It was time for me to talk to my father, face to face about our relationship over the past half century. I had reached the early Fall in my life and we needed to get some old hurts and crushing emotions settled. I had spent a goodly part of my life so far traveling over the world from strange places to exotic paradises and rarely found the time in these latter years to talk one on one to my dad.
First of all he wasn’t accustomed to sharing his feelings unless those feelings were anger or, sometimes, disappointment. Disappointment, like the time when, as a teenager, I had lost a good job working for the same defense contractor that he was so proud of working with. I hated the job although the pay was good for a young man of my age and Dad just could not understand why I had skipped work that day. As I waited for him at the gate for the long ride home after work, I could see that he was upset.
“How was work today, Son?” he asked as he approached.
“Oh, you know. Same old stuff, Dad.” I lied.
I had driven him to work and walked into the defense plant, clocked in and, once he was out of sight on the way to his job site, I turned around, clocked out and went back home. I drove back to the plant to pick up my dad as though I had been at work all day as he had been. He knew that was a lie since he had been questioned by plant security about his son who had clocked in and then, a moment later clocked out and never showed up at work.
He didn’t show anger as I expected. He showed disappointment in his eyes as he told me that he knew the truth. I was humiliated by being caught in my lie. Never before had I out right lied to my father. He was a hard man, but integrity was something he valued above all else. He never spoke of that incident again. I never lied to him again.
Even now we didn’t speak of that uncomfortable incident. As I sat down and looked at him, I was strangely feeling apologetic although Dad had made my life and those of my brothers and sister nearly unbearable by his harshness. He expected hard work from his children and wouldn’t tolerate insubordination or “back talk” as he called it.
Today I had to ask him why he was so tough on us. Why was he so demanding of my mother whom he expected to serve him much like a servant? I quietly asked him and he didn’t respond. I guess I knew it was because he worked hard all of his life and he expected the same from his family, including his wife. I knew there was love between them although I rarely saw any show of affection except for a smile for her when he didn’t think we were looking.
“Why did you threaten to never speak to me if I joined the Army?”
Dad’s emotionless posture didn’t change as if he was recalling the harsh combat he and his brothers had experienced during World War II. Dad had suffered the pain of losing his favorite brother, my namesake, during the Battle of the Bulge, Christmas Day 1944. Dad eventually accepted my decision to join the army and was proud to talk about his “officer” son.
“You know, Dad, that I respected you even though we exchanged harsh words at times? Why were you so hard on us?”
I sensed that he knew of my respect. That respect had grown out of fear of his temper at first, then gradually evolved because I realized how hard he had worked to keep his family fed and the bills paid. Times were hard on us and Dad had to walk or hitch-hike to the government office to pick up the “commodities” handed out to the “less fortunate” and out of work coal miners and railroad workers in Appalachia. Oftentimes he had to trudge through mud and slush during the harsh West Virginia winters.
For the next forty-five minutes I talked with Dad about the angst between us over the past years. I finally told him that I understood and, although I couldn’t tell him that I forgave him for the pain caused by his inability to show love, I came to realize that his life molded him that way. His mother was a harsh, demanding woman. I never saw her smile. Dad ran away from his father one day at the age of fourteen never to return. His father was downright mean according to the few times Dad spoke of him. The loss of his older brother, whom he looked up to, during the war made a deep, sad impact upon my father.
“Dad, I understand now. I’m glad that we had this talk.”
I stood up with tears in my eyes as I walked over to his coffin and looked at the man whom I wished that I could have had this talk with years earlier.
“Good-bye, Dad. You’ll be missed by all of your family.”
I turned away and walked from the room. I was at peace with my dad. The one-way conversation between us finally set things right. I hoped that he was at peace now. I now understood that love may be difficult to express sometimes for some people like my dad, but it was there all the time. It was there in his struggle to provide for his family. Although hard on the outside, he was a man of inner strength, courage, and had a deep belief in the values of honesty and integrity.