I never liked the manner in which some parents continue to treat their “children” long after they’ve grown up. I remember reading about a 90 year-old father who still chided his 70 year-old son as if he was still a boy.
As I grew older and lived apart from my parents, I wanted an enlightened relationship. Perhaps “friends” was too much to hope for, but I wanted to be treated as an equal, not spoken down to, but listened to. But how to slowly bring about such a change?
My mother was always easier to converse with, and she was much more willing to relinquish her reins of parenthood on her 30-something, and then 40-something, child. My father had much greater difficulty. He grew up in the Depression and lived his life in that mindset. He never fully trusted banks, didn’t communicate much with his children but expected our obedience, and “taught” us what he could via yelling at us.
I have said, jokingly, that I learned everything from my father. His ideas were too often tinged with stubbornness and folklore, and I often took a contrary path to his advice. Mushrooms were messy and dangerous, so I took up mycology. Everything I needed to know about plants was in the grocery store, so I took up botany and ethnobotany. A computer was absolutely not needed, so I learned how to use a computer along with the rest of the world. Oil, high heat, and a teflon frying pan was all that you needed to know about cooking, so one of my brothers became a chef.
Still, he was my father. As the years rolled by in our separate adult existences, I made the effort to get to know my father as a person, to talk to him, to be a real friend. So I refused to go to the normal family holiday gatherings where there was too much food, a nonstop blaring TV, and loud simultaneous talking (and yelling) by everyone. Instead, I would visit the next day and sit and talk with my father and mother, sometimes with a pie or other homemade dish. He regarded it as odd that I’d rather do that holiday meeting the day after everyone else met, and he even once went so far as to call me a “bad son.” But as time went on, I could tell he was touched by having us share a reading and small meal the day after. He no longer chided me for non-attendance at family events.
Once, when trying to dissolve the parent-child bonds, I called him and began a discussion.
“Can I call you Frank,” I asked.
“Is something wrong?” he responded.
“No, nothing is wrong,” I told him. “I’m just trying to have a better relation with you.”
“Do you need money? Are you in trouble?” he asked with worry in his voice.
Needless to say, that conversation did not go as planned, but was still a step in the right direction.
When he died (after a long illness), I got the word via an early morning phone call. In a daze, I walked into the moderate rain, crying, talking to Frank. I walked for hours, and I felt that I “reached” him, and he seemed to appreciate our continuing conversation.
I’d learned to love and appreciate him in his final years. He was by no means an ideal father. He was full of strengths, and weaknesses, talents, and flaws. He “knew” quite a bit of stuff that was not so. But I grew to admire and attempted to emulate his positive attributes, while also attempting to learn from his mistakes and avoid those patterns in my life.
In this way, I can say that my father taught me. I chose to no longer hold him in the mental bondage of “flawed father,” just as I had demanded that he no longer hold me in the mental bondage of “deferential son.” Rather than see him as a “flawed father,” I saw that he was just another individual with his own life’s challenges, trying to make sense of this life, flaws and all.
By trying to see his life through his experience, I found that I could simply accept who he was, my father, one-half of the formula for bringing me into this world. At long last, I felt at peace with my own father, and felt an unconditional love towards him, years after he died.