Mark Twain famously said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
It took me longer than that.
My father died at just 45 years old, and has been gone for nearly fifty years. Longer than I knew him. And yet he impacted every aspect of my life, although I couldn’t see it at the time. We seemed to have nothing in common. Dad was a child of the Great Depression, a manly Marine, and a staunch right-winger. I was an only child who wanted for nothing (but always wanted something), a sensitive artsy-fartsy type who loved musical theatre (how is it I turned out straight?), with a liberal heart that was quick to bleed.
By the time I started high school, I was too absorbed in myself to realize how much a part of me my father was. His temper, his ambition, his love for science-fiction, his eye-rolling puns. But more importantly, his passion to do right: it wasn’t until he died nine years later that I learned how many people admired him, how many he’d encouraged and treated kindly.
Every Christmas Eve we’d drop off a gift for his answering service lady on the way to our family gathering. I’d squirm impatiently as Dad held her knotted hands and chatted her up. She had advanced rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a wheel chair. I had no idea what was wrong with her; I just knew I was uncomfortable when Dad insisted I bend down and give her a hug, which she received as though it were a bag of jewels. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember her name. Only after she passed did Dad break down and buy an answering machine. Oh, how I wish I’d treated her more kindly.
Like Dad did.
It took me longer than Mark Twain to understand my father. I dearly wish he and Mom had been here for the just-passed holidays, so I could tell him how grateful I am for the things he did get right.
Dad was long gone by the time I became a father at 39, the age he was when I graduated from high school! So I finally finished forgiving him for not being perfect by watching my own children work to forgive me. Yes, I forgive you, Dad. Do you forgive me? Never mind, I know you do. Oh, and I’m a bit late with this, but…
Merry Christmas, Dad!