My oldest son is doing some online genealogy at school. I suppose it must be for a project because it doesn’t sound like something he’s likely to pursue on his own. He’s more likely to study video game cheats, conspiracy theories, or ways to beat the school’s built-in fire-wall.
When I picked him up from school yesterday, he got in the car and the first thing out of his mouth was “I finally found out your dad’s name”. I froze and rapidly rewound every conversation I could remember in my head and realized that I have never discussed my father with my children. We’ve always concentrated on their living grandparents. Besides my mother, who was killed in a tragic accident just over a year ago, we never bring up the subject of family members who have passed on. Pets, yes. People, no.
Regarding my father, he rarely comes up even in my own life. He died in 1984 after a difficult battle with cancer. I knew him sober for only a year before the cancer took over. My years growing up with my dad are difficult to remember. Dad was a heavy drinker, and was in and out of treatment facilities. Growing up with an alcoholic parent is never easy.
When he was sober, he was an amazing person. It’s simple to see how my mother could fall in love with his charming good looks, sparkling personality, and rapid-fire intelligent wit. But he was an ugly and violent drunk. We never knew when he would be reasonable or if something minor would rile him up. My younger brother and I took refuge in our rooms when we could. It’s probably why I’m such a voracious reader today. Reading was a good excuse to lock my door and stay out of the way.
I don’t know how to discuss my dad with my kids so I have avoided it. Do I only talk about his Army career? I can tell them some things about his tour as a tank gunner in the Korean war, or as a paratrooper in Vietnam. I could describe how hard he worked to get his college education after he retired in 1976. His long hours holed up in his office, typing papers, and cobbling together two Apple IIe plus machines to form a network so he could FTP into the William and Mary College library to do research might make a good story. But my good memories are so few compared to the bad ones that I really don’t have much to say after that. Perhaps I just felt that if you can’t hold your dad up as a hero and a great role model, it would be best just to leave his memory be. Maybe we could just ignore anything that happened before my Junior year of high school.
Dad had a lot going for him when he was young – drive, passion, a strong sense of responsibility coupled with national pride, keen intelligence, and a desire to help people. He was a lead dancer at his mother’s ballet school, taught himself Spanish style guitar, and a was wicked good roller skater. He told us how my grandfather lied for him at the Army recruiting office, telling them he was 18 when he was only 17 so that he could sign up to go to war in Korea. Dad was hoping the Army would train him to be a doctor, but that didn’t pan out. He never lost that dream, and he hoped to pursue a PHD in Psychiatry after retirement, but he was derailed by his descent into drink and finally died too early at the age of 50, shortly after earning his Masters degree.
From what I was led to believe, he drank to manage the pain from nerve damage to his feet incurred by jumping out of planes through two tours in Vietnam. My earliest memory is me standing with him at the front door as he was headed out for tour number two. The sun was coming up behind him, and my mom was giving him a hug. The dog (we had a dalmatian at the time, named Snoopy) was trying to get in the action. That last tour broke him. War does horrific things to people. When dad came back, he was an entirely different person. Nothing was ever the same after that.
In retrospect, it’s not odd that I have not told the boys about their grandfather; but it’s not right. I need to ferret out the good parts – try to remember them – and give them a piece of history to hold onto. I see so much of what made dad a good person in my oldest son. It seems a shame to keep that from him. I’ll try to do better.