When we were kids, my sister and I always got in trouble on Father’s Day.
The problem wasn’t our gift (which was always the same: White Owl cigars), but rather, no matter what cards we bought, they were wrong. Either they didn’t cost enough and so showed that we didn’t really appreciate my father, or they cost too much and proved we were wasteful and didn’t care about his and my mother’s hard work. After all, they earned the allowance money that we used to buy the cards.
He never said anything to us, but then again he never talked about his feelings, he wasn’t raised to. He grew up the ninth of 10 children; his mother was exhausted and his father wasn’t around much.
He did not come from a generation when people aired their feelings. And even if he had been born later, I bet he wasn’t the kind of man who would have expressed them anyway. I wouldn’t call him the strong silent type because he had very loud rages. But he also was not a man who would have thought it important to articulate his needs — only his frustrations and his disappointments.
When I was older and no longer lived with him, if I called him on Father’s Day, he asked why I hadn’t sent a card (even if I had sent it and he hadn’t gotten it yet). If I sent a card, he accused me of not wanting to talk to him.
There was no way of winning. My father, a WW II veteran, once said that when he was a young soldier, friends were killed as soon as he felt close to them so he stopped making friends. I suspect, though, that his rages predated the war.
He screamed. He broke things. And his reputation as a bad parent was highlighted by my mother’s saintliness. Everyone — neighbors, friends, relatives, teachers, people who worked with her, my sister and I — always said how wonderful my mother was.
On the other hand, people didn’t say much about my father, even though he was good looking enough to attract plenty of attention. He had black curly hair and green eyes, and when he was out cutting the grass, neighborhood women always stopped to talk to him.
He was a wonderful handyman and could fix anything. He trained himself to be a woodworker, a plumber, an electrician and a gardener. But he was mainly known for his temper and the inequality between him and my mother. She attended college and was a professional success at a time when most women didn’t work outside the home. He never got to high school, and was always quitting jobs because he didn’t feel appreciated enough.
A marriage between a saint and a sinner isn’t uncommon. But my father wasn’t really a sinner. He just couldn’t live up to my mother, although he adored her.
“You think I don’t know I married above myself?” he asked us all the time, as though anyone was going to argue that with him. “Your mother doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.” For a while as a kid, I thought that bones carried emotions. His bones were pretty angry.
For a year or so, he was a truck driver and he would send postcards to my mother everyday. The cards always had beautiful pictures. Even as a child, I felt that the cards showed him to be filled with a kind of longing and love that he could never express. I remember feeling badly about that and it created a kind of longing in me. I wanted my mother to know what he was trying to say. My wonderful, brilliant mother didn’t get my father in some basic way. Although she was nice to everyone, she didn’t understand feelings.
The trouble with the cards, from my mother’s point of view, was that all they ever said was: “To Mary, with love.” She would toss them away, impatient that he “had nothing to say.” Nightly I would sneak into the kitchen and pick his cards out of the garbage. Many of them were black and white and were of the towns he was passing through. Always, they showed some beauty, some indefinable quality.
It is difficult as a child to go against what you are taught, and I was taught that in the world my mother’s qualities were valued and my father’s were not (except by flirting women).
Though he acted gruff, he had a rare appreciation for the power and beauty of nature. At the beach, he would run into the ocean and swim beyond the waves as though he was made for the powerful currents. On a road trip in the country, he would often pull the car over and say he just wanted to get out a moment.
“Girls do you want to come see?”
“See what?” my mother would ask. He had no answer but I always got out with him. He had always stopped in a beautiful place and that was what there was to see.
He would get back into the car and say something that to my mother probably confirmed his stupidity like, “all cities are alike but when you come out to the country there is something to see.”
“How can you say that when cities are teeming with culture?” my mother would respond.
It was my father who planted flowers, his large back bent over, his face tender when he didn’t know anyone was watching him. And I didn’t know what I was picking up as a child when I watched him. I would sit on the stoop and try to be invisible. I would see the raw life in him, the tenderness, and even during his rages, puzzled as I was, I think I was aware that people often carry more inside than they know what to do with. I could never get close to him, but I was deeply moved by him.
If he were alive this Father’s Day, I would send a card and I would call. Maybe I would even pay him a face-to-face visit. I would thank him. I would be filled with feeling, though I would also feel as inarticulate as he apparently did when he sent those postcards.
But I would try to tell him what he meant to me. And maybe, just maybe, he would actually listen.
It is sometimes hard to know what someone has given us until many years later.
Thank you for your vitality. Thank you for your love of nature. Thank you for your big feelings. For your sake and ours, I wish you had known better how to express them but still you contained a strong life force and that taught me something basic about people.
Difficult as it is to express to you exactly what you have given, I am grateful and I send love.