Tim Russert’s sudden death so near to Father’s Day got me thinking about the role fathers play in our lives. For Tim Russert and his son, the bonds of fatherhood were nurturing and strong. For others, myself included, the bond may have been important, but it was anything but nurturing.
My father died when I was 15 years old. I have many memories of him, a few are happy, most are complicated. Through my future daughter-in-law’s genealogy research I have learned a great deal about my father’s family and what appears to be a long history of broken family relationships. My father’s mother died when she was 29 years old; his father remarried a woman who despised my dad. Her dislike drove my father to run away to the circus when he was just 7 years old. He returned to his family briefly at age 14 just as the depression was starting.
His military records show that he only completed eight grade. My mother tells me this is true – that he took something like the GED test so that he could go to mortuary school. She says he was very anxious about passing the test. She had just met him – she was a book keeper at a funeral home where he was an apprentice. Their first dates involved picking up bodies.
By the time they married he was a funeral director. She worked at the funeral home until my oldest brother was born. After a few years, at her urging, he left the funeral industry – she always hated it and didn’t want us to grow up in a funeral home. He became a pharmaceutical sales rep, selling used medical equipment on the side. Our attic was filled with odd looking devices and there was a “drug room” in the basement where he kept his samples.
My dad was smoked unfiltered Pall Malls and he wore Old Spice. He was fastidious in dress and exceedingly well organized. My mother ironed my father’s business shirts, dipping the collars and cuffs into liquid starch, until they were stiff as cardboard. His collars and cuffs were always perfect white and pristine. She ironed his boxers too. Meals were on the table when he got home from work.
From time to time he suffered from debilitating depression and when he was depressed nothing pleased him. He would call my mother “woman” and complain about the soup being too hot or that she spent too much money or whatever was irking him at the time. When he was depressed he wouldn’t sleep, keeping my mom up into the wee hours of the morning talking about everything. I could hear them as I tried to fall asleep; if he was really upset or angry it would scare me and I would call out for my mom. During the worst of his illness he was paranoid he was being investigated. During those times he got pretty mean. Never physical, just mean.
My oldest brother was golden – he could do no wrong. My other older brother was also a favorite; my dad would often let him skip school so that he could ride along as my dad looped around northeast Ohio making calls on physicians.
I was often my father’s target. I could never do anything right. I always had my nose in a book which was not particularly valued in my home. I was awkward and fearful, given to “crying jags.” I remember my dad taunting me about my weight – saying “Judy needs clothes – let’s take her to Omar the tent maker.” He would continue until I ran from the table in tears. I don’t ever remember him apologizing.
I envy my friends whose fathers were their cheerleaders and champions. I think fathers teach their daughters what to expect in life from their partners. A father who believes in your worth is a gift beyond price.
Memory in a grainy photograph
my troubled face
turned from your embrace
Daddy. I was four.
Daddy, washing the car,
a summer day caught there on film.
What do I remember anyway of that embrace
Or any other gesture in the years I grew from childhood to imperfection
Fragments, only fragments, broken and chipped
Words and looks that define me still decades later as I look in the mirror
Only to see what is not perfect.
The word itself a too tight coat over a body loathed
No clothing kind enough to ease the pain of being me.
The seams still cut, the sleeves constrict, the buttons threaten to give way.
I am here still in some forgotten photograph looking to you
Daddy, tailor of my self esteem.
Please forgive me.
Copyright JAC June 10, 1997