My father died in 1991. We had never been close. A family friend who had known my father from 1931 to 1991 said in 1993, “Your father was a hard man.” I knew that from a lifetime living with my father.
From my earliest recollections of my father, I never would describe our relationship in loving terms. I was in my early 20’s before he ever quietly said, “I love you.” Not much ever said after that. He was indeed a hard man. I respected him. But I have many memories of his volatile outbursts of anger. Thankfully, he never hit us boys. But fear was our common response to his anger.
Through the years of school, I did relatively well, consistently an honor student. My father never said a word of appreciation or congratulations. In sports I was far from a good athlete, but did well enough. Not a word from my father. That pattern continued through college, Naval service, commissioning, graduating from Naval Postgraduate School, and early selection to LCDR.
In 1961 I began learning to play guitar. My father had a 1934 Montgomery Ward guitar but never played it. That was my first guitar. Finger action was so bad that my fingers bled consistently for the first few months of playing. But I stuck it out. My father passively supported my attempt at playing.
Two brothers, my mother’s age, were superb guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin players. They began to invite me to sit in with them. I learned much about music and complementary styles blending with all instruments, and each session was a joy. My father and mother would drive me there every week. He seemed to enjoy, but he never said a word.
The lack of acknowledgement was discouraging, but I grew to expect nothing. By 1971 my wife and I began our moves as adults as I found work away from that part of the state. But each year we would drive home and get together with the two brothers, and often others joined us. It was always a highlight, and my parents were always there.
My father never said a word about whether he enjoyed it, but his expressions seemed to indicate he did.
In 1982 I entered seminary. My time was consumed with seminary studies, part time job, and raising two boys entering their teens, one of whom was beginning to cause major problems for us. Meaning, I had little time to keep up with my guitar playing, much to my dismay because I loved playing. I missed it.
In 1983 we went back home at the end of summer Hebrew. So we managed to contact the brothers and set a date to play. My parents also came. After an hour of playing, my lack of practice over the previous two years was evident, certainly to me and the brothers. But nothing was said, we were enjoying and reminiscing, and I was able to keep up with all of it. We still had fun.
That was when my father made his only comment ever on my playing. “Boy, you really are rusty, aren’t you?”
I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything. For 33 years he had never said a positive word about anything I had done, especially my guitar playing. And now in one night he mentions my failure to play well in front of about 15 people, close friends. I swore that I would never let that happen again. For the next 8 years (until he died) I wasn’t going to risk another public humiliation. Hence I never played guitar in front of him. I wasn’t going to let him “win” this.
And I became the hard man.
So who won?
My father never mentioned my lack of playing again. Years after he died, my mother said he noticed that I never played. I began to tell my mother… and she stopped me, saying that she knew exactly when I stopped playing because she had heard my father as well. She cried that night (I didn’t know that).
So who won? Certainly not me. In the short run, I “won” because I never faced his public disapproval again. But my mother did not win because she loved my playing and missed it. And my father did not win, because he did like my playing but he could never say the words.
From 1983 to 1989, our older son was getting into further trouble: drugs, stealing, etc. By spring 1988 we had asked him to leave the house (he had just turned 18). He was then arrested, and he spiraled out of control.
In 1989 my father and I began to have an uneasy but unspoken truce; we spoke politely, but nothing serious. My parents came to visit that summer. They had taken a day to travel to a larger city in that area to shop, etc. When they came home, my father was very different. They had seen and met our older son in that city.
In previous years, he had made comments about how disruptive teenagers could be. One time when I was about 11 years old, we had seen teenagers causing a few problems, but nothing out of hand. My father commented, “If you ever see kids acting that way, you can definitely blame the parents.” That assessment hung over my head when we adopted the boys in 1978. As it got worse, my memories of that comment intensified, causing me guilt and shame.
I had never seen my father shook up, raging anger, yes, but never this way. He spoke first: “I never realized how bad it has been for you these past years. I am so sorry.” And he had tears in his eyes, something I had never seen. He apologized, which I also had never experienced.
They visited two years later for our younger son’s high school graduation. They usually stayed two days because the altitude affected his breathing. But after two days he talked to my mother then asked me if they could stay another day or two because they enjoyed our time. We gladly agreed. And we did have a good time.
Three weeks later my father died. I am so thankful that our last time together was not clouded by all the distance, lack of words, lack of showing affection. When they left, he hugged me seriously and thanked me and said he loved me. How could I not also say the same thing? That’s all I wanted.
Who won then?
I think finally we all did: my father, my mother, me.
My only regret is that I didn’t play guitar for him and my mother. But we did mend a rift that had festered for 42 years. For that we all won.
I learned to say many things to my sons. No matter how bad our older son got, sometimes behind prison bars, I always, always told him I loved him. So also with our younger son when he deployed and was in combat, the last words he heard from me were “I love you.” So also my words to his wife and our grandchildren. There is no doubt that such will be the last words they hear me say: “I love you.”