When I was an adolescent and a young man, I had a problematic relationship with my father. He had an explosive temper, and, well, so did I. I remember sitting for hours next to his workbench in our basement in Chicago, watching him build a kitchen nook. My dad was very handy. An electrician by trade, he could do just about anything, tradewise. He finished that nook. It took him weeks since he’d never done anything like it before. But he finished it and it was a work of art, with bullnosed oak trim stained just the right color, and inlaid tiles like mosaic.
He used oak, which he said was a mistake, looking back. Oak was hard as hell, so it was hard as hell to work with. I wanted to pick up everything he knew. Goddamn sonovabitch! he’d swear as he miscut a piece with the table saw.
I wanted to pick up everything he knew, but I never could hit a nail straight. You know what I learned from all that time watching him? Goddamn sonovabitch!
My dad was kind of hardass and I was afraid of him when I was a boy. He’d been in the Navy as a 17 year-old during World War II, Pacific Theater. As a result, he gave me and my brother barracks-style inspections to make sure our beds were made right and there was no dirty clothes shoved under the beds. As I grew older and more rebellious, I chafed at the discipline. Because I’d inherited his hot-headedness, I was the dynamite. He was the match.
The explosions between us didn’t change once I became an adult and moved out on my own. I had this mentor, and I’d whine about what a hardass my dad was, how he was still trying to control me. I bitched about it in personal development seminars, in the therapy I thought I needed partly because of him. Finally, my mentor holds up his hand one whiny afternoon and he says: Your amend to your dad is to stop trying to control him.
What, me trying to control him? It’s him trying to control me!
It didn’t work at first. We still went round and round, with semi-frequent detonations with his hand on one plunger and my hand on the other, leading to me storming out of his house. But I started remembering other things about him. How he worked two jobs when I was little just so I could go to a good school. How he took me and my brother on bike rides down to Navy Pier. How he saved my life from drowning before I was old enough to swim. He taught me right from wrong. He tried to teach me how to bowl. He stuck around, and 90% of anything in life is just showing up.
And as he aged, he mellowed like a good wine. I guess I did, too. Like a good whine. Slowly, I stopped trying to tell him what to do. And then the strangest thing happened: he stopped trying to tell me what to do. The moment I stopped trying to control my dad, he stopped trying to control me.
The problem had been me all along. I discovered that when I pointed a finger out toward the word, three more were pointed back at me. Freud, for all his faults, really had some good ideas. And one of them was something called projection. When I did something and didn’t want to take responsibility for it, or when I had a trait within me and didn’t want to own it, I saw it out there in someone else, usually someone I loved. And I did love my dad after all.
As he grew older, I learned that he’d been forced to take shore leave and ride through Nagsaki on an open-panel, deuce-and-a-half truck days after we dropped the bomb there. He took a picture of it, and it looks like you might think it does, like those post-apocalyptic soundsets on The Twilight Zone, or like Chicago after the Great Fire.
I learned that he’d been on the hangar deck of his aircraft carrier, a converted escort carrier called the Suwanee, when a kamikaze had hit the elevator and set a man on fire not very far in front of my father. He’d been running toward his battle station at the time and if he’d been a few feet farther ahead, that man might’ve been him. I might never have been born. or maybe I’d have had a different father, if that’s how it worked. Yet he was my father, so it must’ve been that he was meant to be my father; that there was something about our match, which I’d first seen as a mismatch, that was meant to be.
My father never related these as war stories. He spoke of them only once, toward the end of his life, and his voice broke as he did. I began to understand that he may have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that might’ve explained his temper. He had a hard life, forced to raise himself in part while my grandmother was supporting her entire extended family on the wages a seamstress made during the Great Depression. He never knew his father back in those days. I started to see that the reason why my dad was hard on me and my brother was because he’d grown up in a very different, and difficult, school of learning. He was trying to prepare us for the dangerous world what he’d experienced, where you needed discipline, hard work and a thick skin to survive. And that’s when I began to forgive my father.
He lived to be 87. And he mellowed long before he died. He spent his last years praying for other people, and suffering through some difficult illnesses that I believe taught him humility and wisdom.
I guess what I’m saying is that we need to forgive our parents, to love them for everything they are, and for everything they’re not. Because they’re human, they will fail to give us the things they never found within themselves. And because they’re human, the love they pass onto to us will be imperfect. There will always be something they couldn’t find within themselves, and if they couldn’t find it within themselves, how could they give us everything we needed?
I need to forgive everyone else in the world, too, and to love them for everything they are and everything they’re not. I need to realize that when I see something I don’t like in someone else, it’s most likely because I have that thing within myself. Or maybe I had it within myself in the past and I’m having a hard time not looking in the rearview mirror at who I once was but no longer am. If that’s the case, I’m having a hard time forgiving me. Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.
Anyway, my dad ended up being one of my most important teachers. I love my dad. Maybe you love yours, too.