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Meaningfully Meaningless

About twenty years ago, standing before the selection of oranges at the supermarket near work, I heard a voice whisper: “Get the smooth ones; they’re juicier.”

What I pictured was a Morticia Adams-like figure leaning in to dish me this advice. In reality, I saw my informer was gnome-like, dressed in greenish gray tweed, the top of her pert, old-lady ‘do barely reaching my shoulder. She put the twist tie on her bag of oranges and was off before I could speak.

I set down the bumpy, thick-skinned behemoth and have not bought another. Every so often, someone will offer me an orange and I say yes before I see they’re about to hand me a small orange planet. By then it’s too late to say no. The satisfaction I find in the dry, tasteless wedges is knowing that the weird old lady was right. The smooth ones have thinner skin, which makes them more vulnerable to bruising, but juicier, yes, and sweeter.

This is not the kind of advice most people take seriously, nor is it the kind of story others have accepted as complete. It’s just a scene or a vignette, they complain. It’s a had-to-be-there moment that may not resonate with anyone but me. People want to be entertained with big humor and big lessons, for our little true-life stories to have impact and obvious importance.

I’m more likely to share the story about the time my father helped me after a painful break-up. It happened probably a year after the weird orange lady passed through my life. I had broken up with the guy I lived with and went home to after that shopping trip. I was in my early 20s and needed all the help I could get.

My family had gotten together one evening, either at my parents’ or my grandmother’s. Wherever we were, I wasn’t being good company. I couldn’t stop thinking about breaking up with Jeff. I felt sort of relieved not to be by myself but didn’t want to talk to anyone. Dad found me–I’d gone outside to get away from everyone–and asked what was wrong. I started telling him. It felt strange because Dad had never been openly emotional. On the rare occasions he’s shown feelings, it’s an accident, something not to regret, exactly, but not to brag about either. And we hadn’t ever really talked about me being gay. I’d told my parents three years before that, shortly after the beginning of the relationship that was now ending, and although I’d wanted their acceptance, I didn’t require it.

But in those weeks after the breakup, I felt vulnerable. It was the only relationship I’d been in, and Jeff was the only anyone I’d been with. I wasn’t strong enough to tell someone off for a lack of compassion, especially my father. I sensed I was safe with Dad, though, and he mainly just listened, occasionally adding a meaningfully meaningless, “Yeah, I know,” or “Hmmm.”

The conversation helped me because the focus could have easily shifted to whether or not he accepted me. But in his silent-type way, Dad made it clear all that mattered was that I had a chance to talk and maybe feel a little better. The latter was not guaranteed, of course. I think he even told me he’d like to make the pain go away but I’d have to give it some time. A dose of reality from anyone else might have stung, but it was so him to say that.

Nevertheless, the implicit message was acceptance. If he hadn’t accepted me, he wouldn’t have been motivated to help. He would have slipped away, gone off to fix something around the house. He’s always had calloused hands but thin skin, talk of feelings a greater risk than working under a car on wobbly jacks. Despite how uncomfortable he may have felt right then, the feelings of the son he’d never seemed to quite understand meant more than occupying his mind and hands with work. To me, it’s the most important event in my relationship with my father.

Some people I’ve told this story don’t get why it’s important to me. Your Dad really didn’t do anything, they say. And what happened afterward? Unable to give them a big finish, I offer what little I have left to add. Like my moment with the weird orange lady, that conversation with Dad exists only in my memory, as far as I know. We haven’t talked about it, and there’s really no need to go back to it. Talking that night didn’t change everything, just what needed to change. Dad loves me, adores my partner of 15 years, but he’s not ever going to be a big talker. I can accept that.


Also posted on my Red Room blog for Topic of the Week: The Time I Was Helped.

2 Responses

  1. Rachel Naomi Remen calls that “listening generously.” The people who don’t get it are missing out on one of the most precious gifts we can ever give, or receive.

  2. […] she thought she should tell him. Dad and I took it from there. I knew he knew, but we didn’t talk about it explicitly until I broke up with my first partner. Dad didn’t offer platitudes; he just listened and […]

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