My parents were forged in the crucible of the Great Depression and tempered by a quenching in World War II. It gave them the strength of steel, and it made them unable to yield. My father was a sheathed sword. He did his most important work by simply being there, a presence to be reckoned with. My mother was the I-beam lintel over the door of our family. She too did her most important work by simply being there, holding the house up over our heads.
My parents were children of a generation of great changes and momentous times. Yes, I suppose we can point to the technological changes of our own times, and claim our world is changing faster than theirs ever did. We can point to falling towers and beheaded humanitarians and claim our human condition is worse.
We could do that, but we’d be wrong. We have to deal with bigger and flatter televisions and cell phones that take pictures and green ketchup. My parents experienced the advent of televisions, the final supplantation of horses by automobiles and the advent of a national inspection system for food safety. We’ve experienced inflation, and deflation. But my parents experienced a single day in which their economy fell from beneath their feet, and their parent’s financial bedrock turned to sand. We’ve sent hundreds to die in the Middle East, and thousands to die in the Far East. My parents lived in a time when three hundred thousand American armed forces and civilians died in a war that included dozens of countries’ representatives. We have AIDS, with twenty million dead from 1981 through 2003. My father was born in the time of the great influenza pandemic that ended in 1919 – a time that preceded antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and safe general anesthesia (my mother missed the pandemic by two years); it is estimated that 20-40 million people died worldwide from complications of Spanish influenza in that single year and a half.
I’m only just coming to grips with understanding the ramifications of this. I grew up with parents that were parents. They weren’t my friends. They weren’t “cool”. We never had close, intimate talks, adult to adult. They worked hard, they lived frugally, and cared a great deal about their children. They gave us their hearts, but they never bared their souls.
My mother used to say that she wanted her children to have the childhood she never had, and my father indulged this without complaint. Easter and Halloween brought mountains of candy. Christmas and birthdays were an embarrassment of toys and clothes. One memorable Christmas I got a three-inch refracting telescope, a microscope with oil immersion lens, and a chemistry set the size of my rather capacious desk. They might have been my mother’s purchases, but my father’s influence was undeniable.
My parents were giving, but they held emotions deep, and guarded them well. To anger my father was to anger God himself. Physical punishment was seldom used in my house, and I only felt the sting of my father’s hand twice. I remember both times distinctly. Both times I was clearly in the wrong, though I didn’t necessarily see it that way at the time. I remember the shock of discovering that I was capable of pushing my father too hard, and the shame of being punished to this day. The memory still has the ability to render me speechless and humiliated.
I was in my mid-teens when my father quit his job and attempted to start up a business in computer card processors. When his business failed he took a job in a town two hours north of us, commuting home on weekends. He was struck by a heart attack in his early fifties, soon after taking this distant job. He returned to this job a month or so after his heart attack, only to be involved in an automobile accident that was later determined to be his fault. He was charged with DUI, and lost his license temporarily because of this. Several weeks after the accident though he had a stroke that would leave the right side of his body weakened. He never again walked without a cane and a brace for his right leg. He was months in rehabilitation after the stroke, and when he could finally return to work, he was unable to return to the job he had before. He went to work locally, with the employer he’d left a few years back before trying start up his own business.
It was a bitter time for him. When his business failed, he’d seen to it that all his employees obtained a job elsewhere. Of the people he helped then, only one came to his aid when he himself needed a job. I was a high school student, and was more aware of how these things affected me than how they affected my father. He did not speak of them to me, and I never thought to ask. I was concerned about whether my parents would be able to pay for my college (my college fund disappeared into the company start-up) and whether or not we’d have to move. In retrospect, my concerns were particularly self-serving, and using youth as an excuse really doesn’t excuse anything.
My father smoked. My father drank. In the years after his stroke he did both heavily. I think now that it was an act of defiance on his part. His life may not have turned out as he would have liked, but he still had control over how he lived and he exerted this control in what ways he could. After the heart attack, my mother gave up cigarettes in a show of solidarity with my father, who had been ordered to give up smoking. She made a surprise visit one day to my father’s rehabilitation center after the stroke, and found him and his three roomies smoking (while oxygen was being administered in the room!) and sharing a can of beer. She resumed smoking out of spite (her own words) and my father never even pretended that he had any intentions of quitting after that.
In retirement Dad seldom left the house, but threw himself single-mindedly into a new hobby – computers. He was one of the first to own a home computer (a TRS-80) and was a member of the first generation of internet-junkies. He made friends on the net, he played battle MUDs on the net, he posted to bulletin boards and he visited primitive websites, often only leaving the computer during the course of the day to make a bathroom run and eat dinner. I’m left to wonder now if this was something he truly enjoyed, or something he escaped to because he felt there was nothing else for him.
Today would have been my father’s eighty-fifth birthday. He’s been dead many years now, but as I grow older I find I’m still getting to know him. It’s a strange feeling, this process of gaining understanding decades after events occurred.
I’ll never really know my father. His reticence made such knowledge impossible. But as I myself age I have been granted insights into what made him who he was, and what must have been going on behind the facade. I compared him to a sheathed sword earlier. I may have never seen seen more of that sword than the hilt, but I know the edges were sharp and the blade polished. I’ll always wonder what the engraving on the blade might have looked like, but then I don’t know if anyone ever learns of the art hidden in their parents’ souls. When all is said and done, we each remain a mystery to each other