Author’s Note: I wrote this piece for the writing workshop I created as a means to finding our agency: Finding Your Voice. I owe it to Yvonne Jones, Laura Staley, Maribel Cardez, and Tom Dietzler. More specifically, I owe them my profound gratitude for giving me the sacred space (Laura’s term) in which to write it, for allowing me to be open and vulnerable enough to share it, for accepting and embracing me with compassion and without judgment, as I accept and embrace them. In my life full of blessings, Yvonne, Laura, Maribel, and Tom are surely among them. Who’s luckier than me?
A Tale of Two Fathers
I begin this part with a quote from Pat Conroy, written as part of his introduction to a book called Military Brats by Mary Edwards Wertsch. He wrote this:
I grew up thinking my father would one day kill me. I never remember a time when I was not afraid of my father’s hands … My mother would not let us tell anyone Dad was knocking us around … She turned us into unwitnesses of our own history.
My father, a Marine like Pat Conroy’s dad, was a brutal disciplinarian. He’d beat my younger brother, Keith, and me viciously, arbitrarily, frequently. There were times we wouldn’t even know he was in the room until we heard the whistling of his belt coming at us or felt a fist in the sternum lift us off our feet and land us in the next room. He’d slam us against walls and trees.
If we were outside and he wanted us for something, he’d whistle loudly enough to be heard all over the neighborhood. If we were close enough to yell back, “What do you want?” he’d beat us and say, “Come when I call you. If I want to have a conversation, I’ll come find you.” We didn’t dare laugh or giggle in the house. To this day, sudden loud noises unnerve me because they signify the boom coming down
What hurt more than the physical aspects of the beatings was the apparent fact that my father didn’t care what I thought. He had seemingly no regard for my intelligence. He was never curious about the reasons for the things I did and said. He never asked. He just flew into blind, uncontrolled rages, sometimes with my mother looking on and screaming that he would kill one of us. It didn’t stop him.
Whatever we were, in the apparent estimation of my father, it wasn’t enough. And it definitely wasn’t good enough.
I saw my father’s humanity just twice when I was young: On the first occasion, at a point at which I was spending a good portion of the time I should have been spending constructively in school, I was getting high with my friends. Since privacy wasn’t a thing in our house, my mother found weed in my desk. I’d imagined the day that might happen. I was sure my bedroom door would explode in splinters, and my father would beat me senseless, likely without saying a word.
Early one evening, I was sitting in my room, on my bed, playing my guitar, an occupation my father considered to be an absolute waste of time. When I played my guitar or told him I was going to be a writer, he’d tell me I was chasing rainbows. There was a knock on my bedroom door. A knock. No one had ever knocked on my door. When I opened it, my father was standing there, just standing there. He asked me if he could come in. It would have taken no more than that humble request to knock me over with a feather.
The first thing he said was that he was scared. He was scared because he didn’t understand drugs, and he didn’t know what weed might lead to. He told me he hadn’t so much as drunk a beer until he was out of the Marine Corp. And then he told me this:
He and my mother graduated from the same high school in the same year — 1946. My grandfather couldn’t afford my father’s entire college tuition. So, my father enlisted in the Marine Corps to take advantage of what was then called the G.I. Bill. He went to boot camp at Parris Island.
Early in the summer of 1947, he was home on leave. He and my mother were swimming in a public pool. Someone came off a diving board, landed on my mother’s back, and broke her neck. She went to the hospital. My father went back to Parris Island. When my mother was cut out of the cast in which she’d been placed while her neck healed, she learned she was pregnant.
In November of 1947, my father came back from Parris Island again. His parents wouldn’t speak to him. My mother’s parents would speak to her. My parents were married on Thanksgiving Day, 1947, by a Justice of the Peace, in the Town Hall in Meriden, Connecticut. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband, Harold, were the only two people who’d stand up with them. Shortly thereafter, my father returned to Parris Island. My mother went to live with her parents. My sister, Lynn, was born on February 17, 1948.
In the summer of 1948, with World War II over and the Korean Conflict not yet begun, the Marine Corps gave my father an Honorable Discharge. He went to Philadelphia, by himself, got a degree in Economics from the Wharton School, and came home to a wife and a four-year-old daughter in 1952. I don’t know what kind of pressures, real or imagined, he experienced from all of that, what he thought he had to do, what he thought he had to be, what he thought he had to live up to, what he thought he had to prove. I do know those must have been considerable, ponderous, and painful.
Secondly, I recognized my father’s humanity in the fact that he never quit on me. He was never demonstratively affectionate. He never told me he loved me. He rarely talked to me. But for all the things I did and all the trouble into which I could have gotten myself in my teens and my directionless 20s, I recognized later he never gave up on me. When he had to be in, he was in, with both feet.
I begin this part with a quote from Mark Twain:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
I grew up. I got out. I went to school. When I left, I hugged my father, kissed him, and told him I loved him. He looked at me as if I’d spoken the German of which I’d been a terrible student in high school. I learned more about myself and the world. The context in which I was able to view my father grew. I joined a gym and put 30 pounds of muscle on my frame. I prepared myself for a world in which I’d encounter more versions of my father. I got married. I started a family. Later I started a business. My father took note.
Our roles and our relationship began to change. He began to take the initiative to hug me and kiss me when he saw me. He talked to me more. I know he admired me when I started my business because he recognized it was something he’d never had the wherewithal to do. And when, in 1993, he decided to run for First Selectman in Old Lyme, Connecticut, the small shoreline community to which he and my mother moved when they left Meriden, he asked me if I wanted to help with his campaign. A lifelong Democrat, he was running against a three-term Republican incumbent, in a highly Republican town.
I attended some meetings, offered some comments, and was largely ignored. I told my father he’d be better off if the candidate’s son weren’t seen as an interloper and one with his own ideas to boot. His campaign and the Democratic Town Committee would likely be well served by my stepping away. I did just that. My father lost that election by just 35 votes, and I was livid.
Afterward, I wrote him a long letter in which I told him the members of his campaign had given him the thing he disdained the most — a half a job. I told him I couldn’t believe he’d taken it so philosophically. And I told him if he decided to run again, I wanted to manage his campaign. He called in April of 1995 and said, “Are you ready to go to work?”
At the first meeting of the campaign committee, I told the members, “We’re going to raise $10,000.” One of the members blanched and said, “But no Democratic candidate has ever raised more than $3,000 in this town.” I replied, “That’s why we’re here.”
I knew my father couldn’t possibly meet everyone in town. But I knew if most people got to know him, they’d vote for him. So, we agreed to produce a series of five, uncommonly sophisticated newsletters, each of which would be sent by what was then called bulk mail to everyone in town. When it came time to print the fifth one — and with contributions still coming in — we were $1,500 short. My father said, “I’m not going to pay for that last newsletter out of my pocket.”
I said, “Okay. But we still have contributions coming in that’ll cover the cost. And you’ll have to tell the committee we’re not going to fulfill our plan. After all the time and effort they’ve given you with nothing in return, I’m certainly not telling them.” My father ponied up. We ended up raising more than $11,000. And he beat the four-term incumbent going away. The tables had turned.
We’d survived our difficulties. We’d forgiven each other for the pain we’d caused each other. The child had become father to the man. And both of us knew it.
At 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 4, 2014, I said goodbye to my dad. We’d spent the day helping a woman I knew clean out her shop. I hugged him, kissed him, told him I loved him, and thanked him for his help.
He said, “You don’t have to thank me. We spent a great day getting things done.” Getting things done was all he ever cared about. He got in his car. I got in mine. Just 12 hours later — at 5:17 a.m. on January 5, 2014, in the emergency clinic in Westbrook, Connecticut — he was pronounced dead of a ruptured aortic aneurysm.
I was there. Knowing we’d made our peace saved me.