Friday, June 17, 2011

Father's Day: Remembering a Complicated Love

There aren't any Father's Day cards made for the kind of Father I had.

He wasn't a benevolent Daddy. He wasn't a pipe-smoking golfer or a duck hunter or the bland but benign Dad of 50's situation comedies. He wasn't a good-natured guy who brought home the bacon.

He was a difficult, conflicted man. Although charming to co-workers and employees, he could be a beast at home. Though sometimes tender as a parent, he could also terrorize. Though he has been dead for more than 30 years, I can still feel the impact he had on my life.

My father was, at once, nurturing and encouraging, abusive and devastating. "You think I'm crazy?" he would shout. "Well, you kids made me that way. Having children ruined my life. Everything was great until you came along. Marriage with children is the absolute, complete catastrophe of my life."  The words stung more than I knew. For many years, well into adulthood, I carried the heavy burden of knowing that my father's life had taken a horrible turn the minute I, the firstborn, came into the world.

 He could be monstrous. He would stagger drunkenly around the house, waving a loaded gun, threatening to kill us. Mike, Tai and I would retreat to the bedroom we three shared and push our dresser firmly against the door to keep him out. Then we would lie flat on the floor, afraid to breathe, to sleep, to cease our vigilance.  He was frighteningly abusive to Mike especially -- beating him into unconsciousness, forcing him to wear one of my dresses when he thought Mike was being a sissy for crying during a beating, once giving him what he claimed was a lethal injection and chuckling as Mike and I sat up all night, clinging to each other, sobbing and waiting for Mike to die. He would fly into rages and scream that he hadn't been able to fly in combat in World War II, having to settle for being a stateside test pilot, that his dreams for medical school and a career as a physician never became reality because of us. At such times, we would do anything possible to stay out of his way.

On the other hand, he could be surprisingly gentle, loving and encouraging. He held me in his arms and cried when I was diagnosed with polio at age six. He encouraged me to start writing as soon as I learned to read. He emphasized, over and over, as I was growing up the importance of getting a good education, having a direction in life, planning a lifelong career. He tutored me in math, my least favorite subject, insisting that I was buying in to society's limitations on women's achievement by thinking I couldn't do math. He wanted me to succeed and encouraged me every step of the way at every level of school.

The dramatically different aspects of his personality and parenting were scary and confusing.  As a child, I often wondered what caused his erratic behavior. And as I grew older, he told me stories about his own childhood and I began to understand, at least a little.

He had adored his father, a gentle, scholarly man who didn't believe in hitting kids to discipline them. Prompted by his wife's shreiks to "Take this boy to the woodshed and heat the tar out of him!",  Henry would walk slowly to the woodshed with Jim, whip in hand. They would sit and talk, his father explaining why what he did was wrong, how he needed to change this behavior. Eager for approval, my father would agree, tears in his eyes for disappointing his Dad. When they emerged from the woodshed, his mother would see the tears and nod with satsifaction. His father, an attorney who worked with under-served minorities in Tucson, Arizona,  occasionally took him along to visit clients -- Chinese immigrants and Native Americans. Jim would watch, fascinated, as Henry spoke Chinese and Navajo with his clients, watch the mutual respect, enjoy treats offered -- lychee nuts and fry bread. He thought his father was the greatest person in the world.

                                  Baby Jim and his beloved father Henry in 1913      

Unfortunately, his father died when he was only eight years old. He had gone to Mexico to seek treatment for a disorder that my father always suspected was pernicious anemia and he had died there. His mother couldn't bear to tell her young children that their father was dead -- so she didn't. She told them that he was on a long business trip.

Six months after his father's death, classmates at his Catholic elementary school teased Jim about his father's death: "Your Daddy's dead! Your Daddy's dead!"

"No he's not!" Jim yelled back. "He's on a business trip! My Mom said so!" A group of classmates took him to the cemetery near the church and showed him his father's grave.  Jim fell on the grave, screaming and sobbing. The intensity of his grief was so frightening, the other boys ran away. When he told me this story, more than 50 years later, tears rolled down his cheeks.

When he got home and confronted his mother about it, she beat him and threatened further mayhem if he dared tell Molly the truth. So it would be another five years before Molly would find out that her Daddy was dead.

                                          Jim, Molly and their Mother in 1921  

Soon after, his mother, quickly losing her grip on sanity and sobriety, moved the family from Tucson to Los Angeles so my father could support the family by working in the movies and in vaudeville. He hated acting but was good at it -- and it was something he felt he had to do.  The family lived in a boarding house in downtown Los Angeles. His mother mostly drank. And when money was tight, she would beat  and berate Jim for not being a better provider.  So, in addition to his film and vaudeville work, he started selling and delivering The Saturday Evening Post and doing night janitorial work at the Central Market in downtown L.A.  And after his mother died of alcoholism when Jim and Molly, who had skipped three grades, were teenage college students, Jim continued to work multiple jobs to support them and get both himself and Molly through college at UCLA.

                                    Jim in movie publicity still about 1924
                                    (The freckles are mostly make-up for the film!)            

Hearing his stories about the hardships of his early life, I would bristle with anger. "Your mother was a horrible person," I would say. "She had an education. She was an English teacher before she married. How dare she take your childhood away and demand that you support the family and then beat you for not being a better provider?"

My father's face would soften. "Oh, no," he would say. "She was a wonderful person in so many ways. I guess you had to have been there."

As a parent, my father showed signs of his own father in gentle storytelling and encouragement to grow, but more signs of his brutal, drunken mother in angry words, belittling, beating, lashing out in fury. I alternately loved and feared him. When he would go on business trips, we all -- my mother included -- would call that time "The Golden Opportunity" to have fun, to relax, to live without fear.

On my 13th birthday, he lost his executive-level job in a corporate merger -- but, really, because of his alcoholism.  He was never able to get another one.  He started a small manufacturers' rep business, selling rubber magnetic strips cut to order.  The cutting was done with an ancient punch press without a guard device. He decided that we -- Mike, Tai and I -- should run the punch press -- a scary mini-guillotine -- "because I'm the breadwinner and if I lose a finger or part of my hand, it would be a disaster. You're just a kid. If you lose a finger, it doesn't really matter."

Despite our efforts, the business never really took off. Father continued to drink, could never get up before noon and rarely made the sales calls necessary to help the business grow. We slid from upper middle class to near poverty.  And an atmosphere of chaos and despair settled over the household.

                               Unhappy Family Man - Summer 1966 - with, from left:
                               Tai, 11, Mike, 17, Mother, Father, and me, 21.            

As an adult, I felt sadness for father's pain and disappointments and his ailments  -- diabetes, Parkinson's, heart disease -- and fury at his rejections and belittling. He tossed my first book - THE TEENAGE BODY BOOK -- the only one of my books that my parents would live to see published -- aside, calling it "dirty and disgusting." He refused to meet Bob or my sister's first husband Larry, locking himself in the bedroom when we would come over. My sister eloped. Bob and I had a lovely wedding -- which he boycotted.

The day he died, my mother and I were going through his safe, looking for his military discharge papers to give to the mortuary for veteran's benefits for his funeral. She picked up a manila envelope and handed it to me.

"Take this home and read this," she said. "It's important that you read it. It will explain a lot."

It was a transcript of the divorce proceedings from his brief first marriage. In this, his wife Mary and her mother described in detail his outrageous, abusive behavior. I gasped as I read their testimony. So he was like that long before I entered the world. I didn't ruin his life after all. The weight of that responsibility slipped off my shoulders and soul.  I felt instantly lighter. I hadn't realized the burden I had been carrying.

In the months after his death, I felt so much bitterness and anger fall away as I reflected on the pain of his life, the disappointments and dreams that, for a variety of reasons, none related to his family, didn't come true.

And yet, I can see him in all our dreams that did come true.

Mike would live Father's dreams -- for his own reasons, not for Father: he was a fighter pilot in combat in Vietnam and, when he returned home, he went to medical school at Stanford. A noted physician and expert in medical informatics, he is currently affiliated with both Harvard Medical School and USC after many years as the CIO of UCLA Medical Center.  The battered little boy his father said would never amount to anything has become what his father wanted to be but could never be: a sober, successful physician and a consistently loving, nurturing father.

In fact, Mike closely resembles the loving Dad our father lost too soon: the physical resemblance is startling and he is also a gentle, scholarly man who doesn't believe in hitting children to discipline them. Like the grandfather he never knew, he speaks multiple languages fluently and has a fascination with Asia. Our grandfather lived in China for some years in his youth. Mike has lived in Thailand and now, married to a wonderful Thai woman, splits his time between homes in the U.S. and Thailand.

Tai, whose strong spirit and warm, loving nature were evident early on as she sat with our mother in the bathroom during gall bladder attacks, holding her head as she vomited and saying softly "Mommy, I won't leave you."  eventually became the caring and competent nurse that our parents were convinced she could -- and should --be.

And, though he took issue with some of my subject matter,  I became the writer Father always encouraged me to be.

As Father's Day approaches once again, I think about my father.  I feel immense sadness at the pain of his life and sadness that he passed the pain on to his own children. I feel grateful for the resilience my siblings and I had in making our own lives. I feel regret that he wasn't able to share in the happiness of our marriages and career milestones. I'm sorry that he didn't get a second chance at loving via grandparenthood. He died many years before either Nick or Maggie were born.

But I don't feel angry or bitter or cheated. I'm delighted to have had a father who, during moments of sobriety, was intellectually stimulating, a great story-teller.  I feel fortunate to have had a father who expected much from me, who encouraged my writing and overcoming societal constraints on women, even before Betty Friedan and other feminists challenged the social order. I feel grateful to have known him. And I feel a surge of warmth and of surprise when I remember that, as much as I feared him, I also loved him.

For in between the brutality and anger and bitterness, he was wonderful in many ways.  I guess you had to have been there.

                               Family Portrait 2011: Mike, his wife Amp and daughter
                              Maggie, me and my husband Bob


  1. Over the years I've wondered why some with such horrible upbring from parential abuse became such wonderful adults. Yet as in one current case played out before the American public those with such loving parents become such horrible adults. Something beyond our field of vision must be in play when wiser than our years and compassionate beyond our circumstances. To speak rhetorically, because to think that to abuse children is the way to make them good adults is unthinkable. I think we bring our wisdom with us, perhaps, to teach abusive parents love, while conversely, some parents are trying to teach their children, without a glimmer of it, love.

  2. I cried reading this, Kathy, and I thank you for sharing your relationship with your dad in such vivid details. Reading these stories is very healing.

  3. Kathy, your story about your ability to reconcile the way you think about the complicated man who was your father is one that inspires, teaches and comforts. When children suffer from being raised by a parent who is so toxic, one wonders if there is hope for any kind of a successful future. You show us that there is indeed hope for these children. They can overcome, heal, and thrive. I'm sure your journey to have reached this point was very painful, but thankfully you were courageous enough to make the journey. We all benefit from your authenticity in telling your story.

  4. Thanks so much for your comments, Barbara, Rosaria and Sally! I know this wasn't an easy read. But it is healing to examine the complexities of a relationship and to realize that people can survive and even thrive after a painful childhood. I'm working on a long-postponed memoir about growing up and posts like these are helpful in increasing my comfort level with such personal material. As a journalist, I rarely wrote in the first person and as a therapist, my own past experience was never the topic of discussion, of course. So this is new to me. Thanks so much for your gracious feedback!

  5. Blogger is giving me a hard time, lets see if it will go in as anonymous.

    As you can see, I am only just now catching up with my blog reading. I am left agog! Wow! Your dad sounds like a very complex man. I admire you for writing this, as well as for living through this, it obviously wasn't easy. I felt very badly for the little boy your dad was, and for the man he grew up to be. That you and your siblings grew up to rise above this and become professionals in the "helping" industries speaks volumes about your ability to overcome such adversities. Kudos, this was lovely, sorry I am a week late reading it. Last week was so complicated with my own dad being ill and staying with us for the week. Thank you for sharing this.
    Terry from "a little bit about everything"