Influences

This is a week of reflection.  I believe that to accept who I am today, I need to understand how I got here.  Part of that process is to look at the people who were influential at critical points in my life.  Of course, my father was one of those people.

My father was an absolutely brilliant man.  His was exceptionally creative and spent his entire career as a writer and photographer.  He was also an artist, producing some incredible pieces in charcoal, pastels and oil.  He loved working in the yard and spent most of each weekend tending a carefully landscaped garden full of roses and other flowering plants.  He loved his classical music and opera.  His cooking and baking skills far exceeded my mothers’ with his creations of wonderful pastries and desserts.

He had very little involvement with my childhood.

My father was a loner.  I heard stories of friendships he and my mother had in the early years of their marriage, but I never knew him to have a single friend.  He was friendly with one of our neighbors, but even that was strained and more or less limited to a monthly bridge game with the respective wives.  I remember listening to them as they played, and the conversation rarely developed beyond the quiet bids and trumps needed for the game.  At work, his boss was the only other person in his office, and even their contact was limited.  He was the editor of a small farm magazine where he spent his days were spent alone writing at his desk or locked away in the darkroom developing photos needed for his articles.  Evenings at home were spent reading the newspaper or watching TV.  This was in the days before cable, and there were only three channels available, so even the TV watching was limited.  Most nights it was just him and my mother sitting in their chairs across the room from each other reading in silence.

He loved the beach, and in the summertime we would go camping there almost every other weekend.  We did not go camping for the sake of camping; it was always at the same campground and even the same spot weekend after weekend.  It was a ways to a means; the only way they could afford to go as often as they did.  Even there, his time was spent mostly withdrawn into himself.  He never interacted with other campers other than the perfunctory hello.  There was never any socializing with our camping neighbors.  He just kept to himself sitting quietly on the beach or swimming or relaxing back at the campsite.  This was the times however that he tended to spend the most time with my sister and I, taking us swimming out in the ocean and teaching us things like ducking under the big waves and how to body surf.  But mostly he just kept to himself.

It seemed like he was totally incapable making any decisions, relying on my mother for pretty much everything.  Whenever there was something to be decided my father would hem and haw back and forth, never coming to any conclusions until my mother stepped in and told him what they were going to do.  Even on the beach trips he loved so much, we only started going after my mother made the plan to camp.  She even applied for a job for him once, believing he was much more capable and should have a higher paying position then he did.  But he was content to stay where he was, quietly doing the same thing for over thirty years.

When it came to my mother, there was very little direct interaction that I could see.  He would leave her working in the house while he tended his garden outside alone.  Evenings together were spent quietly, even when in the same room they were into their own things, rarely having any in depth conversations.  I almost never saw any physical contact between them, and when it did happen it was embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch.  They never fought; that would require him taking a stand and dealing with it head to head.  Only once in my entire life did I hear them in a real fight, and it was devastating to me.  I was convinced that they were getting a divorce, and even though I don’t remember what the fight was about, I remember feeling responsible.

He never even had a driver’s license, which was absolutely unheard of.  My mother did all the driving including getting him back and forth to work.  The story I heard from my uncle was that something happened when he was serving overseas during World War II what occurred while he was driving, and he swore that he would never drive again.  Regardless, I never saw him behind the wheel of a car; it was totally bizarre.

In spite of his intelligence, he had very little common sense and virtually no “man skills” at all.  I remember one time he set the trashcan on fire when he dumped an ashtray with a smoldering cigarette.  He grabbed a kettle of water boiling on the stove, poured out the hot water and filled it with cold water from the sink before dumping it onto the fire.  Everybody knows that fire is hot, and needs something cold to extinguish it.  I rarely saw him even attempt to fix anything around the house, and it was even more unlikely that he could actually make the repair.  He used to tell of how proud he was that he cut down the legs of a stool so that it would be a better height for my mother to sit on and actually got all four legs the same length on the very first try.  He never taught me how to drive a nail or use any power tools or any of the skills you would expect to learn from a Dad.  His skills were more suited to creating a custom wreath for the door at Christmas, or using flowers out of his garden to create an arrangement for the church sanctuary.  My grandfather taught me to hunt and fish; he would have nothing to do with that at all.  Needless to say, my father was a very effeminate man.  I was teased unmercifully by the other kids about how my dad was a sissy.  And what could I do?  His behaviors were impossible to defend.

When it came to displaying emotions, my father was a complete stoic.  Except for occasional outbursts of anger, only once did I see him to lose control emotionally.  It was at his mother’s funeral, and for one brief moment I saw him tear up; but no tears actually fell.  It was very rare that I saw him laugh, and most of the time his affect was just flat.  Later, when I began to have my own emotional troubles my mother told me that my father had been depressed almost the whole time she knew him.  Much later in life I saw him come alive after the birth of his first grandson, actually playing with him and showing affection.  I was glad for the grandchild, but it really pissed me off.  If he was capable of such emotion, why couldn’t he have been that way with me?

A father is in the position to have some of the greatest influence on a child’s life.  And in his own way, he did give that to me.  Not through an interactive upbringing, but drawing from my feelings of loss at a normal father / son relationship.  Not to say he didn’t have positive impact on me however.  The way he treated women with such respect for example taught me that you should always revere them as special and worthy.  I learned to appreciate cultural things.  I enjoy classical music and appreciation of beautiful things because of him.  But mostly what I learned was what I didn’t want to be.  When I had my own children I made sure I showed them affection and physical attention.  I tried to teach them from my experiences instead of leaving them alone to learn on their own.  I craved and cultivated friendships.  I taught myself that it was okay to be physical my friends and relatives exchanging handshakes and hugs.  One of the most poignant moments in my relationship with my father was the first and only time we shook hands.  It was shortly after he died, when I picked up his hand in mine and said goodbye.

What I have gained from my father has certainly shaped the man I’ve become.  He showed me how to be strong emotionally and have the utmost respect for others.  But mostly he taught me what not to do.  Either way, I’m a better person for having him as my father.  I miss him.

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