(Adapted from an essay in my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real)
I suppose all parents are something of an enigma to their children. As I have aged, however, there is a growing need to understand who my father really was. What were the secrets he held so close? How am I like him? How did he shape the person I am today?
While my father was an easy man to eulogize, he was a hard man to know. When he died on July 5, 2012, my brothers and I quickly found the words to speak at his funeral. But as we sat reminiscing about our parents after Mom’s funeral three years later, we agreed that it had been much harder to eulogize her because she was a real person to us. We were not sure we ever really understood our father in that way.
This paradox could be attributed in part to my father’s reluctance to share the personal details of his life outside of his work and accomplishments. He was shaped by being the child of immigrants, growing up during the Depression, World War II, and the amazing advances in technology and prosperity that followed. When he was 87, my father asked me to videotape his recitation of his life story. The narration took place over several sessions, but I had to dig deep through my transcript of what he said to find some clues as to what made him tick.
He started his life story by stating he was, “blessed to be living through greatest period in human history.” How like him it was to proclaim his lifetime encompassed all of the best, and to do so in a narrative that did not permit my mother’s input and suggestions. At one point, my mother interrupted to ask when he was going to talk about their children and family life. Dad replied, “That’s your story,” and continued to talk about his career trajectory. Dad’s video was the ultimate lecture from a father who had always lectured us at length. It encompassed all of the traits my brothers and I talked about in our eulogies.
Those traits included a strong moral core characterized by ethical justice, loyalty to family, and devotion to the politics of FDR. My father was a voracious reader with a vast storehouse of knowledge, especially about history, sports, and art. He went back to college after retiring from his career in accounting, earning a degree in art history and becoming the oldest graduate of Wayne State University. In addition to his passions of history and art, Dad was a sports addict, especially about baseball. He had multiple radios throughout the house, and would listen to every inning of every ball game. “The game” took precedence over all conversation. My father hated his job, and much preferred being a decent Sunday painter and an art history lecturer for his fellow retirees.
Dad’s temper was infamous. He had zero tolerance for fixing anything or following directions. The flip side of his emotional range was his sentimental side. He cried at his children’s and grandchildren’s weddings and when toasting Mom on numerous special occasions. And yet, he never talked about his feelings. Instead, Dad was the ultimate critic and only the things he liked (or understood) were worthwhile. Thus, all movies (he hated them) and music beyond jazz, marches, and big bands were “crap.” He constantly berated Mom about her cooking, and often fought with his grandchildren over control of the TV, labeling anything they wanted to watch as “garbage.” In short, my father was an unforgettable character.
Dad’s video was the ultimate lecture from a father who had always lectured us at length. My father had huge personality and was outspoken about his opinions and values. But I don’t think I understood the person he was apart from his quirks and accomplishments. I never doubted his love, but why was it so hard for him to praise me or express his feelings and approval? Why was he such an anxious worrier, a trait he passed to me? What made him tick?
My father’s belief that if he had known enough or received proper counseling at every stage of his life, he would have made better decisions was central to his narrative. And yet, he rarely gave his children the type of support he longed for all his life. Clearly, he was an anxious person who, despite his intelligence and success, never felt he had reached his potential. While he wanted his children to succeed, I think he also wanted us to achieve a tiny bit less than he. Whatever I knew or did, he had to let me know he had done just as well, or he would have if only he had the right counsel and advice.
My father died the way he lived. He elected to have back surgery at age 90 because he could not bear to present himself as weak. Whether he felt worried about the operation or frightened, I will never know. The man who lived out the final months of his life in a nursing home was not my father. I just wish my father had made it easier to know who he really was. My brothers and I are left looking for clues in the video he made of his life. It would have meant so much to be able to talk about all of these things when we were growing up. Perhaps his lectures would have made more sense to us.
The morning of the day my father died, he told my mother, “If George Washington could die, so can I.” Mom thought he was hallucinating but I prefer to think he was giving himself a final history lesson, reviewing the names of all the presidents and great figures from history who were gone but not forgotten. For me, his final words captured so much of the person he was. He needed to see himself as an important man, respected for his knowledge and accomplishments. But we knew he wasn’t a president, or even a professor, so he left his children struggling to find the man who was their father.
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