I’ve been thinking a lot about fathers recently. Of course it was Father’s Day this past weekend, we have the feast of St. Joseph, and last week would have been my father’s 88th birthday—I can’t believe that he’s been gone almost eight years. Fathers have been on my mind, too, because I just finished reading Larry Elder’s book, “A Lot Like Me: A Father and Son’s Journey to Reconciliation”.
“A Lot Like Me” tells the story of Larry’s re-connection with his father at age 25, after barely speaking to him for 10 years. He flies to Los Angeles from his home in Cleveland intending to stand up to his father, to tell him all the ways he had hurt Larry when he was young. As Larry describes him, his father was “cold, ill-tempered, thin-skinned” and “always on the verge of erupting”. The punishments he doled out to his sons with a doubled over belt would be considered borderline abusive today.
When Larry confronted his father, he expected a blow up like so many times before. What he got was an 8-hour conversation and his first glimpse into his father’s early life. Larry’s dad never knew his own father. His mother had a string of boyfriends who abused her, and, occasionally, her son. At 13, his mother kicked him out of the house for irritating her latest “gentleman friend” and her parting words to him were “You’ll be back. Either that or in jail!”. He was taken in by a white family and he earned his room and board by working in the kitchen. He joined a segregated Marine unit in WWII and honed his culinary skills there. But when he went to find work as a cook in the Jim Crow era South, he was told he didn’t have any “references”. He moved his young family to California where he thought things would be different. They weren’t. He worked two jobs cleaning toilets to support his family, eventually saving enough to start his own small lunch counter. As they spoke, Larry began to understand and respect his father as a man, and realized that he had tried to be a good father, using what few tools he had been given.
Larry Elder’s book touched me, because my father could also be difficult, though not in the same way. My dad was witty, with a dry sense of humor and a curious mind. He passed on to me his love of card games, road trips and classic country music. I never doubted that he loved me deeply, but he could be distant. We never really had conflict, but we didn’t have a deep closeness, either. When Dad was in the last weeks of his life, terminally ill with cancer, I knew I needed to make peace with our relationship before he died. I went to see Fr. Doug, a retired priest in my parish who’s gentle manner had been instrumental in growing my faith. I told him about my relationship with my father, and my concern about his lack of faith as he lay dying. Fr. Doug looked at me and asked. “What was his childhood like?”
I recalled a conversation we had with Dad’s hospice nurse a few weeks before. She told my father that the hospice program offered the services of a person who would write your life story, capture your memories in words. My father’s response was typical. “Why would I want to do that?” “So your children and grandchildren can know about your early life, your childhood,” she said. He looked at her. “I didn’t have a childhood.”
His comment didn’t really surprise me—growing up in the Depression-era South wasn’t easy, his family ran a tent show so they moved frequently, exacerbating Dad’s solitary nature, and I knew his own father could be hard. But it saddened me that he clung to the hurt, even as he was facing the end of his life. Fr. Doug’s simple question really was a way of asking me to extend to my father the mercy and forgiveness that God extends to all of us. To look past his anger and understand the hurt boy inside that kept him from opening up.
When we are young we think we know everything about our parents—heck, we think we know everything, period—and we often judge them accordingly. It’s only when we mature, when life has tossed us around a little, that we can see our parents as people, with all the good and not-so-good that entails. Do I wish my dad had opened up more about the struggles of his younger years? Sure. Do I wish he had let go of some of the resentment he carried so his life could have been happier? So we could have had a closer relationship? Of course. But I’m not going to be angry or resentful about that myself. He taught me a valuable lesson about letting go and forgiving, even if he couldn’t achieve that in his life. And that’s a part of his legacy I’m going to hold onto.