If, as Freud believes, that only in our minds can the past and the present coexist, that there is no true forgetting, that every experience leaves a discoverable trace, that every memory of another person is partly a self-portrait (shredded as it may be by time, trauma, love), then this is how I want to remember my father: smelling of gasoline, cut grass, and the sweat of a humid summer afternoon in Springfield; happy, proud, and with a loving smile, maybe even a little goofy as he is, having conquered the lawn, his army-booted foot atop the spoils of the grass wars, triumphant, a souvenir of his prowess, skill, masculinity. Even the lawnmower is in on the fantasy, grinning as it is with its grill of metal teeth from rubber-tired ear to rubber-tired ear.
This memory is wish-fulfillment at its worst and an outright lie at its best. The few memories of my father that I have been able to dredge up from my childhood that are not based on photographs or what other people have told me over the years (at least the few years when I was interested enough to ask about him) are pleasing, warm, loving. But there is always the undercurrent of anger, abandonment, violence—supplied as it is by the adults’ refusal to discuss his goodness, the goodness that you can see for yourself in the photo. It is the image of man who loves someone, is it not? As a child, life is not seen in the grays that adults do, it is always black & white, good or bad.
Would his nurturing, such as it might have been, changed my nature? It’s not easy to imagine the difference his presence in my life may have had on the person that I am or that I was. I have to believe that there would have been friction as my nature exerted itself even as my desire to emulate him smothered my instincts, my sense of identity, my not being his idea of what a son should be.
His father loved me. As gentle a soul, as patient as Job, generous, understanding, complicit in the life of the grandchildren around him, and from the photographic memories left for me to divine, the same with his own son. Why then, I have to ask, was my own father’s influence denied me? What about him went wrong? And here, now, it comes to mind: could my mother have been wrong? Although that seems doubtful based on the reports from the field—particularly after his return from Vietnam, but even before then, he exhibited a dark side—that seems to indicate she was not.
Of course, it’s all “what if?” What if we had had a relationship, in spite of the divorce? What if summers had been spent with dad? What if he had sent me a card congratulating me on good grades or some other achievement? What if we had gone fishing, hunting or he had taught me car maintenance and repair (although Mary was a fine substitute for some of these steps on the ladder to manhood)?
Is it my failure as a writer that I cannot even imagine how his influence may have affected my life? Men were such foreign objects to me when I was growing up (inclusive of uncles and grandfathers, they were all too removed, either emotionally or geographically to have had any measurable impact) that trying to fathom their contribution to the life-learning education of a child seems too fantastical to consider. I look now at friends and co-workers who are fathers and I can clearly see the why and the how, the character stamp, the moral guidance, the humor, the sadness, the triumph and the failure of their influence on their children. (Some more successful than others, some got it right sooner, no need to practice on the first child and succeed with second where they failed with the first.)
And then there’s this: I know no father of a gay child. How easy would it be to accept that difference as a man, a father? Does having a gay child kill your dreams of a legacy, a future, a future where you exist as part of another human being? Your quest for immortality snuffed out by a chromosome. Oh yes, I know you’re reading this, you liberals, you enlightened ones, and thinking, “It would matter not, hetero- or homo-sexual, i would love them equally the same.” But I challenge you to dig deep and not find that little bit of regret that is hanging around like a cough that you just can’t squelch. (“Ahem,” he interjected.)
I would never have looked as eager to be camping with a bunch of strange boys as my father does in this photo. My social awkwardness with heterosexual men at that age (let’s say he’s 12 or 13) was a disability and immediately hung a big fat sign around my neck that read, “Not like you”.
Oh, I know you’re out there, the gay boys and men who fit as naturally into the hetero world as if there were no difference (or you’ve convinced yourself that you do), but there are many of us who never felt that way growing up. Adult life experience does change you, obviously. I do believe I can hold my own in a group of straight men, but I still lack the knowledge of the secret handshake, the code words, the key that opens the door to “hey buddy, wassup?” said in all earnestness, care, respect, and brotherly love.
The disappointment then. There is plenty of it. I never called him ‘dad’. If I called him anything as a child, it was probably some derivative of poppa. the only opportunity that I had to address him as an adult, we settled on Lee, his Christian name and that only came haltingly from my lips; I avoided calling him by name, if I needed his attention I waited until he was looking at me. We spoke hardly at all, the uncomfortableness of being in each other’s company a shroud, a winding sheet. He tried then, during that short period of time, to exert his influence over me, but I ignored it and did as I pleased without a comment from him. And then I left and he left and we left it at that.
It makes me cry. I don’t feel cheated, I’m not angry, I received a huge gift of love from my mother, my grandmothers, from Mary, and from my mother’s last husband, Roy. I am not advocating for the traditional family; I think children can be raised to be loving, caring, contributing members of society by single mothers, fathers, gay couples, and any other permutation of ‘family’ as long as there is love in their hearts, but I do feel the loss of the “what if I’d had a dad?” for good or for bad, however it may have played out.