Memories of My Father

He was the wisest man I have ever known. And the cruelest. He taught me to love art, music, poetry, to enjoy the free and open exchange of ideas, creativity, and the purity of thought for the sake of the purity of thought.The poet, the rebel, the non-conformist, I am all these because I am his son. Like him, I don't suffer fools kindly. He told a story when I was a child. He was in a meeting with the vice president of the company who asked him what he thought. My father picked up a napkin from the table, shredded it, and said, “This is what I think about your idea...” Then he told them all how it really needed to be done. A few weeks later, he was without a job. Again. The only difference between my father and me is that I have learned to hold my tongue. Usually. His cruelty scars every day of my life. Anorexia, at 7, alcoholism, at 16, the disdain I carry for myself - I can't look in the mirror - all stains he placed upon my life. His ill-health and his alcoholism forced me to work at 7. His cruelty cost me my childhood and my innocence. One day, my father had cornered my mother in the kitchen. I watched as he raised a hot pot of coffee high over her head. The pot was shaking. Coffee burning his arms. The more his arms burned, the angrier he became. I knew that if he hit my mother, I'd kill him. So at 13, I left home. At 16, he broke his hand on my face. I didn't cry. I just stood there calmly. I felt nothing, not even the pain of impact. He screamed in pain and told me what he'd do to me when he got his hands on me. I just turned and walked away. Just before he died, liver cancer caused by alcoholism, we took a walk to the church near where I grew up. “I have one regret,” he said. “That is?” I said, coldly. “We are not as close as I hoped.” “What are you talking about?” I said, lying. Whatever love I felt for him was beaten out of me long ago. Eight weeks later, we buried him. Life went on. I had every reason to fail. Abused children usually fail, at least it is what has happened to most of the ones I have met. When I teach, I can identify them quickly, especially the brightest. The story is always the same, and it leads to the same life-long suffering I have endured. When I was about 7, my father took me to the factory where he had worked before becoming an engineer. His father and brother still worked there. It was a terrible experience. The factory was dark, dank, loud, and smelled of urine, sweat, and machine oil. My grandfather and my uncle were filthy. My grandfather lifted me up on to his workbench and my uncle bought me a ginger ale. The pounding of the machines made it hard to hear anything. The floor of the factory and the workbench pulsed with every smash of the machines against the steel and aluminum they were machining. At one point, I watched as my uncle crawled under a machine as long as a football field to fix a part. “What will happen,” I asked, “if the machine falls on him?” “It will kill him,” my father said. As we left the factory, my father, who was 6'4,” looked down at me and asked, “What do you think?” “Horrible,” I said. “I don't ever want to work there.” My father spun me around, got down on his knees and took hold of me by the shoulders. “Fuck up your life,” he said, “and this is your future. There is no Plan B.” Honestly, I had no idea what Plan B was. I guess I didn't need to. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend my life in that factory. I can't say that experience turned my life around. I wasn't old enough to turn anything around. However, I never forgot it. I talk to my students about it. Whenever my life gets dark and I face failure, or, when I just get to the point where it is all too much for me, I remember looking at my father's face. The anger I saw in his eyes as well as the concern. I am because he was. The days are shorter now, The nights are longer and darker. If you knew me, chances are you'd say that I am loving, kind, patient, gentle, and caring. I am always surprised when someone says that. I don't know why I am or how I can be. Not after all the cruelty. Or, perhaps, I have found a way to love despite all I suffered. It doesn't matter. The past is past. “When the dead are left to bury the dead,” Koestler wrote, “the living are left alone.” I have been alone a very long time. Sometimes I wish he were still alive. Not because I need him in my life, I learned to live without him long before I turned 13, but because I want to know why someone who was so wise could be so cruel, and why I can't ever seem to leave the scars he cut across my life behind. As he lay dying, his stepmother, a miserable person, came to see him. There was an intercom in the bedroom so that if he needed my mother, she'd hear him call out. “Did you ever love me?” he asked his stepmother. “What do you mean?” she responded. He died without ever knowing the answer to the question that meant so much to him, and, sometimes I fear that I shall as well. I am because he was.

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