1 Corinthians 13:11 — “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things.” But sometimes life is a cheat, and adult understanding, wisdom, does not come in time to allow one to make amends and prevent regrets.
Although my dad was strict and overprotective, I wanted with all my heart to please him. I frequently did not, because I excelled at doing foolish kid stuff. Also, underneath my timidity I had a defiant streak. He never once struck me, but when he was truly angered he’d pull off his belt and threaten to spank me. He never did, yet I would be brokenhearted and frightened of his anger.
Later in life, I was told he had been whipped and beaten as a young child by a step-parent, and he was meting out the only discipline he knew. I knew nothing of this when I saw him angry, with a belt in hand. I could not know he was too tenderhearted actually to strike me. The result was rule by intimidation and fear. Sadly, he didn’t know how to balance the intimidation with expressions of affection, because he had not been shown much of that in his childhood either.
As I said, I was only a kid and I did some truly stupid things to anger him. One time I was all dolled up in a light cotton dress and anklet socks with lace cuffs, because we had a house full of company. I was hiding from a rowdy cousin in a closet, with a good book and a glass of sweet tea. When the tea was gone, I absentmindedly began to crunch on an ice cube. The cold hurt my teeth, so I wrapped the ice in a corner of the skirt of my dress, and sucked it comfortably, sometimes crunching down on it. I was too absorbed in my book and continued to crunch on ice cubes through the fabric of my skirt. When I looked down and realized I had made a hole in the skirt of my fancy dress, I knew I was in trouble.
Then there was the summer that my blue-collar father was on the graveyard shift at the aeronautics manufacturing plant where he worked as a tool and die maker. It was very hot that summer, near St. Louis, and we had no air conditioning, only an attic fan to move the stifling air around. My dad was tired and desperate for some rest.
I was an oblivious nine-year old, playing in our yard with my eight-year old neighbor friend. We decided to make up a new game, with a rubber ball. It was an intricate and competitive game of throwing the ball against a wall, making it bounce before we caught it. We took turns, making each progressive level harder by throwing the ball under our leg, clapping once or more before catching, or adding moves like having to whirl completely around before the ball rebounded and we caught it. We grew louder as the game excited us, and we were laughing and arguing about who was winning. I suppose you can imagine the sound a small, red rubber ball makes when thrown repeatedly against the outside wall of a house. I’m sorry to say we had chosen to play this game directly under the open window of the bedroom where my dad was struggling to get some sleep.
I was in trouble again.
When I wasn’t actively getting into trouble, I was busy resenting him. He was very protective, over-protective, because he lived in fear of something harming me. I didn’t understand. I felt he was just mean. I felt he didn’t trust me, that he thought I was a bad person who would mess everything up if he didn’t control me.
He wouldn’t let me take swimming lessons (I might drown) and when we visited grandparents at the lake where they lived I was not allowed to go in the water (I might drown). When I cried and pleaded to be permitted to go to a boy/girl party in high school, which involved swimming in a backyard pool, at first my overprotective father refused. Then, to my utter surprise he allowed me to go, but insisted on going and sitting out on their patio by the pool. He was the only parent there besides the host parents, so there was that embarrassment.
Ironically, because I had never learned to swim, while horsing around in the pool I slipped into the deep end and started to go down, choking and spluttering. My dad sprang to the edge of the pool and hauled me out by my arm. I was totally, utterly humiliated, and the party was over for me. He asked me to get dressed and took me home. He saved my life that day, because I was quietly panicking in the water and my friends were too busy playing and flirting to notice. I had reinforced my dad’s fears and his determination to keep me out of water, so I still did not learn to swim until I went to college.
He was wrong to be so over-protective, and I spent years resenting it deeply. It took a long time before I recognized that, for whatever reasons, he was living a life almost completely paralyzed by fear. A deep-seated fear that something bad would happen to me. I thought he was just being mean and cruel. I thought he really did not trust me to behave and be a good girl. He almost never let me go on a date. Because. You know. BOYS.
One of the crowning blows was when he refused permission to go with a group of my friends downtown to the Beatles concert in the baseball stadium. He broke my teenage heart. I resented that for years and years. I still think he was wrong. But he feared urban crime, rowdy crowds, stadium collapses, fatal car accidents, and maybe the apocalypse, for all I know.
When I became a mother my two baby girls broke my heart wide open and it felt like all the love in the universe rushed in, along with fear for their well-being. That is when I began to have glimmers of how he may have felt. I also began to remember how much time my dad spent with me as I grew up.
How he coached my softball team for years, coaxing his awkward, non-athletic daughter into a love of the game and a respectable level of competence. How we went to three Cardinals games each summer, because I earned free student tickets with straight A grades in school, and he shared his deep love of baseball with me. (I am still an ardent Cardinals fan.) How he took me once to the finals of a women’s semi-pro fast pitch softball tournament when he was trying to inspire my pitching to greater heights.
How he faithfully drove me every week across the Mississippi into Illinois for two years in high school, because I played in a small town Civic Orchestra directed by my high school orchestral music teacher. How he sat in the dark auditorium for hours listening to classical music, about which he knew nothing, as we rehearsed. How he would stop occasionally at the neighborhood bar on the way home from those rehearsals and buy me a Coke, let me play Skee Ball or a pinball machine with a quarter or two. The social norms about minors going into bars with parents were quite relaxed in our working class neighborhood, and for me it was a real treat. It made me feel grown-up and special to sit in the semi-dark, on a bar stool next to my dad, sipping a Coke, admiring the impressive array of neon advertising signs behind the bar (some were animated, some had bubble effects).
Being callously young, I didn’t stop to calculate how much time my dad gave me, often after working long overtime shifts to make ends meet. As a grown woman, I began to understand his devotion to doing his best for me. Maybe that was his way of making up for overprotecting me and cramping my social life. When he felt he could protect me, he let me spread my wings as much as possible. I never spoke about it with him so I can only surmise. Opportunities to talk to each other as adults were rare.
There was one visit to my home, a time when I was expecting his second granddaughter but didn’t know it yet, when we connected in a deeper way. He and I sat outside on my deck to enjoy the lovely summer evening drawing down. There are woods and a marsh behind my home and we have wildlife. We sat and listened to birdsong, watched deer browse. The night settled upon us, and in the dark, he began to speak with more emotion than I had ever heard from him. He said the deer were so very beautiful that it made him regret that he had ever taken a deer rifle out into the Missouri woods and shot them. I was shocked to hear him say this, because through the years hunting was one of his deepest pleasures. He shared great bonds with the uncles, half-brothers, and step-dad with whom he spent days and nights hunting.
This admission opened something in him, and I think the darkness helped. He shared other revelations. How he missed his mother who had passed away a decade ago. How much he enjoyed his granddaughter. He called her his little buddy. How he remembered walking the floor so many nights with me when I was little, because I had terrible, painful ear infections. How it broke his heart because he couldn’t take my pain away.
I never heard my dad speak this way before. He disliked emotional displays. The first and only time he ever hugged me was when he said goodbye to me after driving me two states away from home to attend college. When I traveled home as a married woman to attend the funeral of his mother he escorted me up to ‘say goodbye’ as my beloved grandmother lay in her casket. When I broke into harsh, audible sobbing, his arm tightened around me in silent rebuke, letting me know I needed to control myself. Hearing him speak with so much emotion that summer evening on my deck left me stunned and silent.
I did not take the opportunity to tell him how I felt about him then. I only listened. We didn’t know it that evening, but his life was coming rapidly to an end. My dad suffered from serious heart disease, multiple heart attacks having caused extensive damage. We lost him a little over a year later, when his second granddaughter was six months old. If I had known how little time we had left together, might I have spoken that evening of how I loved him? I will never know.
He died a little over twenty-eight years ago. I still miss him every day.