Conversations with my father

"Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty."–Elie Wiesel

Last night my in-laws were over for dinner and over Rummikub tiles we talked about our relatives.  As it turns out, my husband is from a family full of Yankees and I'm from a family full of Confederates.  My father-in-law mentioned having a great-great-great-great grandfather who was a general for the Union … I have a great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather (something like that) who was a general on the other side.  We laughed as we imagined our ancestors rolling over in their graves at the very thought of the union between my husband and I.  Quite seriously he has relatives with the first name "Ulysses" and the middle name "Grant" and I have relatives with the first name "Robert" and the middle name "Lee."  Oops.

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IMG_0001Genealogy has always been a subject of fascination in my family.  In her latter years, my mother's mother obsessively researched her family's bloodlines as a hobby.  I have boxes and boxes of files containing pencil-written notes and lists of dates and family trees in her lilting cursive.  My grandmother had two older sisters and five older brothers who did fascinating things like chase Pancho Villa across Mexico on horseback (as her brother Rob did), work for railroads, have seven children of their own … you get the idea.  Her father was killed in a train-car accident when she was in her early twenties and her mother lived nearly 30 more years.  My own mom has memories of living with "Gongi" and her parents until she was twelve.  My grandmother could talk for hours about her family, and she would.  She knew every single name and every story there was to tell.  And she told the stories. And so now I know them too.

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My mother and her grandmother, "Gongi" (also pictured: Her dog, Henry, who happens to be a lookalike for my dog Henry).

Conversations like the ones I was having with my in-laws often turn to my own mother and father and their people. The subject of my father's family (unlike my mother's side) is sticky for me.  I know generally that my father's mother was from Texas and his father's family was from Virginia, but they moved around a lot because my granddad was in the Air Force.  They eventually settled down in Virginia and that's where my parents met and where I was born.  We moved when I was a few months old and I have memories of visits, but my mother's mother passed away when I was 18 (both of my grandfathers had already passed away by then). I kept in touch with my remaining grandparent – my dad's mom – through letters and the occasional phone call while I was in college.  My father's departure from our family when I was 22 all but ended that contact.  

When my father left seven years ago, he took everything with him.  Every photo and every scrap of paper from his past was packed up in the back of a U-Haul truck never to be seen again.  There was a photo of my granddad as a young man standing in the snow in his Airmen's uniform that I always loved.  There were copies of his combat medals which included the Purple Heart and the Star of Bravery.  I had a sense that there was history there.  That there was a story to tell.  I had hope to still hear it one day.

My father died as the result of a drunken accident in his home on July 6, 2006.  We had not seen each other in four years, and the phone conversations we'd had during that time were quarterly shouting matches about the messy divorce, about his infidelity and lies … there was a lot of anger on both sides.  I was angry at what he had done and his refusal to make amends for it, he was angry at me for cutting him out of my life.  The last time we talked was in the October preceding his death.  I sensed that for the first time since he'd left that he was listening when I told him that yes, I did love him but it was going to take time for me to forgive him and try to build a new relationship.  I've rewritten that conversation so many times in my head in the years since it transpired.  I didn't know it would be the last time we would speak.  I didn't know that I wouldn't have time to forgive.

Later I learned that a few weeks after we spoke – on his fifty-third birthday – he married his mistress. I've often looked back at that point of contact as my father's one attempt, and subsequent failure, to be honest with me.  Nine months later he was dead and I had no access to the paper trail of his history which now lived with his new wife in his new home in the new life that he had constructed around himself in a protective fort. There was no way out for him and there was no way in for me.

In the years since his passing the anniversary of his death sneaks up on me so soon after Fathers Day.  I think about what I was doing at this time three years ago: Sitting in a hospital in Kentucky with my comatose father, holding his hand, telling him that I forgave him for all the shit he'd put us through and that it was all right for him to move on when they finally turned the machines off.  It comforts me to imagine that if my father could have opened his eyes and sat up in those final moments he would have chastised me, probably saying something like, "I wondered if you'd come."  Because he is like me, he would have wanted to have the last word, but instead I was the one with that unfortunate honor.  There was no more contradiction left between us.  It was him and me and I unleashed everything I'd wanted to say to him over the past four years and watched his heartbeat quicken on on the monitor even though his brain activity remained flatlined.  I screamed at him and wept over him.  I told him that I loved him and that it was all right. It was going to be all right now.

While others are making plans for fireworks and barbeque I find myself lost in a sea of questions. How do I explain to Sydney the absence of any photographic evidence of my paternal grandparents?  Who are these people from whence she came?  I can rearrange photos on the mantel all I want … but they are not in the photos there.  Those people seem so distant to me now because I know so little about them and have no hope to learn more.  I wonder what I should tell my daughter about her grandfather who died before she was born.  I wonder if it will one day be ok for me to put a photo of my dad somewhere in my house, if doing so will ever not feel like a betrayal to my mother and my sister, even to myself. 
 
In many ways my father was a wonderful man and because of that it makes me angry at him for all that we're missing now.  All that he's missing.  It's hard for me to talk about him at all.  It hurts.  There are questions I can't even answer for myself because I don't understand what happened or why it did.

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All I know is that I had a father once, I loved him, and he has a story.  I can't just pack the memory of him up in a box and put it away.  I came from somewhere.  Beyond the dark territory of our last days there are good memories; there are moments of my life that I would never trade.  I know I was blessed to have a good father who loved me, for however brief of time it was, no matter how terribly it all ended.  It's the sifting through the rubble of anger and loss – what is on top of those good things – that is the problem.  I don't know how to make those things go away, or even if I should.  To whence do we clear those things that weigh us down?  Is there some basement or garage of the soul that I don't know about yet?

And so the storytelling is left to me.  There are puzzle pieces to fit together, names to learn, dates to list on pads of paper.  I wish I was more like Grandmother, who fiercely tracked details down one by one until her family tree was full.  Instead I hide inside myself, afraid to ask about Daddy, about his parents, about their parents.  I wonder, what are their names?  What did they do?  Where did they live?  What were they like?  

And who will tell me?
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5 thoughts on “Conversations with my father

  1. Dave Veerman says:

    I have fond memories of great times with your family (great dinners and games) and with Hollis: the Gathering, building phase one of our church, golf marathon, running, growth group, The Simpsons, coaching soccer, jokes (“I think I’ll just slip in here . . . “), Great America, and talks—unfortunately, like many men, we didn’t get too deep. I have been impressed, Amanda, at the mature, Christ-focused woman, wife, and mom you have become and how God has worked in you and through your father-loss. And the best is yet to come! May you know his deep healing. (Romans 8:38–39.)

  2. kristen says:

    Wow. Your story sounds so much like mine I hope it’s alright to share a little here with you. (I couldnt find an email so…) my dad was a head pastor of a large church when my family found out he had been having an affair. 3 years of abuse, pain and anguish have come since then. my parents are in the middle of a divorce, he lives in SC after getting fired from the church, my mom lives here in OH with my sister and I. Him and I fight all the time and he can’t seem to do anything but cause pain. I recently (for the 4th time) have cut off all contact with him. Reading your blog made me just cry. Im so sorry about your father and I feel like I might know just how you have felt.

  3. Raven says:

    I have maybe 10 pictures of my own childhood. I have no contact with my birth parents whatsoever and I can’t imagine that will change in my lifetime.

    My son is 14 now and he understands to a point. I haven’t filled him in on all the gory details of what went on in my life but unfortunately some people took that choice out of my hands and told him things he wasn’t ready for, things I hadn’t decided if he was ever going to know. He has grandparents in his life and honestly that is enough for him. One set is enough. Had it not been brought to his attention, he never would’ve questioned. Children are accepting like that, as long as it’s a house of love, they don’t feel the holes that we project.

    At any rate, saying the final words are so important and at the very least you were able to say them while he was still “here”. I had a somewhat similar situation with my step dad and my final words were said in front of a church full of people at his funeral. Some 17 years later, I am finally able to give myself some clearance on that one.

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