Before June ends, I’d like to write about my father. This will be a long post.
I didn’t think much of my father when I was growing up. I wanted a strong father, and he was a weak one. I considered him weak because my mother was always the dominant parent. I considered him uncultured because, even though he was a college graduate, he sounded like an uneducated hick to me with his “them old boys” and other such countryisms.
I didn’t find him particularly handsome; I thought he looked like Dagwood, minus the hair shocks. Also like Dagwood, he fell asleep easily and a lot. I was mostly ashamed of him.
Here’s some truth I’ve since learned about my father.
He was an alcoholic, although he was not drinking by the time I came along. He did not drink while he courted my mother, so she did not know she was marrying an alcoholic. She found out quickly after they were married when my father would go on week-end benders with friends from work. Since I never saw my father drinking, I did not know about his alcoholism until my mother explained, long after he died, what their marriage was like while he was drinking. That made me understood a little better why she was the strong one in the family.
My father was born in Oklahoma, but his father’s people came from Tennessee. His grandfather had fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. His mother was virulently racist. So my father inherited the usual southern baggage of racism and white privilege. He used the N-word. I wasn’t bothered much by that then because there was a lot of racism in Oklahoma, and I heard the N-word a lot. But I never heard him say it with malice, and I never heard him speak unkindly to black people, or for that matter, to anyone.
He was, in fact, a gentle, caring man. He loved my mother and my sister and me dearly, but I did not see or appreciate that at the time. He spanked me a few times for transgressions, but only because my mother made him do it, and I could tell his heart was not in it.
As a child, I saw how he cried when our cocker spaniel Lucky died. Much later, in 1968, my ex-husband and I eloped to get married after completing our masters degrees in English at the University of Oklahoma. I was 24; he was 25. My mother was with my older sister at that time, helping after the birth of my sister’s second daughter. My father was at home. I called my mother first to tell her I was married, and you would have thought I had said I just robbed a bank and killed the tellers. She chewed me out royally.
I then called my father at home, half-expecting more of the same. His first words were “Well, bless your heart.” I almost cried. I wanted to kiss him for that kindness. My mother’s love was conditional; my father’s was unlimited.
He had a fine mind. He was an avid reader. As a geologist, he knew and taught us about rocks. Hearing his down-home speech as a child, I dismissed him as a rube. Later, once at a summer music camp, once in college, I received two letters from him, admonishments for things I had failed to do or had done and shouldn’t have. I knew my mother made him write, but those letters were an awakening.
He had beautiful, strong handwriting. His grammar, spelling, and punctuation were impeccable. And he knew how to deliver a scolding that was firm, yet did not make me feel attacked as a person or unloved. My mother could have learned a lot from him.
Those letters were the beginning of my reassessment of him.
Like me, my father had depression. His depression did not manifest in sadness or a need for social isolation. On the contrary, he was usually a sunny, gregarious person. He enjoyed people. He laughed easily. He liked a story or a joke.
His depression was about a lifelong low energy that manifested in difficulty staying with projects to completion and a lack of ambition that led him away from activity and toward the couch or chair for a nap. I can’t count the number of hobbies he took up and then dropped. I can’t count the number of times I saw him nodding off in a chair.
Nodding off on the job was what got him fired. He was a petroleum geologist, starting at Sinclair Oil Company as an oil scout just out of college, and ending as a desk geologist in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sinclair was the only company he had ever worked for, and he was laid off, actually, rather than fired. The oil business in Oklahoma was in an economic downturn. Sinclair had to let people go. My father had been sleeping at his desk for years, and they had tolerated it in the good times, but they couldn’t afford to be so tolerant in a business downturn. Sinclair laid him off just before he would have qualified for a pension.
This happened while I was in high school. We were living in the university town of Norman, just south of Oklahoma City where my father commuted daily to work. After he was laid off he kept going to Oklahoma City every day for several months before he admitted to my mother he’d been laid off. A combination of wounded pride and cowardice, I suppose.
After that my father managed to scrape together a few temporary jobs, but he never worked full-time again. Our mother’s teaching job at University School was our only reliable income. Money was tight for us from then on. A big strain on an already strained family.
I’m happy to say there is a happy ending to the story. My mother was asked to join the faculty at a small college in Chickasha, not far from Norman. She got better pay, and a title. My father discovered, and stuck to, the joys of vegetable gardening. In time he qualified for social security. Then my mother retired with a nice pension and her social security, and they became more comfortable financially. They bought a small RV, started exploring the country, and gradually fell in love again.
In 1981, at age 75, my father died suddenly in an RV campground in Jackson Hole, Wyoming He and my mother had just visited me and my then-husband in Oregon before they left for Jackson Hole. It was a good visit. They were obviously happy. When I got the phone call from my mother she was crying, and I cried, too.
He had been a good man, and now I knew it.
Growing up I thought my father and I had nothing in common. Now I realize how I am like him:
- I got his big, blue eyes.
- I got his love of rocks and geology.
- I got his love of reading.
- I got his intellect and curiosity.
These are all good things.
I also got:
- his depression gene, and specifically, his low energy
- his difficulty sustaining interest in projects once started
- his genes for alcohol and other addictions. He smoked cigarettes most of his life until he finally had to quit because of pneumonia and emphysema. I started sneaking his cigarettes when I was thirteen. I smoked on and off for the next 50 years, and I lost track of the times I tried to quit before I finally did it.
These are not-so-good things.
But all in all: Thank you, Daddy. You were a sweet and gentle soul, and I’m proud to be your daughter.
Thank you for reading my blog.