Beltane Sumi-e Moon
Father’s day is coming. It’s a weak second to the emotional powerhouse of Mother’s day, but for symmetry reasons, I suppose, it exists. My father didn’t know best. He wasn’t the wise, supportive counsel that a struggling, grief stricken teenager needed. Fatherhood as a single father after my mother’s death was a bridge too far for this closed off man, stuck in his tidy traditional understandings.
It was a tough moment for him. When she died, I was 17, my sister 12, and my brother 5. He tried. He had no choice. The house was still there. We were still there, us three kids. We had growing up to do. And now he was in charge of it all. Food, school, counsel, love.
Looking back through the long telescope of advancing age, my own, I can understand that it would have taken a much different man than my father ever was to embrace the difficulties and make a new reality for all of us. This is not a criticism of him, just a statement of fact. Emotional skills needed to handle a grieving family? Nope. Grasp of children’s ordinary struggles? Nope. Awareness of his own pain and an ability to find help with it? Nope. Daily work, cash for the family, that sort of steadiness? Yes. Bless him for that. Without it our little family would have foundered completely.
Not all who are called respond to a challenge well. I’m sure he wanted to, sure he tried. Perhaps in a sense this revisits the question yesterday about the universe having our back. My own father didn’t have my back, so it’s tough to see the universe doing better. Like the universe I believe my father offered what he could, as well as he could. It didn’t measure up. From this distance I’m sure there’s no reason to doubt his good intentions. His intentions were restricted by a fatherless upbringing, by a sturdy German understanding of family and authority, by a belief in his primacy as father in a 1950’s post-WWII household. We needed flexibility, outright love, much patience. As did he.
We all failed. I wish I could write this into a stirring testimony of his secret strengths, the things unknown even to himself that made things ok, but I can’t. It was a tragedy, a long, rolling tragedy, that continues to claim its own pain.
Perhaps one incident can stand in for all those years. In 1991 or 1992 my new wife, Kate Olson, Joseph and I rented an RV and took a trip that included a visit to Alexandria, my hometown. By this time, almost thirty years after my mother’s death in 1964, Dad had remarried. When Raeone and I adopted Joseph, I made a concerted effort to reconnect with Dad, believing that Joseph needed to know his grandpa. It was rocky from the beginning, but both of us, Dad and me, tried.
We had a new schism during my divorce from Raeone, harsh words were exchanged and I wrote him a letter pulling back. With Kate in my life I wanted her to meet him, to have another shot at Joe and him developing a relationship, hence the trip. When we got to Alexandria, Dad told us we’d need to meet him downtown. Rosemary wouldn’t let me in the house. I suppose she was taking Dad’s side, trying to be supportive, protective.
But he didn’t challenge her. Didn’t fight to be back in our lives. We took a walk around downtown, he put his arm over my shoulder, clearly wanting to be closer, but unwilling, as he had been most of the time since mom’s death, to reach for the courage to make it happen. He wouldn’t confront Rosemary, make her allow us into the house in which I was raised.
Turkey Run hiking trail
When we left Alexandria that afternoon, I knew our father and son relationship, as a living thing, was over. We went to Turkey Run State Park, a couple of hours or so from Alexandria, found a spot for the RV and parked for the night. After we’d parked, I put on my running clothes, shut the flimsy aluminum door and took off running the trails in the rain. I cried, I shouted, I protested, I ran and ran and ran until I was exhausted. It was the next to last time I saw Dad before his funeral some 15 years later.
Over the last 8 weeks in the qabbalah class on time we discussed how to rewrite these kind of narratives of our past so they lose their power to harm us. I believe with Dad I did this long ago by abandoning my notion of him as a superhuman who should (note: should) have been able to heal all our wounds and nurture us into our best selves. I also abandoned my false hero notion of myself or either of my siblings needing to take on that role, covering for his inability. We were all fallible, all wounded by mom’s death and trapped by the stories of our time. We did the best we could, all of us, even Dad. It was not adequate, but that’s the way life turns out sometimes.
I chose to do what I could to see that my sons had an available father, one who showed them love, even in the hard times. It’s not been easy, though it’s been nowhere the emotional drama of my nuclear family. I hope neither Jon nor Joe have a reason at any point to run the labyrinth of their own lives trying to leave me behind. Blessed be.