The third Sunday in June is a challenging one for those of us with fathers who were destructive forces in our lives. A missing father leaves a void—a toxic one with life-altering damage. Parenting is a minefield even for the best of us. One doesn’t always know when an insensitive comment or unkind word will leave a childhood scar. We speak of absence and abuse often, and there are many works of fiction and even more memoirs by those of us whose parents, especially fathers, hurt us.
If you visit my parents’ New York gravesite, you would think a single mother raised my siblings and me. My father was verbally and physically abusive and, mercifully, was often absent. In the nearly 25 years since his passing, my siblings and I struggled to erase his memory as quickly as we omitted his name on the tombstone.
Psychologists grew rich from us. Yet, over the years, they taught us coping skills, helped us unlearn maladaptive behaviors, and gave valuable insight as we fought the temptation to medicate the pain with drugs, alcohol, and other entertainments that posed threats to our well-being. We set boundaries when we had to interact with him. When he finally passed, there was a silent collective sigh of relief at his burial.
After his death, the dynamic between my sisters and brothers changed. Like most children in dysfunctional families, we often fought, competing for my mother’s limited attention and rare word of approval from my dad. Now that he was dead, his sister and cousins felt free to share valuable insights on my father’s demons.
My aunt reached out to me after the funeral. My dad had been abused by his father and, for a time, had been sent to relatives in rural Wisconsin as a respite from his father’s rage. His cousins described a man very different from the one we came to know in our experience, and it was strange to hear that he was once happy and loving while working the farm and lake cottages my great uncle owned. Their reflections made us look back and reevaluate his role in our lives.
As we worked hard to avoid being the parent he was, we ignored the gifts he gave us. Our dad had been a journalist and news photographer. We learned the importance of active listening and observation. He had a deep appreciation of nature and the outdoors and had a deep respect for the hardworking farmers, loggers, miners, and mill workers he met during his time in Wisconsin. He shared that appreciation with my mother, who is New York city-bred and educated. His influence helped cool my mother’s condescension. I try to keep my own inherent Northeastern elitism in check. Lastly, he loved minutiae and became a repository of trivial information you don’t think you need until you do. He taught us that all knowledge is helpful.
The most challenging people in our lives are sometimes the ones who are most beneficial to us. My father’s belief that I was stupid, vapid, and unworthy of a college education didn’t crush me. I just worked to prove him wrong, and I developed a love of learning and analysis along the way. My dad did not benefit from psychotropic medications or therapy. These advances might have helped him break his shackles and open his eyes to the value of his children and the abuse he inflicted upon all of us.
His name is not on the tombstone, but I now cherish what he gave me, even if he never intended to share it. The hardest thing was finding a way to come to terms with our relationship. I can’t absolve him of the sins he committed against my siblings and me. Only God can do that. But I forgave him.
Carrying anger and hatred because of transgressions can poison you and everyone around you. The only way forward is forgiveness. Author and social activist Bryant A. McGill has a useful aphorism: “There is no love without forgiveness and there is no forgiveness without love.”
I can say I love him now despite his failures, and I see him now as a whole person. I hope wherever he rests, he knows.
I will ensure that his name is added to the tombstone where he is buried with my mother.