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From Issue #50 August 28, 2014

Unicorn Chaser

Her father was a maker before that name existed, but he couldn’t fix himself.

By Christa Mrgan Twitter icon

I wanted to buy the unicorn kite I saw in the grocery store to fly it on my school’s Kite Day. I was in third grade, and unicorns were the epitome of awesome. My dad dismissed it as “plastic garbage” and took me to the library to get a book on kite-making instead. We built a classic diamond-shaped kite out of strips of balsa wood and newspaper I painted with watercolors. (My contribution amounted mostly to painting the newspaper.) I can’t tell you how good it felt to see our kite sailing above most of the others, including two identical plastic unicorn kites.

When Kite Day rolled around again in fourth grade, Dad insisted that our kite had to be even better. We hit the library, then the craft store, and finally a convenience store on the way home. I got a banana-flavored Moon Pie — if you’ve never had one, you definitely should — and Dad got a six-pack.

His custom was to shotgun two bottles outside the store and open a third for the road. Using recently acquired knowledge from a D.A.R.E. volunteer at our school, I helpfully pointed out that it was illegal to have an open beer in a vehicle. “It’s only illegal if you get caught,” he said, taking a swig. We drove home and built a beautiful box kite, this time using different colors of tissue paper instead of newspaper. No other kite at school even came close; it was magnificent.

Parents teach their children all kinds of things, intentionally or not. Part of becoming an adult is figuring out which lessons need unlearning. I jettisoned the one about the allure of reckless endangerment. I kept the one about continually improving upon previous work, taking a new approach, and rebuilding when necessary.


Years before Maker Faire, long before DIY circuitry blogs, my dad built things. Or fixed things. Or broke them and reconfigured them into better things. That’s what he did — what he does. He should have been an architect or an engineer.

As a hobby and for extra money, he designed, remodeled, and built about a dozen homes for family and friends. The house I spent my first 20 years in was probably his best. It took him, along with my uncles and a few of their friends, two years to get it livable — though it was never technically “finished,” even when my mom sold it three years after the divorce was finalized. He used books from the library to teach himself how to wire a house and run pipes. To this day, I still find myself reaching for hot water on the right side of the sink instead of the left.

If I tell you about the great house he built, the experimental two-person airplane he created from a kit, or his brief foray into the business of crabbing (using a self-made barge that mostly sat in our driveway), you might say, “He sounds amazing! I’d love to meet him!”

And you probably would. He’s a great guy to meet. Unfortunately for his family, he’s also a difficult person to love. Dad could build and rebuild anything, except himself. Except relationships.


I grew up in Florida, but don’t blame my parents: they were young and that’s where their van broke down. They met in college, where Mom earned her two-year degree in nursing and Dad got his in drafting. Dad won a scholarship for two more years of education at the University of Oregon, but after a month and a half of gray winter rain, far from home, he and Mom decided to return to upstate New York. A detour around the country was in order first.

When their van failed to get them farther than Dunedin, Florida, Dad took a job as a firefighter and Mom signed a one-year nursing contract with a hospital down the road, fingers crossed behind her back. All of this was supposed to be temporary, until they could get on the road again, but life was easy and the winter was warm. So they stayed.

Dad worked hard and liked to relax at the end of a 24-hour shift, so it was no big deal to get lit at 7 in the morning, he’d say — that’s when his work day ended and happy hour began. Dad’s drinking and pot-smoking habits were pretty on par with everyone else’s at the time, according to my mom: it was the 1970s and they were college kids. He was never a mean drunk and never violent. Just absent a lot of the time.

My older brother and I came along in 1977 and 1980, and my first 10 years were pretty OK. He and my mom worked opposite shifts by design, so there’d always be someone home with the kids. But on plenty of nights, he’d pass out on the sofa around 7 p.m.; on others, he’d disappear on trips “to the store” for hours while my brother and I stayed home alone, doing things that would’ve horrified our mother had she known about them. (I once dressed a second-degree burn on my brother’s leg with toilet paper, because letting his eight-year-old sister play medic seemed like a better idea than admitting to Mom that he’d been riding his dirt bike unsupervised.)

Dad would turn up with a gallon of milk or some ice cream or sometimes nothing at all. But it didn’t matter. He was a hero to me — the man who built a scale model of our house for my dolls. He was the man who had an answer for every question (“Hey, Dad, why don’t birds get electrocuted when they land on power lines?”), though there were some questions he wouldn’t answer (“Hey, Dad, why do you make your own cigarettes instead of just buying them at the store?”).

Dismantling, rebuilding

Dad’s assorted addictions slowly became clear over several years as I compared his behavior to that of other adults I knew, but I found out about the cheating all at once. Mom told me one morning when I was 14 and eating a bowl of Cracklin’ Oat Bran at the kitchen table.

I was already angry about his choice to stay drunk and high over staying with our family, one he made following one of Mom’s many “final-final-I-mean-it-this-time” ultimatums. Dad had been out and not returning my calls for months at the point I learned he had cheated on her repeatedly over the course of their marriage, and that even she hadn’t known the extent of it until recently.

She also revealed that he was living with his latest mistress, and that I’d have to go there if I wanted to see him. By the time I did, he’d built her a really cool gray-water system that fed a water garden and koi pond with used sink and shower water. I couldn’t be angry at her, of course. (I eventually came to admire her when, two years later, she found half a dozen numbers in his cellphone and invited all of the women to whom they belonged over to the house one day to surprise him; now that is how you break up with someone.)

But my anger for him was a ball of acid in my stomach that I nursed into an ulcer. When I was in twelfth grade, he hit a little girl on her bike while driving drunk — by that point, he was drunk anytime he was awake, so all of his driving was drunk driving. She was OK, but you’d think that would be enough to get anyone to an A.A. meeting. In my dad’s case, you’d be mistaken.

It was around age 20 that I stopped speaking to him and found that I did well enough without him. It took becoming a parent to begin to slowly melt the ice wall I’d imposed. Rocking my infant daughter, I thought about what my parents must have felt and thought when I was born, so far away from their own parents. Despite the slew of crappy things he’d done, my dad remained my dad. So I sent him a photo of his granddaughter.

This isn’t a story with a happy ending. My attempts to de-estrange our relationship haven’t magically cured his addictions or repaired years of his self-destruction. He’s still drunk and stoned (almost certainly while you read this), and will continue to be until the physical and social side effects incarcerate or kill him. It’s hard to tell where his disease ends and he begins, but he’s still human, and so, worthwhile. I try to focus on what he’s created over what he’s destroyed.

I called him not long ago. He’s still working on his hovercraft; he’s been stuck on getting its air cushion to fully inflate. He’ll keep at it, I know. And we’ll keep at this, because we both know that the things that we build need tweaking; sometimes they need to be dismantled and rebuilt. Hopefully, they’ll keep getting better.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Christa designs quality audio software for Rogue Amoeba, where she also occasionally blogs. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, daughter, son, and cat, and is pretty smug about it. Her interests include eating kale chips and playing the banjo non-ironically.

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