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My Father's Rule

When my son landed in jail—and in danger—I got a surprising new look at the difficult parent I thought I knew.

My Father's Rules

— Courtesy of Ann Bauer

My father arrives before seven to knock on my front door. The sun is weak and I'm half naked, still stumbling around trying to get dressed without waking my husband.

"C'mon," my father barks, as he has my whole life. "Traffic is going to be murder. You'd better hurry or we'll be late."

I pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, stuff a sweater into my bag, and slip into the closest pair of shoes. Stopping in the bathroom to brush my hair, I glimpse a pale, middle-aged woman with bloodshot eyes and a storky neck.

My husband, John, shuffles out of the bedroom in his bathrobe, a pillow crease running down one cheek. "Hey, baby, you sure you don't want me to go with you?" He checks his watch. "Wait a minute. You aren't leaving now, are you? The hearing isn't till ten. You don't need to go for another hour."

I kiss him and whisper that he should be quiet. My father is jangling his keys. If I don't get out the door quickly, there could be trouble. John doesn't understand—we haven't been married that long—and I don't have time to explain.

Instead I follow my father out of the house and climb into his car, as I have thousands of times before. He turns the key, checks his rearview mirror, and lurches out into the street.

"I brought cash," he says after a few blocks. "In case we need it."

"Thank you." I imagine the cells inside my body, each with tiny folded hands, pleading for coffee. But I know that to stop now would make him too nervous. Besides, he hates Starbucks—says it's a rip-off. So I watch the signs, hunker down in my seat, and breathe.

Together we drive west, toward my son.

I grew up in an atmosphere of rules and order. We arrived places early and left if other people were late. My mother cleaned and volunteered while my father went to work; she served dinner every night at six. I was 14 before I got even a whiff of Pink Floyd or The Who (like an archaeologist, I thought I'd discovered a brand-new culture), because my parents didn't allow rock music in the house.

To say that I was the black sheep doesn't do our situation justice. I was like an armadillo born into a family of pedigreed Labradors. My sister—a buoyant teenager who staged sleepovers where girls fixed one another's hair and watched Ice Castles—thrived in our suburban Minnesota fortress. Meanwhile, I grew moody and depressed. I starved myself, dated older men, hitched rides into the city with strangers.

It's an old story. But I didn't know that back then.

At 15 I left home and took a job as a waitress in a freeway-exit hotel. Over three years I rolled from one squalid little apartment to another, keeping my mother awake to pray for my safety countless nights. When I told my father I wanted to study literature and become a writer, you might have thought he heard pole dancer. He told me my plan was crazy—I'd only wind up poor and disappointed—then enrolled me in an accounting program instead. I lasted one semester before dropping out.

I constantly befriended people my parents disapproved of. Potheads, bikers, Democrats. One Thanksgiving came completely undone when, over a beautifully roasted turkey, the topic of gays in the military came up. I called my father's position (against) pure bigotry and was banished for several hours, then invited back on the condition that I keep my fanatical left-wing views to myself.

Does it come as a surprise that I went out and found a liberal anarchist to marry? Probably not.

Nor that I became pregnant at 21—a few months after completing the liberal arts degree my father and I eventually agreed upon—and developed a style of parenting utterly unlike the one I'd grown up with. Mine was a laissez-faire approach. Meals happened when people got hungry. Our household ran virtually without schedules. No topic was off-limits. If someone was listening to music so loud the neighbors complained, it was likely to be me.

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