Woodward, Okla. —
When my dad was six-months-old, his father hit him so hard that it knocked him out cold.
He wasn't doing anything bad, just being a baby, doing what babies do, crying and fussing in his little 1930s style high-chair in a kitchen in rural Iowa. You know – normal stuff.
My dad stopped crying. Because my grandfather, who blamed it on the ring he was wearing at the time, knocked him out and babies who are unconscious do not cry.
I’m not sure what my grandmother did that day in 1932, when my father was initiated into a childhood that turned out to be fantastically exciting and sometimes just plain ole awful.
Grandma died before I was even born, so I couldn’t ask her.
But I have no doubt that Grandpa might as well have slugged her that day, because what I know about her leads me to believe she was a decent woman. I think she did what she could in that era to protect my dad, his sister and herself from my Grandpa’s occasional drunken rages.
Father’s Day is approaching and while this may seem rather a dark commentary on fatherhood, I think it might be more common than the warm-fuzzies Hallmark would have you consume. Fatherhood is never all fishing trips and warm tousles of their son's hair. It's hard and includes human mistakes - sometimes painful ones.
This year I am looking forward to shaking up the best dirty, gin martini you ever flopped your lip over for my now 82 year old dad. I will shake up another one - not so wet and less dirty – for myself and we will hunker down, me and my “Da” for a visit.
It seems every year when I go to the store to look for greeting cards, there simply are none that really can say what I need to say to my dad.
I need one that says, “Sometimes you sucked at being a father, but now I know how hard it was for you and I think you rock because when you could have decided to carry on the abuse, you chose not to.” Or maybe this one, “I don’t know how you did it, but the chain of abuse is a little more broken in our family because, with no example of exactly how to do that, you still chose to figure it out and to try and break the chain.”
So for everything my dad suffered when he was growing up, he still, somehow managed to cobble together a new, albeit still imperfect, form of fathering.
While he could, yes, be a bit tyrannical at times throughout our lives, he never once hit me or my mother or my sister.
Life is hard. And in the 1930s, when my father was born, it was harder. I don’t pretend to even begin to understand what stresses my grandfather was under the day he did this thing to my father. It doesn’t matter because there is still no excuse. But people are never one-dimensional. They are always multi-dimensional. My grandpa was not all bad or all good or all in-between. He was just a man who was wrecked by his OWN personal tragedy of childhood – one that was far worse than what he put my father through. Not good, I know. But better. Sometimes we have to give thanks that is was better.
There are other stories about my dad growing up with his father - I know the unedited versions told to me from those who were there. But when I talk to my father about them, the reality of what his life felt like growing up in rural Iowa with a man who was at the same time his hero and his nemesis, is frosted with the white icing of fantasy. Memories are picked through, sifted and reassembled into an offering that is acceptable for human consumption.
What I wanted in my earlier life was to have my dad tell me his real story. I thought if I just could hear it, understand it, I would be able to accept him and not be so disappointed and angry about how my relationship with him had turned out. And yet I now know, that to tell, to reveal it would feel dishonorable to him – like asking him to give aid and comfort to the Viet Cong when he was in that war.
Bottom line - he simply was not going to talk about his reality as a child because it represented the same dishonor as deserting his fellow service members.
So for a time, I hated my grandfather for what he did to my dad.
But then I began to understand that the truth was, I hated Grandpa because of how, what he did to my dad, was affecting me. Hmmmm. Not really the same is it? Not such an honorable type of hatred, if there is such a thing.
So like the violins and cellos do at the end of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, I softened and surrendered to the father I had and I forgave the grandfather who created him.
When I think of it, the only reason I know about the abuse my dad suffered when he was six-months-old is because every single time we came to visit my paternal grandparents, my grandpa would tell the story. It would be silent and uncomfortable when he told the story. It usually started when he was standing in the kitchen. He would grow silent for a second and would bow his head and study the floor, his snowy head of hair tilting toward an unseen alter of his crimes somewhere near the kitchen sink. Tears would well in his eyes and he would tell the story and blame that ring he was wearing – if only he hadn’t been wearing it.
But really, he was begging – begging for forgiveness. So I did – forgive him. It was after he died, but I finally just let it go because my dad needed me to, I needed me to.
The real change for me came, though, when I gave up the fantasy father that I - for some reason - thought I was entitled to and accepted the flesh and blood father I had.
And when I did this, I saw my father for the first time. I really saw who he was.
Now days, I am sad that I ever wasted time being angry at him. That time…well, you never get that back and the truth is, when you are so incredibly angry at your parent, how can you even begin to feel good about yourself?
He’s amazing really, my dad. He is a colorful, if not a slightly profane man.
He was a fighter pilot who has flown just about everything anyone can call a jet. He led the 48 plane – stacked down overhead, Missing Man Formation for President Harry S. Truman’s funeral.
He’s a war hero, a patriot, a comic, a technical guru, a HAM Radio operator, an artistic woodworker, and a staunch conservative.
But most of all, most importantly he is the most gentle and caring man with a baby you would ever want to meet. When I could no longer deal with my daughter who was a tad colicky when we brought her home 29 years ago from the hospital, it was my dad who rocked her, who sang to her, who went to sleep with her on his chest.
My mother, who after 36 years divorced him but still tells us how she depended on him to help her with us when we were babies – how he carried us about with him everywhere.
I have a photo of my dad holding and playing with me when I was an infant. In it, he is laying on our couch in his Air Force uniform, obviously just home from work. He is holding me over him, looking into my baby face.
I stare at it at times for many minutes. And then I set it back down on the dresser and I thank God he gave me the father I have, instead of the father I thought I wanted.
Rachael Van Horn is a staff writer for the Woodward News.