My father read a lot — usually World War II history or biographies — and he used to retreat to the leather couch in the living room after dinner with his tome in hand. I would pretend to disappear upstairs only to sneak back down the stairs silently. I learned early on how to inhabit the geometry of invisibility. Papa was gone so often at work or traveling that reading books on the couch, preferably in front of a fire, was clearly something that made him feel at home. I only wished the activity had involved me.

Not to say my father ignored me. He faithfully coached every Little League baseball team I was on when we lived together, and even the first one I joined after my parents got divorced and my mom, sister, and I moved across town. He led almost every one of those teams to the championship. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter to me as I wondered where he would put me. Years later Papa told me that his corporate boss never liked the hours my father spent away from the office coaching.

My father also loved cards and taught my sister and me the best strategies in blackjack and a slew of poker games I can still remember, ranging from “Night Baseball” to “Stud.” We’d stay up past bedtime anteing up pennies and fighting for the kitty. When I think of those moments on the den carpet, I recall the rough stubble on my father’s face and how potent the veins in his hands looked as he shuffled the deck for the twentieth time.

Still, my father was often remote to me. I remember once I looked at his face and asked him about the fleck of amber that appeared in one of his hazel eyes; he backed away and told me to leave him alone. I see now how desperately I wanted intimacy with him, reaching for it as he literally took steps away.

So it was a delight for me to sneak undetected into the living room to watch my father read. I felt so close to him then, in a strange and sad way. He was like a deity I could near but never touch.

I got so good at spying that I tried it all over the house; it was the best way to discover what was really going on. Eavesdropping on my mother’s phone calls to her friends, I learned how badly her relationship with my father was going. Once I found hundreds of dollars wadded up and squirreled away in my mother’s leather boot.

My sneakiness continued until one day when I stumbled upon something I didn’t want to see. It was a Saturday morning, and my mom and sister were out of the house. I snuck into my father’s den to see what he was doing. I thought maybe I’d find him reading, or writing on the yellow legal pads he used for work. Instead, in the dappled light coming in through the window, I found him bent over on the floor, sobbing with a might I had never seen.

I still don’t know what made my father cry like that, but whatever it was was the very thing that kept him from me.

4 thoughts on “Spying

  1. Oh my goodness! Tim, I gasped out loud when I read what you found your father doing. How shocking and saddening that must have been for your young self. I wonder if you’ve ever worked out what made him cry — probably the same things that your mother was talking about on the phone with her friends.

    I like reading about people’s early lives — it’s always amazing. I would never have guessed that you were a Little Leaguer, or even a spy. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I was on The Sun’s website today, just looking around to learn more about one of my favorite magazines. Something intrigued me enough to go to this blog and I’m really glad I did. This is a great post for a number of reasons: There is something universal about a young child wanting love and attention from his or her parent. The lack of it becomes tragic when the deprived person feels the lack and is saddened by it, whether consciously or subconsciously.This is what I’m picking up from the sad, searching boy you were. I can relate because my poor, sad mother suffered from depression and was hospitalized twice. When she died, almost 20 years ago, I found a massive stash of Valium (about 500 pills), which made me realize that anxiety was also one of her problems.In some ways, she was a great mother and taught me more than almost any teacher. In other ways, she was truly absent. I was also a big-time spy and used to sneak down the stairs — trying not to make them creak while I crept through the living room — also trying to not make anything tinkle on the secretary — into the dining room that had a half wall with open shutters. In between the cracks of those shutters, I would peek all the way through the kitchen into the family room and spy on babysitters. I listened to their phone conversations with boyfriends and watched them raid the refrigerator. All of my 7 kids have gotten their kicks out of spying, too, to one extent or another. And speaking of kids, I am so grateful for each one, but I have wondered sometimes whether I wanted such a big family because I was trying to make up for something I lacked early on. Whether or not that’s the case, I have made a huge effort to be very affectionate and down-to-earth. I’ve tried to let them see the “real” me and to really listen to them. No one’s perfect though, and we all fall short, every day. I’m sorry to hear how you suffered, and I’m sorry to hear about your parents’ suffering, too. The other reason I love this post is because it is beautifully written. You have painted this picture so well that I can clearly visualize you sneaking around, while I am simultaneously feeling your excitement, innocence, curiosity, longing, and pain, as well. Thank you for having the courage to share this. Sorry this is so long…..

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