This Father’s Day, Colin Berry suggests, maybe it’s time to give Dad more than just another tie or gift card.
Let me start by saying this: My dad wasn’t a bad dad. He held down regular work, didn’t beat anybody, and drank only moderately. He picked me up from band practice, grilled steak on the weekends, shoveled the snow in winter. Now and then, I think, he even told my brother and sisters and me that he loved us.
To folks who met him, Dad was a gentle, decent guy. Growing up as I did in Colorado during the Nixon era, I learned certain things from him: how to tinker with the lawn mower to keep it running; how to drive a Chevelle with a clutch; how to tie a four-in-hand with one of his wide polyester ties.
Indirectly, Dad taught me other things, too—things about being a man. How it was okay, at times, to disrespect women. How marriage wasn’t necessarily something to work at and definitely wasn’t based in love. How a job could be more important than a family. How the best way to deal with fear and sadness was by checking out. How aiming high—professionally, personally, physically, spiritually—wasn’t worth the risks.
He taught me these things unconsciously, of course. But now, decades later, I’m still trying to unlearn then.
When I first figured all this out, years ago, I got angry. I vilified Dad to my therapist, wrote him pissed-off letters, even cut off communication between us for a while. I “killed off” parts of him in my men’s group and judged myself harshly when I saw myself doing or saying things he did. I understood how, as a little boy, I’d been a sponge, soaking up the spoken and unspoken details of how to be a man and then recreating them in my own adult life. But I judged him for all the bad stuff. Yeah, he wasn’t terrible, I liked to say, but he wasn’t so great, either.
And I rebelled, moving thousands of miles away and waiting to get married until I found a woman I truly loved. I made sure to never let work interfere with my relationships. I chose my career, my community, my politics, my friends, even my shirts in part because they were not like his. Doing so made me feel powerful. And smug.
In men’s circles, hearing over and over again how common it was for fathers to visit their own wounds upon their sons and daughters, I made a decision: no children. For me, breaking the family line would protect me from protracting his failures and give me ammo for my own self-righteous anger. Yet now, years later, something is shifting.
To understand it, it might help to know my dad a little better. He grew up dirt poor during the Depression, in Colorado’s western slope, smack in the middle of a family of nine. His own dad was a coal miner in winter and a farmer in summer, raising just enough food to keep his family alive. I never knew my grandfather, but rumor had it he could be a real SOB.
After high school, Dad joined the Navy, flew planes, went to college, met Mom, and was married for 43 years. In that time, he worked as a geologist, riding the West’s energy boom in the early 70’s and the long tail of its decline. He consulted for a while, then retired. Got remarried. Lost his eldest son to suicide and nearly lost his eldest daughter to booze. Today, in decent health at 89, he’s outlived every one of his siblings.
None of those parts of Dad I don’t like—the part that treated my mom like shit; the part that cowered in shame and sadness around my brother’s death; the parts crippled by self-doubt and fear, which kept him from taking risks and seeking to achieve more than simply the safe middle of life—none of those are going to change.
Instead, what has to change is me.
To do this, to start with, let me tell another story. As a boy, Dad had a pet dog, a beloved mutt who lived with the family on the farm. One night, the dog broke into the chicken coop and killed some chickens. The next day, my grandfather offered to take my dad hunting, and brought the dog along. At some point, far from home, he handed his son the long hunting rifle, instructing him to “take care” of his beloved pet. A chicken-killing dog, Grandpa told him, had no place in a poor family’s farm.
I cannot imagine his long walk home that day.
Dad never talks about it, but he must have felt some of the same sharp judgments towards his own father that I feel about my own. And yet he made it out. He flew airplanes. He went to college and became a businessman. He bought his family a beautiful house in a respectable part of my hometown. Could he have been a better dad? Of course. Could he have modeled better ways of being a man? Hell, yes. Yet over the years, I’ve begun to understand how Dad, flawed as he was, probably did the best he could with what he had to work with.
I’ve spent more than half my life striving to define myself as not my father, and to some degree I’ve succeeded. My hunger for personal development, my conscious marriage, my career path, my often-failing quest to be the best at things I do—clearly these set the two of us apart.
But at our core, Dad and I have two things in common: A father we couldn’t quite connect with, and a powerful need to escape our roots. These things we share. And acknowledging that doesn’t change everything for me, but it’s enough to make me feel genuine sympathy for the guy, and love, and for the first time in my life, the first thin threads of compassion.
Photo: edenpictures flickr