When riding the train, I speculate wildly upon strangers’ situations. I write stories in my head about individuals, especially those who are interacting. One day I was sitting behind an older man and a boy I presumed to be his grandson. As we entered the city, the man excitedly pointed out sites to the boy, “I went to high school over there, Sullivan … I worked on that building when I was a bricklayer … I used to run to that store for eggs all the time, the exact change counted out by mother.” The boy said almost nothing but it was clear to me that he was completely under the man’s spell.
After some silence, the man asked how the boy was doing in school. “Mostly C’s,” the boy somewhat hesitantly answered. The older man lowered his voice and nearly whispered, “C’s are okay, they’re fine … any lower though …” And here he lowered and gently shook his head. There was a brief pause after this heartfelt admonition, and they prepared to exit at State and Randolph, the man checking to make sure they were leaving nothing behind, the boy following him onto the platform.
I imagined the story of how this man continued to mentor this boy and to positively impact the path the boy chose. For all I knew, the boy dropped out of school and robbed 7-Elevens. But more than this, the incident took me back to my childhood and my relationship with my father.
He made sure his children learned and followed Catholic doctrine and practices to the letter, obeyed his commands, and were quiet until given a signal that they could speak. He had fought in World War II and was decorated for his bravery in the Battle of the Bulge. There was more than a hint of the military in the way the household was run. A lengthy list of chores was posted every week for all of us. There was no question that they would be done and on the required days. One chore he continually gave me was sweeping the basement on Saturdays when he was usually around. It was a place I always descended to with some trepidation, and I now wonder if he entrusted the chore to me for this reason. The basement, not a finished space, had a concrete floor.
Like the military, my work needed to pass inspection. He would come down the stairs primed to scold me for not doing a good job. He always found spots that possibly could have been swept more thoroughly; I watched as hints of dust arose from his sweep of the broom on an area, in effect, validating my ineffectiveness. On certain days I had to resweep and resweep. He would often repeat his main mantra, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.”
He needed order and control. Even our play was moderated for noise and chaos level. Even too much laughing annoyed the hell out of him. He often said, “Cut out that goddamn silliness.” In short, we couldn’t have much fun when he was around if we had to stay indoors. We were also formal at the dinner table where we mostly listened to him speak to my mother, who more often than not, responded in monosyllables like a trained parrot. There were never any food options like the liberal parents of today provide. I couldn’t stand many vegetables and literally could not swallow cooked carrots of any kind. My “option” was to sit after everyone went their way and try to choke down the vegetables I hadn’t eaten.
When I first started teaching kids in middle school I realized that not all adults yelled orders, that they were polite and respectful with children, let them speak and even, on occasion, negotiated with them or gave them options. My one mode for a while as a teacher was shouting, ordering students around and discouraging questions. Another option was my curt, authoritative tone which of course put them off. An adversarial relationship existed between us. This made me realize that the only relationship I had had with my dad was doing what I was told, not “asked.” Like in battle, there were no negotiations.
However, there were two occasions when my father had conversations with me about something significant in my life. One occurred when I was in seventh grade and tried out for a community basketball team. Although I had played sports in the neighborhood, it was not competitive like this. I was not athletic but I wanted to belong. In my enthusiasm, I looked forward to being tired and sore after practices and feeling like I belonged to a team.
One day after practice my dad picked me up. He asked if I liked the practices, to which I replied affirmatively. This seemed to stymie him and there was quiet. He finally said that he didn’t think the family had the time for me to do this right now, going to games, etc. I was really puzzled but was used to not arguing with my father. I honestly don’t know when I realized what really went on; I think I was an adult looking back. Obviously, one of the coaches had taken my dad aside and said I couldn’t cut it. My father couldn’t put it to me in that way which said something good about him.
The second time my father and I conversed was when I was planning to transfer to a different college and would be living away from home for the first time. The strangest thing happened. My father came to my room and asked if we could talk. As with all such conversations, what is left unsaid is more telling than what is said. But he told me an army story (unusual enough) about going off base a few times with a buddy that other soldiers talked badly about. This was left vague. But then my father told me this other guy had rubbed my father’s thigh through his uniform. My father was calm and surprisingly non-judgmental. He presented a moral to his tale, and that was to be careful whom you associate with because you could get the same bad rep as that person. I was so taken aback that I just repeated, “It’s not like it used to be” a couple of times.
My father, in his own way, feared for my first homosexual encounter which I felt that he felt was inevitable. And it was. I still wonder if my parents talked about my sexuality; as hung up as they both were, they barely acknowledged to themselves that young people have sexual feelings. He could never accept me as gay, I knew, if he hadn’t gone to my sister’s wedding because she had married a divorced man, but in my hope for acceptance it seemed like concern of some kind.
The current poetry editor of “The Good Men Project” has taken some of my work. Though it could be more gay-friendly I suppose, it does provide an umbrella for “good men” issues. It makes me wonder where besides my father I could have looked for positive male role models. My father, through little fault of his own, was one-dimensional. My flights of fancy and complexity were anathema to him. Growing up I idolized my brother who was several years older than me. I tagged along with him to the point of his annoyance. He was a real guys’ guy. He was good at sports, finances, dating, drinking, and serving in a war he vehemently opposed. I also looked up to, and had crushes on, many of my counselors at boy scout camp and male religious leaders in general. I didn’t know at the time I was having feelings for males that were “not natural” to some. But I could be light and easy with these men, roughhouse and laugh and do all the things my reined-in self could not do at home. They did not order me around, and like the boy on the train, I hung on their every word.
My father, of course, was himself limited by what had come before. I remember one time looking at the board he had spanked me with in the basement and seeing nails pounded back on it. There was, I now realize, a rage within him being taken out on me. I am too old for rage. There is no negotiating with memory. It may present more vividly in certain cases, be fuzzy in others. But there it is.
There was one action in my life that I can’t forgive myself for and it involves my father. One year when I was dealing with anger and resentment issues in therapy, I cut off all contact with my parents. I didn’t care how much this hurt them; I wanted them to hurt. Even my older sister’s pleas to get in touch with them fell on deaf ears.
At this time I was teaching at a school on the North Shore of Chicago and living in Evanston. It was pretty much me and my cat Malone against the world. I lived in part of an old house that had been broken up into apartments. One afternoon there was a knock on my door. I had an eerie feeling. I opened the door and there stood my dad with his dog a few steps behind him. I didn’t want to let him in. I told him I had nothing to say to him and that he should leave. He pleaded with me like I had never seen him plead with anyone in my life. I let him come in but I told him I had nothing to say. He said he was sorry for everything, that he should have tried harder, that he just wanted to talk, that this was killing my mother.
I told him I wanted him to leave. At some point he got teary eyed and I was not moved. He was a frail old man with heart trouble who should not have driven into the Chicago area alone. I don’t know if my mother ever knew he came in to see me. I had the power now. The enemy was beaten and weak. He left with his dog in tow telling me that he loved me. I shut the door without speaking. Forgiveness was still far from me.
Now I am so thankful that I was able to come to love my father and tell him so. He was frequently hospitalized for heart-related complications and I had ample opportunities to sit by his side, to comb his hair, to bring him small gifts. And he apologized more than once, perhaps out of a guilty conscience, though I like to think they were heartfelt. When he passed, we had made peace with one another. But I live with the images related to the day when that trembling old man visited and was swiftly dispatched.
I still envy the boy on the train though, and in the story in my head, his love for his grandfather is real because he knew that he could talk to him—and he knew that he would listen.
Previously published on Gravel