Lionel Shriver, 58, was raised in North Carolina where her father, Donald, was a Presbyterian minister. She has written several novels, most notably We Need To Talk About Kevin, for which she won the Orange Prize. She now lives in London with her husband, the jazz drummer Jeff Williams. Here, she talks honestly about growing up with an absent father…
Oh dear, it was awkward. A 50th wedding anniversary should be festive, full of tributes and raised glasses. But after raising a few too many glasses, my younger brother lit into our father for having made himself scarce during our childhoods. Dad was eternally away at ‘meeting’ or buried in another sermon in his study; interrupt on pain of death. Hardly ever home – what kind of father was that?
My father did not contest his version of events, but neither did he apologise. At 79, surrounded by the detritus of the anniversary meal I’d cooked, Dad declared defiantly that his contribution to our family was to ‘go out into the world.’ My brother fumed. I took refuge in dirty dishes.
I grew up with a classic ‘absent father.’ We kids felt we annoyed him. (No doubt we were annoying, as children can be.) We didn’t feel important. Our only importance was by association. Dad was important, which made us a little important, sort of.
My favourite birthday present was an entire hour with my father. We’d walk around, get a slushie at the Minute Market. He seemed uncomfortable, unsure what to talk about. Yet I was elated. As a ploy, the absent-parent strategy is ingenious. You value the parent in short supply. We were never given presents of our mother’s time.
I remember waiting. Waiting for my father to finish a paragraph while dinner got cold. Waiting for my father to finish talking when everyone else went home from church an hour ago. For everything, he was always late. We didn’t have permission to be late.
Still, unlike my brother, I don’t bear my father a grudge. I, too, went ‘out into the world’. In today’s families, children are the centre of the universe, and know it. But maybe there’s a value to feeling only so important. I wasn’t raised to think my parents’ lives revolved around me. I learned to make my own importance.
The relationship has taken a long arc. Dad was encouraging in my youth; then miffed when I no longer seemed to need that encouragement (of course I did); now he quite fancies dropping my name, as I once dropped his.
Recuperating from a nearly fatal illness, my father is 87. I have to make the challenging transition from regarding him as remote, formidable, unavailable and impatient to realising he is chastened, weakened, all too available and in need of my own patience. He reads, and still has the odd ‘meeting’, but he is under-busy. I’m the on who’s important. I’m the one who can be too busy for him. Should I tell him, sorry, I am ‘out in the world’? Would he find that funny?
I don’t find that funny. Turning tables is never as gratifying as you expect. What you turn is the cheek. I will ring my elderly father on Father’s Day. I will show him how it’s done. You go out in the world. And you come home.