It was dominated by my late father, the high school football coach and perhaps the most authoritarian figure in my rural hometown deep in Virginia’s mountains.
The other kids called him “Bear,” because of his body hair and gruff demeanor. But never to his face. You could joke with the man but only on his terms. You had to be the meek underling and he was the all-powerful grid mentor. Dad’s teams won the overwhelming majority of his games. While he was an expert strategist — constantly doodling plays and offensive formations on napkins — his players were afraid to fail because they didn’t want to face him in the losing locker room.
As a parent, he whipped with a belt and the blows left bruises. I was meek and mild and never came close to getting a paddling in school. I never understood why I needed to get whacked at home.
Dad and Mom had separate bedrooms. I never saw them kiss or show affection. The only time he held her hand was for a few minutes at her father’s funeral.
They argued frequently. Dad, a rock-ribbed conservative, insisted that his well-thought-out, much-studied vote was negated by Mom’s flippant decision to vote the Democratic ticket. Her compassion for the poor and persons of color flew in the face of his belief that only the strong survive, and it wasn’t the government’s job to offer a soft shoulder to lean on. Neither did she share his view that the Commies were going to take over Main Street unless we increased our vigilance.
Mom (who died in 2014, two years before Dad passed) took care of all household chores to include repairs. I don’t remember my father ever holding a mop or a broom or a pair of pliers. He was very selfish in that regard, never doing anything he didn’t want to do. In time, she learned not to ask for help.
Some of their worst clashes came in the morning when he was leaving for school when she found fault with the way he was dressed. He angrily replied that he looked fine and, even if he didn’t match, why should she care? I didn’t understand the loud torrent of words until years later when Mom explained that he was in the public eye all day and she wasn’t, and the way he looked reflected on her.
Mother was an accomplished pianist and taught lessons to children after school. Dad had little use for music. Indeed, if one of his football players didn’t display the necessary toughness, Dad said he “could quit the team and join the sissies in the band.”
Self-esteem in my household was almost wholly linked to athletic success. Never mind that I was really smart in Civil War history. I wasn’t much of a ballplayer and that’s what was important.
Shy little me probably wouldn’t have socialized much even if Dad hadn’t been the coach. But the fact that he wore the whistle made me a total homebody. I was convinced that if I went to the hamburger joint after dark, the other kids would think I was doing secret spy duty for my father and walk away.
I bottled my emotions, afraid of how he might react. Even after high school, I always wanted to please him, not wanting to set off that temper.
Dad provided for me and protected me. I could count on him being there at the beginning of the day and at its end. That’s not an insignificant achievement and I’m appreciative. And I believe he loved me, although I made the job harder by adopting Mom’s compassionate side.
After learning about my Asperger’s and having some counseling with MaryAnne, I realized a fundamental flaw in my upbringing. My experience was that a married couple was born to bicker and be suspicious of their partner. They weren’t supposed to cuddle and melt into each other’s arms. It was the father’s prerogative to be self-absorbed and any nurturing came on the mother’s watch.
I learned a lot from my father. Maybe not how to be, but how not to be. That’s not insignificant.
Originally published on Medium.
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