guide his kids through their own crucibles. And he’s hoping they listen. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.