The Father DancePosted: June 27, 2015
Last week was the anniversary of my father’s death 15 years ago. Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and the week before that my friend Gilda and I did a reading in honor of fathers from our memoirs. I read a story about dancing with my father. This morning, after seeing a Facebook message and a friend’s blog about difficult father experiences, I thought again about the incredible impact these men – whether absent or present, broken or worse — have on our lives. Compared to both of my friends, it would appear that I’ve had it good… a Daddy who loved me. But the truth is always so much more complex.
My father was broken in many ways – distant emotionally and easily angered, a man who I now realize suffered from PTSD. Even though I was “the apple of my father’s eye,” according to my mother, and I knew he adored me, a part of me also feared him. He was a big man who made the house shake when he walked, and I was the youngest and smallest in our family of six. I watched his anger flare at times, saw him use the yardstick on my siblings.
Born in 1920, Daddy had fought in World War II and Korea, lived through the Depression and perhaps hardest of all, lived with own father’s drinking and occasional volatile behavior. He never did say much about these tough times, but instead repeated the lighter, positive stories: “Every week, Dad walked to the Bay to Bay and bought me ice cream on a stick,” “He took us kids to the big department toy store and we all got to pick out something.” It was as if my father didn’t want to tarnish the family name with negative stories about his own father… and I feel the squirminess of guilt as I dare to touch upon this now, as if I’m opening up a Pandora’s box that I learned by his example should stay locked.
But I remember my mother’s hushed voice sharing snippets from her early visits with her new in-laws. My father’s father, who I never knew, had a short fuse. As an animal lover, Mom was abhorred that he kicked the dog under the table while they were eating, that he could speak harshly. There was also my father’s matter-of-fact report that “Dad had a nip every night.” And there were rustlings that my grandfather and maybe his father used to slap his wife.
My father’s family was affluent when Daddy was a boy. They lived in Canada during the summer months and Florida during the winter. They owned two Bentleys and drove them up and down the East Coast. My grandfather had a chauffeur named Jarvis. But all this ended one day, during the Depression. My father, walking home from middle school, lifted his head to discover his home had turned into a square of charred earth. The story goes that all the money had been stored in their mattresses and it had burned up with the house. My father saw his mother on her knees, the tracks of tears on her face as she sifted through ashes searching for her diamonds.
From that day on, life changed for my father. He took on three paper routes to help support the family. They ate “mush” for meals, twice a day – or three times, if they were lucky. My father and his family had been unceremoniously dumped from the lap of luxury. I can’t even imagine the shock the whole family must have experienced.
When I look back at these beginnings, I can only be grateful that my father – the next-to-youngest of nine children – grew up as responsible as he did. My father didn’t drink, except for an occasional glass of sherry or an Old Fashioned to celebrate a Christmas or a special holiday. I never saw him drunk. My father worked hard. He became a colonel in the Army, worked as a civil engineer leaving the house by 7 or 8 a.m. and returning after 5. He saved his money conscientiously, perhaps obsessively.
He loved the water and spent holidays packing up the family and taking us out on the boat. I’d grip the hot plastic seat cover as we rode waves, watching my father sit or stand at the wheel, his hair blowing back from his red forehead. My father was present physically. He loved his family.
But despite all of this, at times I had the sense that something was missing. I wished that my father would talk to me about more than money and sports. I wondered if he felt things, if he knew that I had a world of feelings inside me. I yearned to understand his heart, for him to understand mine.
To survive in my family, I learned to be like him. Someone who was responsible, good with money, someone who could be counted on. Whether he wanted this or not, I also learned to be someone who hid her feelings.
While I carry an ache inside me for what we didn’t share, I don’t blame my father. I couldn’t possibly. It’s easy to see that his own history was challenging and painful, that he had no role models (nor perhaps the capacity) for the kind of heart-felt communication I desired, that he rose above extremely difficult circumstances and grew into a man of courage, a man of dedication, a man of integrity and strength. I am so very grateful for all that he was and all that he gave me…and he was more than generous. Perhaps as I’ve become a parent myself, I’m learning just how impossible it is to serve all the needs that our children have.
I’m also learning what a mixed bag each of us is…a bundle of contradictions. So much to love, so much to loathe. My own standards are incredibly high. I’m an idealist that at times can morph into a perfectionist. Who could ever live up to that? And would I want my loved ones to judge me by my own incredibly taut standards?
So there are lessons for me here…. Lessons of appreciation and gratitude for what was, lessons of letting go and giving grace for what will never be. My father was a good man, and I was blessed to have his strength and his love in my life. It was foundational and a tremendous gift.
But I don’t believe I was wrong to yearn for the sacred intimacy that can exist between a Father and a daughter. Perhaps within each of us, deep down, no matter what our experiences, there is a similar tender yearning. It has taken me years to realize that this intimacy has been available all along, I just needed to lift my eyes.