My father died when I was sixteen. It was the summer between my first and second year of high school. That event was the fuse, detonating the explosive, that destroyed our family as we knew it. My mother, who had suffered from undiagnosed and undiscussed clinical depression for years, took to her bed. My older brother resorted to drugs and alcohol and was not long a resident of the home. I had two younger siblings, a ten year old brother and a six year old sister. I became the caretaker of all. Some have said I became the parent for the next two years. So it is very difficult to discern and define what I learned from my parents.
My father was a jolly round soul who worked very hard, loved life and loved me. He tried desperately to keep peace, harmony and happiness in the home. However, my mother believed the father to be the authority figure for a son. With that son, my mother shared an oil and water relationship. Dad was called upon to execute discipline Mom felt appropriate to whatever crime my older brother allegedly committed. So my jolly dad often arrived home from work, whistling and patting Mom on the behind, just to be sent to chambers to pass judgment on the already deemed guilty inmate. Bro reported these sessions were often merely conversations about the event, but it placated the matriarch.
Because my brother was so often on the wrong side of parental approval and acceptance, I plotted my course way inside the border of the path he walked. I was the perfect child. I only know this in hindsight because I was never told this or praised, stroked or rewarded for it. In fact, before my mother died, we a long heart to heart. I asked her about it. I asked why, since I earned all A’s, did multiple household chores regularly and well, cared for younger siblings, was honest and selfless to a fault, was I not praised? She said that she and my dad discussed it often. They discussed how they had a “good one” in me and that they’d better not tell me or I would get a “swelled head”.
In spite of some differences, I do believe they had a good marriage. Dad was an honest, fiercely loyal, devoted kind of guy. He was a devout Catholic and we were all raised in the Catholic Faith, at least until he died. A fond memory of mine is kneeling next to him in church trying so hard to match his strength, both spiritual and physical…. (hey, that kneeling thing was tough). During the week of my exams, he took me to early morning mass, “just to cover all the bases”. I quickly fell away from Catholicism after his death. I think it was a combination of the many nightly rosaries doing nothing to improve his terminal cancer and the time the priest staggered, late, onto to the altar wearing only part of his “vestments.” Someone retrieved his superior from the rectory, who was even in worse shape. Yeah, I have a long list of religious questions for Dad when I next see him.
He was slow to anger, but when provoked, he was frightening. This was not because he was out of control, but because it was always just and warranted. Two teenagers refused to stand for the national anthem at a high school football game. They sat and chatted and laughed. Dad left the stands, walked to them, grabbed both simultaneously by the collars and stood them up. I’m not sure what he said, but I am sure those two spent the rest of their lives looking for opportunities to stand and honor our country.
Although usually working as the mediator between Mom and Bro I recall the time he deemed her demands unreasonable. He stood up from the dining table, his temples undulating, and declared definitively that Bro would be allowed to take “the” car out that evening. And also, it was not “her” car, but his. Bro was out the door in a second. Very soon after, out the same door, walked my mother. Once the air had thinned back to normal, Dad and I sat on the front steps. I asked if he thought she would come back. He said, “Oh sure. She just went to the movies. She’s watching Ben Hur.” He was right.
My perfection as a child took an abrupt hiatus at the age of 15. Although still rule-compliant, my attitude was abhorrent. I sat on the kitchen stool whining and complaining about a meal and its timing that my mother was working hard to get onto the table. She was unusually non combative, so I went on and on. Until….. Dad, who was listening from the next room, suddenly and unexpectedly filled the kitchen, temples undulating. He slammed a five dollar bill on the counter, got very close to my face and said, “GO….EAT….AT…McDONALD’S!!” I drove, sobbing, for two hours, being carefel to return by curfew. My intense pain was not because he was angry, but because I had sooooo deserved it. And I had sooo let him down.
My mother, who simply did not feel good about herself, inexplicably considered me to be a rival. As a competitor would, she resented my achievements. I had a particularly impressive bout at the age of eleven, winning multiple trophies and medals in sports at a summer place. She entered my bedroom one night and told me that I must have sold my soul to the devil. Many hours during many bedtimes, I spent contemplating whether I had done this without knowing or remembering. (Glad “Rosemary’s Baby” had not yet been released.)
At 19, I returned home from first year college. I dressed as nicely as I could hoping she would be pleased and proud. She took one look and complained, “Why did I have to have a beautiful daughter?” Years later I was happily married and visibly pregnant with my first child. Visiting in her kitchen for a while, something I said referred to my condition. She didn’t even look up while replying, “Oh, I keep forgetting that you are pregnant.” The more I accomplished in the hope of pleasing, the more I was resented as the winner. She lived in her own world. It was only about her and it was an unhappy place.
So what did I learn from my parents? From my mother, I learned to appreciate all the positive traits and behaviors of my children. I learned to praise them for all efforts and accomplishments. I learned to enjoy a world that was not all about me. The more I gave of me, the more I got back. I learned to recognize symptoms of depression and seek treatment immediately. (Yes, that was one part of her she gave me.) I learned how to be a great mother from not having one.
From my father I learned to be honest, devoted, loyal and hard working. I learned that most times, a conversation, over punishment, is all that is really needed. I learned trying to create and keep peace and harmony in the home is successful and self-sustaining. I learned to expect the best of others and show disappointment when less is received. I learned that the best way to get the behavior one expects of others is to emulate it. But most importantly, I learned from my father that happiness is a state of mind over which only we have control. I learned that having fun is not only ok, it is necessary.
My father expedited his mid-life crisis with the purchase of a Triumph TR 3 roadster, with the blessing of my mother. It brought smiles to his face for the last three years of his life. Now, before I climb into “Black Beauty”, my own vehicular manifestation of mid-life, on a perfect top down summer night, my dad’s spirit climbs into my psyche and into my bloodstream. Life is here to enjoy. Thanks, Dad.