This is the second in series of blog posts about my father who I never got to know. Since he died before I was born, much of my life has been a mystery: How am I like him? How am I different? Some of my childhood was spent visiting with his family, a tragic and misfortune ridden portion of my familial DNA. I thought to shield my girls from this side of my childhood, but then I reconsidered. Perhaps knowledge of them will protect my daughters against the mistakes they might otherwise make. In understanding the mistakes of others, maybe they will see the need to act with compassion for all. No one is immune from hurtful errors. But no one is above the receipt of compassion, either.
Dear Alexandria and Mary Ellen,
My relationship with my biological father was confined to the one way conversations I had with a black trunk that contained the sum of his remaining worldly possessions. I would pull out his Marine Corps “Class C” blouse and imagine that he did something heroic to earn the Sergeant’s stripes and hash mark. I would flip slowly through the pages of his Paris Island graduation book, stare at his picture and daydream that maybe I could be a Marine like him. I would read the letter that the Commandant sent to my mother after my father died; “you will always be part of the Marine Corps family,” it said. If the Marines said that my mom was part of their family, didn’t that mean that I was too? But, the martial apparel, shiny buckle and folded flag juxtaposed with pictures of his smiling face concealed something of an ugly backstory: His life had been hard.
I know that he did not grow up in a happy home. His father (my grandfather, whom you both met but cannot possibly remember) was an Army Sergeant, then a prison guard, and always a violent drunk. I can recall him disappearing for weeks at a time to go stay at the “Soldier’s Home.” What that was I can only begin to guess, but I imagine that he had gone on a drinking binge and gotten himself kicked out of the house. My grandmother was no angel either. In what I am sure was a desperate reach for some sort of loving kindness, she had an affair with another man. That liaison resulted in the second son.
Let me pause here to say this: I am not being judgmental; people are prone to all sorts of temptations and we all have the ability to do incredibly hurtful things. God, in his ever loving kindness, forgives all transgressions. I fully believe that as bad as ending up in another person’s bed is, that does not forever condemn the offender. No one is beyond redemption and everyone is capable of giving and receiving forgiveness. That being said, I want you to know these things because they provide a window into the emotionally charged environment that my father grew up in. These events also serve as a grave warning: Remain faithful in all things, but especially to your spouse. The lack of trust and kindness in that house resulted in each of the children who grew up in that home (and their children’s children, including─ to a lesser degree─ your’s truly) having profoundly dysfunctional relationships and lives filled with trouble.
My father had two brothers and a sister; Ronnie (who died in the 1980’s), Trent, and Patty. Each of them generally kept the secrets of the traumas past, but there was no hiding their pain. I could feel their despair, even as a very young child. The signs and symptoms that warned of a great sadness lurking beneath their smiles were detectable even to me: The strained tone that contaminated my mother’s voice whenever we were at my grandparents’ house, the strange terms that seemed like code, references to soldier’s homes, the sudden tears and the strange exhortation to never be around my grandfather if he had a gun (with nothing else in the way of explanation). As I grew up the layers of their dysfunction were slowly peeled away, even as Candy tried to shield me from that side of their existence.
But, I kept a secret too: I was scared. I was always afraid of them. I was afraid of their tears. I was afraid of becoming like them. I was afraid that somehow sharing their blood would doom me to a hard life filled with poor choices and an early death. In some ways, I am afraid to say, that fear came to pass. I too have made my share of mistakes.
To hear Candy tell of that side of the family, my father was the one sane son who defended his mother against his drunken father. He was the one great hope that they all had that one of them would turn out alright. He was, and in some ways still is, representative of the sum of that family’s hope─ even for the ones still left alive he represents a glorious future eternally suspended. But, based on much later events in my own life, I now believe this vision of my father as peacemaker is an over simplification of the actual facts. Once, after observing me in a terrible rage, Babbo said to your mom that I was frightening Candy and him and that they were concerned that I might have an issue with anger like my father. I am not sure that Babbo wasn’t a little bit correct in that assessment and I think his statement provides some truthful context as to who my father really was. We all have a dark side that we must be wary of. It is only by God’s grace and the love of your mother that I keep my own dark side locked securely away, as if it was part of the inheritance my father left me in that big black trunk.