I realize I’m a little late with this, inasmuch as Father’s Day is now passed. My excuse is that we’ve been away on vacation for a time, and I have just now gotten the chance to sit down and write.
I have been thinking quite a bit about Father’s Day, though, and my own father. He and I had a difficult, even contentious, relationship, as brief as it was. He died at the early age of 47, and I had, in fact, already left home to join the monastery some 6 or 7 years earlier at the age of 14. Still, those first 14 years were memorable and formative ones, to say the very least.
I always felt it was fair to say that my father was a brilliant man, even though all he had was a high school education. In fact, I might even say that he was cursed with brilliance. That far-reaching and highly inquisitive mind may have became something of a stalled car in the circumstances of his life. He married young, as seemed to be the custom in those years of the late 30’s/early 40’s. He was 20, and my mother was 18. Soon after that, he was called away to war, where he served in the Navy aboard a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic. I never once heard him speak of the war years, but they must have been eventful and eye-opening for a poor Irish-American kid from an upstate New York family.
Once the war was over, he returned to a factory job in the small town of Watervliet, where he and my mother lived, and where we grew up, just north of Albany. It was a real ethnic enclave in those years, where the Irish and the Italians and the Polish and the Ukrainians, and a few others, mingled freely, if not always amicably. He and my mother began having children even before the war ended, and he got a job immediately upon return in a local factory where they made sandpaper. He worked there almost until the day he died. In fact, he was working the very day he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He survived for a couple of more days, but the end came pretty swiftly. These are the bare bones of his life. Not much, it would seem, for someone who, I claim anyway, had such a brilliant mind. But I guess he did what he felt he had to do.
In the meantime, though, it was clear to me that he was not happy. And he was particularly not happy with me. I may never know exactly why, but for whatever reason, he seemed to take a particular dislike to me, and I felt the back of his hand more times than I care to remember. Even worse than anything physical, though, was his harsh language, the anger and even the hatred (or so it seemed) with which he usually addressed me. Much of it can be summed up by his having told me again and again in my youth: “Why the hell don’t you go play in traffic!” I always felt as though this was a particularly low blow, since play is such a natural and creative thing for any child, and to take that innate ebullience of children and to turn it into a thing of danger and even of death seemed to epitomized much about our relationship.
I’ve tried over the years since his death, now going on almost 50 years, to understand what happened, what took place, what could have caused this rift between us. In the end, I have to say that I just do not know, particularly since his treatment of my siblings was different, and much kinder. It’s of course been a factor in making me who I am today, both for better and for worse. But I have done what I could to come to terms with it and to make it all somehow work for me as an adult.
The odd thing is that I think we were a lot alike. I always felt as though I got my love of “things intellectual” from him. He was a great reader. He would spend his evenings sitting at the kitchen table, reading anything he could get his hands on, books, newspapers, magazines, whatever honored the written word, all the while drinking his 5 quarts of Ballentine ale, which he consumed every night. Even after we got a television set in the late 50’s he never watched it. He thought it idiotic and a complete waste of anybody’s time. And on Sunday afternoons, the local radio station played classical music, which he dearly loved. One of the few things he ever shared with me about himself was that he wished he’d been able to become a conductor of classical music. I can still remember him sitting there in the kitchen “conducting” as they played Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart. And God help any of us kids if we made a sound during that time. This was his moment, when he could for a few minutes forget what a trap his life had become, when he could forget that he worked in a factory and ran a machine that glued sand to paper, and could instead soar in the exquisite, rarefied, and ethereal world of great music.
Yes, I got my love of books and of classical music, and of all things having to do with the mind, from this man. I loved him very much, and wanted him to love me, too. It could be that he did, in his own way, although I suppose I may never know that for sure. He did seem to think it a good thing when I left home and entered the monastery, as much as he was himself what was called at that time a “lapsed Catholic” (to the shame and utter condemnation of my Irish grandmother, his mother). But even then, I thought, maybe he was just glad to be rid of me.
Fathers are funny beings. I think we always wind up wanting more from them than they are ever capable of delivering. In my case, I’ve come to accept that mine did the best he could, as poor as that so often was. I still wish all good things for him, and hope that some day, in another world where perhaps we are both better able to know who we truly are, we will come together in a way that heals and completes our relationship. If that is a real thing, I look forward to it, even long for it. If it is a fantasy, it’s one at least that I find some comfort in.
For the moment, it would seem that there’s not much more I can do than to say to him, and wish for him, a Happy Father’s Day – even if, God help us both, it is maybe now a little late.