My father and I agreed that I might be much better off today if he had left me at an orphanage after my mother died of polio a few months after my birth – he remarried twice. We agreed that the much vaunted American family is seldom what it was cut out to be by television producers in the Fifties: “If we peeled the roofs off most houses,” he said, “we’d find dens of vipers.” But my father did not abandon me altogether: he had promised my dying mother that he would look after me, and he did the best he could given his nature and conditions. Taking care of me meant putting me up with my grandmother in Phoenix, and with Mrs. Metzger in Oklahoma, and then he tried to make a home for me in Kansas with a stepmother who happened to hate my very existence after I arrived.
In sum, I was only acquainted with my father for six of the first twelve years of my life, and then he was mostly at work – he took me to the missile base one day and showed me the missile in its silo. I ran away from my Kansas home when I turned thirteen; I grew up on the streets of Chicago, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco. I could list a few more cities in the context of my development; notwithstanding my physical maturity, I am not fully grown. And despite the brevity of my relationship with my father, I could say a great deal about him here. Of course most of it would really be about me. But who really cares about me? Most of what I might say on the subject of my father would annoy those readers whom I would fain reach, readers like me, whose own development was troubling and who are therefore too interested in themselves and their own fathers to care much about mine. I know from my own experience that the troubled Child within is unaware of the fact that one of the best ways to understand one’s own father and self is to study other fathers, fathers who are generally blamed for the faults of their grown children, including the pain and anger the child has suppressed in order to survive and to get fatherly approval if not motherly unconditional love. The lack of approval and love, if it does not kill the child one way or another, can make the deprived but well disciplined child even more selfish and antisocial than the pampered and spoiled child down the street.
I was a troubled child and a juvenile delinquent. I am now a relatively harmless rebel without a cause or portfolio. I am still deprived – of a leather jacket and motorcycle – my father was a motorcyclist. Although I had lost my mother to the polio epidemic, I was not unloved by my father. His severe countenance, no doubt fashioned to a certain extent by his own father, by poverty during the Great Depression, and by his role in the mass murders and organized terrorism of World War II, was frightening enough to terrify us all, but his stern, unforgiving face, military bearing and muscular boxer’s body was a façade. He was at heart a hapless romantic who from time to time fancied himself as a mother imprisoned in a tough man’s body.
The late Bob Sigman, an old friend of mine whose calling was psychoanalysis, remarked that someone must have loved me dearly in my infancy. Well, I do not consciously remember my infancy nor do I want to, but my father recently laid claim to the love: He said he had taken the role of my loving mother to heart after she died. After all, my name means “beloved.” But somehow I became a twisted and stunted plant – he liked to repeat our family’s traditional saying: “Beware of the seed that falls on rocky ground.”
Of course I blamed my father for the pain and anger I felt, especially during his long, accusatory lectures, which sometimes turned into extended tirades – he was a frustrated lawyer and a Maoist of sorts – during which I prayed to my mother, who had by then become my one and only god in Heaven. His main complaint, which I could not fathom at the time, was this: I did not approve of him! In fact, he accused me of persecuting him with disapproval. But that did not seem fair, for it was I who desperately needed approval. It was only many years later, after my sister hung up on me because she thought I was our father calling her, that the meaning of “Like father, like son,” dawned on me, and I wondered how the cycle might be broken for the betterment of our conservative human race if not myself.
I am no longer ashamed of my past, nor do I blame my father for it anymore. The pool of pain I had harbored for so many years vanished when I visited him in Kansas City in his old age and let it all hang out. Mind you, he was really the last person I wanted to see after all those years, but I got off the plane in flyover country because he said he was dying of leukemia and wanted to see me before his body was carted off to the university for medical experiments to avoid burial expenses. That was nine years ago: he is still alive, and he would still like to know how his estate might avoid the high cartage fee to the university charged by licensed corpse transporters.
Confronting my past was a frightful endeavor – an old photograph shows my little half-brother, half-sister, and me sitting on a couch, absolutely terrified. My father had not changed at all. Or, rather, the past as I saw it had not changed. I had run away and had managed to move on to a certain extent, while he was, as are many old folks, reliving the past every day. He was self-controlled and more than courteous during most of my stay, yet he was manipulative in an insidious way, and I could not tolerate the clinging; he had wound up completely alone; he obviously wanted me to give up my life and stay in Kansas City. Bob had cautioned me to remember that I owed my father nothing at all, that I must be my own man, and not my father’s. The fact that I showed up at all did my father some good, and I got him into much better living circumstances. But I could not stand recounting the past, dwelling on the painful details, rubbing salt in every wound, and I told him so. As a consequence, there were recapitulations, recriminations, and outrageous scenes – I played the outraged son, and his role was no less absurd.
After all was said and done, the pool of pent-up pain that had clouded my vision was gone. I looked at him and saw not my “father” but a rather kindly old man, a man who cried when he saw homeless people on the street – they reminded him of the Depression, and gave them money; an old man who thought he had done the best he could under the circumstances including his own emotional disturbances, yet an old man who felt responsible and guilty for his children’s fates; an old man who was afraid of dying without making some sort of peace with the world through his children – the tragedy for him is his inability to reconcile with his daughter, who lives a few miles away in Lawrence – what is it with fathers and daughters? And this old man I met in Kansas City had a mean streak and could get quite cranky. It was almost as if I had gotten acquainted with a stranger whom I had mistaken for my father, and I did not hate him one bit. There was no need to reconcile or to forgive anyone: in fine, my naïve impression was gone. My father has his faults, but he loved me when I needed love the most, and no doubt he would use his bottom dollar to bail me out of jail if need be – what more could a son ask for?
I got out of Dodge without a scratch and am a better person to boot. My father and I chat on the phone every week or so. Kansas City, by the way, is not a bad place to raise a family.