By Karen McClintock

Summertime Lessons

On my book tour with my new memoir, My Father’s Closet, a familiar looking man introduced himself to me.  Beneath his sixty-year-old face was a friend from hot summer days when we were fifteen.  We chatted briefly about escapades in the neighborhood, camping in our backyards, sneaking out of the house to throw a dozen rolls of toilet paper over trees in our friend’s yards.  He referred to us as, “the gang.” We were half dozen teens in a privileged suburban Columbus Ohio neighborhood who lived in split level homes, had mixed breed poodles, and dreamed of college success.

When dad and mom went to dance club I was given a very short hetero-normative list of people who could be in the house with me, Denise and Tina.  But summertime heat and surging hormones lead teenagers to test consequences.  In my chapter called, “An Accident Waiting to Happen,” (excerpt below) I tell the story of a summer evening when the knock on the back door startled my girlfriends and we gleefully let the boys in.

It wasn’t as thrilling as it was unsettling.  Having a gay father provided me with little information about traditionally masculinized boys.  Their energy scared me, and even though their know-it-all attitudes repulsed me, the saying is true that the exotic is erotic.  High schoolers who dated a good deal found summers hot with love.  I dressed in my imaginary lab coat, pulled out a pen and my yellow-lined note pad, and observed their horniness from a safer distance like a researcher studies rats.   Father had warned me about the dangerousness of many things, including boys.  Boys were definitely an accident waiting to happen. 

Dad’s early warning siren was “That’s an accident waiting to happen.” “That” might have been a pile of pick-up sticks we’d left in the middle of the living room floor as we rushed to the kitchen for a cookie or a phone call. The accident waiting to happen could also have been a pair of shoes left on the six stairs up to the bedrooms and bathrooms. When my sister Marsha and I were too tired to go up those stairs, we left things on them for our next trip, which annoyed him to no end.

After school, the stairs became cluttered with algebra and geography books, snotty crumpled tissues, and homework assignment pages. Since he wasn’t home from work, we thought we could hoist them up later. Even Mom was known to thwart Dad’s rule during the day. After shopping, she’d plop down toilet paper rolls, boxes of Kotex, Prell shampoo, and Ajax cleanser within the trip zone. Promptly at five o’clock, since Dad was more punctual than the city bus system and would dependably be home by five thirty, she’d holler, “Clear the stairs! Your dad’s on his way home!”

Most artistic endeavors were accidents waiting to happen. Play-Doh could be eaten, leading to an upset tummy. Finger paints could spread beyond the edges of the paper and need mopping up. Crayons were really hazardous when left too long in a sunny window. A melting crayon stained wood, tablecloth, and carpet…glitter was definitely an accident waiting to happen. According to Dad, glitter sprinkled accidently onto Anso Nylon carpet shot straight down toward the floor and cut the fine silky threads of the pile, leaving damage visible to the naked eye only years down the road, but it nevertheless assaulted the carpet’s integrity.

Roughhousing—now there’s an accident waiting to happen, especially if your father collects fine art glass. Dad was extremely proud of his small collection of sculptures from the Blenko Glass Company. Near plentiful natural gas in the little town of Milton, West Virginia, the shop was only a stone’s throw away from the town of Ironton, Ohio, where Mother spent her childhood. On trips to visit some remaining relatives, they stopped by the factory and watched as molten forms emerged from brick furnaces to be shaped into fine vases.

Dad liked large pieces in mostly oranges and greens that served no purpose other than to look beautiful. During the home makeover, he painted the back wall of a white bookcase olive green as a display backdrop for some of the glass. The taller pieces sat on the mantel above the fireplace. He often paused as he walked by and rearranged them ever so slightly. “There, there,” he told a tall orange glass sculpture as it reached toward the ceiling, “you look marvelous.” Everyone in the family was strictly forbidden to touch the Blenko; the once-a-month maid was instructed never to dust them.

Decorative pillows in flight? Definitely an accident waiting to happen, and eventually one did. Mom and Dad were out to dance club one summer night when my best neighborhood friend, Denise, came over. The Wightman twins, Pat and Mike, were out prowling around the neighborhood, and they decided to drop by. I was not supposed to have any unauthorized guests in the house—especially boys. But they were good Catholic boys, and we were fifteen year-olds just flirting and laughing, and not even raiding the liquor cabinet.

“Let’s have a pillow fight,” someone yelled, and before I knew it, the flinging had begun in earnest.

“Hey, everyone, no roughhousing,” I yelled in my father’s voice.

“Aw, come on, don’t be a party pooper,” they retorted. I stationed myself at the hearth like a soccer goalie in hopes of protecting the Blenko, which of course drew attention to my position. Mike took aim and heaved a pillow over my head, too high to reach, but placed just right to bounce off the wall and clip the top fluted edge of the orange, swan-like vessel. My world came crashing down as I watched the tallest and most beloved glass sculpture somersaulting in slow motion just beyond my reach toward the new beige carpet. With barely a bounce, the top fourth of the piece snapped off, leaving shards in the carpet and too many pieces to glue back together. The waiting was over. The boys had no idea about the magnitude of this accident, but they knew the party was over, so they took off for home. I walked Denise to the backyard fence, and she patted my arm in sympathy as she said goodbye.

Waiting up for Mom and Dad to return, I admitted to myself that Dad had been right about horseplay and boys.

It was just one summertime lesson.  I didn’t get in very much trouble in the end.  As sad as dad felt seeing his expensive glass in shards, he forgave me and that was an even larger lesson in grace. I wish parents and teens a summer of learning and love, where accidents that happen are minimal and all can be easily forgiven. 

P.S Please remember that this excerpt is copy write material by Ohio State University Press and by the author.  To purchase the book, click here.


1 Comment

  1. Darrelle Cavan

    This excerpt had me smiling in remembrance of those dire parental warnings we endured. McClintock’s spot on wit sharpens this portrait of her father–uncomfortable in his skin and loving his family no matter.

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