Through My Father’s Tears

 “History is a guide to navigate in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
~David McCullough, American Author

dad alone by lake

Dad in his early teens by the lake

Just as ‘all who wander are not lost,’ all who ‘look back’ are not sad, depressed people living in the past. Through the popular notion that to ‘look back’ on one’s life is somehow an unhealthy indication that one is ‘living in the past,’ and that we should all just ‘let it go’ and move forward, we are being lead to believe that we gain nothing of value from the people and places we once loved or knew. As if to look back fondly, or with bittersweet regard and nostalgia, one must not be happy where they are. What does that say about our society’s interest and reverence for history, geography, and ‘home?’ Furthermore, what does that say about our respect for those that came before us, and, for that matter, how WE will be remembered, if at all?

Everywhere we are bombarded with daily reminders to ‘let go of the past,’ as if it’s a social disease to be curious, to tell stories, reflect, share pictures, delve into one’s family history, even attempt to unravel mysteries or heal old wounds that would, indeed, help people move forward. Yet, some of the healthiest people I know are well-versed in history with a calm acceptance of their personal past. In fact, they live more in the ‘present’ BECAUSE of their awareness of the past, than those who prefer to numb themselves in hopes of forgetting, or preach the ‘let it go’ theory because they don’t want to forgive or understand the motivations and circumstances of those that came before them. “It is what it is!” is the one- dimensional decree of the ‘don’t look back people .’ Maybe it’s a good intentioned defense mechanism, or fear, or ignorance, but promoting a overall attitude against ‘looking back’ is to me rather arrogant, as if all things begin and end with you or me.

Even as an elementary school teacher, I can see the sad decline of the social studies curriculum, limited acknowledgment of notable people, moments, and movements in our country’s history; limited space in the timeline.  And what of the poets and lyricists? Awwww….they make us think about the past, don’t they? There is no time for THAT! It’s all about the application of math and science to the detriment of a well-rounded education. In our need for the illusion of perfection, to rise above other countries, are we not losing vital learning experiences  that would only serve to make us a better country…better people? You know the old adage, “Learn from your mistakes?” Well, if we are not willing to talk about the past, how can we learn from any mistakes? What a terrible disservice to the present and future generations, who may not be that interested in hearing about old Uncle Bill and his dancing tattoos, or how their great-great grandfather was a ship captain on the Great Lakes, but at some point they may be. What will they have to draw on later in life when they have questions and we know nothing?

“An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them.” ~David McCullough, American author, from “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” April 18, 2005

Dad with his brothers

Dad with his brothers

Dad and Archie

Dad with his brother Archie

My father was a humble man, as many from the ‘greatest generation’ were. Born in 1929 on the onset of the Great Depression, he saw his share of sadness, poverty, and hard knocks in life. His sixteen year old brother, Archie, was shot dead accidently by a stray bullet in a ‘cops and robbers’ incident on the streets of Detroit in 1943. Daddy was fourteen and lost his best friend; his closest companion. Dad’s mother had a brain tumor in her late 40s and after her brain surgery, he wrote, “We had our mother with us for many more years but she was never more than 75% of who she was before. My wife and I were deprived of a beautiful friend. My children were deprived of a youthful, fun-loving, talented grandmother. The only thing not affected by her operation, was her sense of humor which was as sharp as ever.” And THAT is what I remember about my grandmother, her sense of humor. But, I also learned so much more about her through my father’s recollection of her earlier days when she was healthy and there for him. He painted a different picture than the limited one I saw myself.

Dad with his mother swapping hats

Dad with his mother swapping hats

At family parties or after dinner with all of us sitting around the table like a classroom of students drinking coffee, he would share bits and pieces of his life, and for someone like me, who truly was fascinated with social history, even the sad and unpleasant parts, I was the perfect student.

Several years before he was diagnosed with Lou Gering’s Disease (ALS), he was sharing a story with me about his father. It was more of an intimate look into his life than my father had ever shared before. Dad and I were not ‘buddies.’ He was always revered as ‘someone above me’ as many children, even in old age, perceive their parents. So I respectfully asked him if he would consider writing down some of his memories. He hee-hawed a bit, as older folks do, but I persisted. As a news writer in rural Minnesota, I saw this all the time. Older people just didn’t want to talk about their lives. Usually ‘other’ people would say it’s because it was too painful, but I always managed to get them to open up. Their resistance had more to do with humility than pain. I had a ‘girl-next-door’ quality in interviewing; they felt I could be trusted and was as interested as a daughter. I always was, but in my dad’s case, I was the real thing, and very interested. So, he told me he’d write things down as he remembered them, which, for you aspiring memoirist, is the best way to do it.

In my father’s case, time wasn’t on his side. Once we all knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer, he decided to follow through with our ‘memoir plan’ the best that he could. In my mother’s view, it was painful, not only physically (at first he lost control of the muscles in his fingers, and then later in his tongue so he could not speak clearly), but also emotionally. But, my father was a wise man. He had a choice. He could have sat there watching one TV show after another until he passed away, or he could ‘recall’ his life, walk through it again, and relive both the sad and joyous moments of it in order to pass those memories along to us, namely to me, because he was a man of his word.

My dad had a romantic soul. Even in that terrible year of a slow, unforgiving death, I knew he wanted to be remembered for more than what appeared on the surface; “father, teacher and coach.” There was more to him, as there is to all of us. In that way, we were cut from the same cloth. He was passionate and emotional, and at times sobbed uncontrollably. Tears make other people nervous because they assign their own beliefs to them. They believe tears must be bad, uncontrolled emotions, a sign of weakness, heaven forbid! Have a drink! Crack a joke! Numb that shit up! Yes, my dad cried a lot through the process. But in my mind, he needed to after a long life of being ‘the strong son and brother’ in the family, standing tall and taking care of everyone, as he himself faced one challenge after another, and then got hit with this final blow. Crying is a release. ‘Letting go,’ if you must, and sobbing is as natural as laughing, indeed it’s healthy to let the tears flow to help wash away the grief of lost time and people.

After his funeral, I took home a briefcase full of chicken-scratched notes, badly-typed stories, some on torn pieces of paper, smeared ink passages as if someone carelessly scribbled them out on a wet napkin. The text was full of big Polish names I wasn’t sure about, and places along the avenues and streets of the old Detroit where my dad grew up…places now closed up and gone. It was a mess of a project and took me too many years to compile, but what a gift! In his wake, he left a wide path of understanding, a portal into what makes us who we are, and a colorful slice of life that will never be seen again. He created room for forgiveness, a sense of history and belonging, and a place for others to stroll back easily into the past and find a piece of themselves.

What I admired most about my dad’s memoirs was how they were written straight up. No frills, no analyzing, no blaming or interpretations of why people were the way they were, other than the obvious socio-economic scene; they were easy to read. He seemed to share everything he could remember, from the everyday life of city boys playing in the park, to his first sexual experience in the woods, to his endearing friendships with the men who were still his best friends to the end, to the sweet simple romance between him and my mother.

“Our courtship was a series of parties punctuated by quiet walks and talks. Our favorite date was going to the Rialto on Gratiot and Mt. Elliot, then interrupting the workers at a local bakery and taking home a loaf of fresh bread and sharing it at her house on Kirby Avenue. I walked the mile from Canton to Kirby at least a hundred times. I knew she was the girl for me.”

The courtship of mom and dad

Mom and Dad courting

As I wrote and re-wrote his words, crying and stuffing bread in my mouth, I found myself falling in love with the boy who would become my father. I could see my young parents stopping at the 1940s bakery, them walking hand-in-hand down the darken streets past the once manicured lawns of a different Detroit. It was easy to imagine them sitting in my grandma’s kitchen by low light, sharing the loaf of bread and maybe a cup of coffee…the difficult goodbyes…and daddy walking that city mile home in the dark alone with my mother’s perfume on his collar. My only regret was that he was no longer with us, for I knew there must have been more that he just didn’t have time to write.

Sad? Yes, on some levels, but sweet as well. But, in the telling and sharing, the listening and receiving, there is a kind of awakening and freedom that comes from the voices of the people before us, and an awareness of why we are on the paths that we walk, why we love or distain the things we do, and why we can hear our parent’s voices in our own words. The perception that it’s an avoidable dark journey to look back, is that of people who don’t want to ‘feel’ anything, people not able to face the fact that maybe other people had rougher lives than theirs, or better. People who want to glorify or dramatize than own existence, rather than learn that we are all more alike than different. In fact, I think that knowledge of one’s family history and dynamics, and the acceptance of it, is necessary to be ‘truly present’ now.

I know there are people who had very difficult, unthinkable childhoods. I also know that many therapies designed to help those bearing the scars of childhood, are based on recalling and moving through those heartbreaks to heal. I did this, in a way, with my mother. Our weekly phone calls included many laughs and ‘how are the kids’ chats, but often we circled round to the ‘what happened when and why’ of our lifetime together, and respectfully we opened up those old wounds, explained, shared, cried, and healed our relationship. But, we had to open the door to the past to move forward. We had to become vulnerable, let our armor down, and be willing to feel something! The emotional gift of delving into the past together, my listening and appreciating all her stories of her life growing up, her feelings about my father and the years when we were babies, brought clarity and life-confirming affirmations and gave us both a kind of peaceful satisfaction that, regardless, all was forgiven through understanding and knowledge. We had no loose ends, and we both knew that when my mother left this world I would remember her for only the love and goodness she brought to my life. In return, I received wisdom.

There are a lot of broken people out there. Some drink or eat or drug themselves to forget. Some just hide their memories away, proudly carrying the banner of ‘be present’ when, in fact, ‘they’ are still stuck somewhere else. I think it’s time we stopped this overly romantic view of the ‘here and now’ and the warnings, especially to our young people, that looking back is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s time we try again to remember, to show respect, and honor those paths we and the people before us have walked, with a story. There are other banners like, “Everyone has a story to tell,” that can be plastered all over Facebook walls and encouraged in classrooms. How about we give a listen, read their writing, and learn from the past, if not for pure enjoyment, then maybe for a lesson or two. One look at a day on a social network or in a ‘test focused’ classroom or at the crap they call TV these day, begs us to reassess what is really important. Certainly history has to rise from the dead and enlighten us again, especially if it’s our own.

My father at college

My father at college

My father was the first person in his family line to finish high school. He was referred to as ‘the professor,’ as was common of college-bond kids back then. He earned a Bachelors of Philosophy (Ph.B) at a tough Jesuit university and later, after bringing eight children into the world with my mother on his teacher’s salary, he earned a Masters of English. He understood history, the human condition, and the need to teach children how to think and make connections. He had every right to be arrogant, but he wasn’t. He often worked two or three jobs, made a big pot of oatmeal on weekend mornings and coffee cake and donuts, like his parents before him, and let us shake on the sugary toppings in brown paper bags like easily amused kids with new toys. He sang old vaudeville songs in the station wagon with us, and enjoyed a smoke and cup of coffee with my mother who…well, had her own story, was a fireball of emotions, got in trouble with the nuns, was socially gifted and a sexy little thing to my dad right to the end. And in the end, he was recalling the simple things of a lifetime that stayed in his memory, worthy memories that he was, gratefully, able to share. In the process, I think we all learn a whole lot about ourselves.

“My brother Archie and I were constant companions. We shared the same bed, shared the same food and treats, played together, built model airplanes together, and went to the movies together. We did everything together. …My parents often were called upon to sing duets at house parties or whenever there were gatherings. My mother had an uncanny ear for harmony and my dad had a pleasant lead voice. Archie and I picked up on all their songs and managed to add a few of our own. When we went for long walks, we sang. When we had to wait in the car for a period of time, we sang. Even when we went to the outhouse together in the summer, we sang. That first walk to school alone without my brother after his death was the longest walk of my life.”
~ “Miles, the Memoirs of Walter Miles Currie

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Through my father’s tears and words I grew to understand the boy who lived inside my big, brave daddy. He grappled with fear, like we all do, yet seemed to be the strongest person in our whole extended family, and that just makes me what to be braver and maybe take another big step just for him.

If you want to embrace the ‘here and now,’ then you have to look back first, even if it hurts. It’s good to learn about the people who ‘shaped us,’ for better or worse. It provides us with roots to grow, so we (and our children) aren’t just a bunch of “fresh cut flowers trying to grow themselves.” When we grow, we experience emotions, and to ‘feel something’ is a healthy human response, at any age. It provides a connection, insight and understanding into the reasons why we do what we do. It awakens potential and sleeping dreams. It waters us, gives us courage, passion, or even a fire to change our situations, and it’s the very thing that will enable us to truly ‘be present’ and blossom into the whole human beings that the people before us had hope for when we came into the world. Look back, heal, write your own story. Believe me, someone down the line will want to know who you were…

 

 

 

 

How Far Have YOU Gone?

“People will tell you where they’ve gone; they’ll tell you where to go. But till you get there yourself, you never really know.”
~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Amelia’

If you’ve been around, you have stories. That used to be enough, when people had the patience to stop, listen, or read, and the imagination to see themselves in others’ recollections with intrigue or an appreciation of novel experiences. Today, a quote, a video (even a crappy one), or a tweet is about all that will hold the attention of, what I observed to be, a highly competitive and self-absorbed social arena. The old adage, ‘Quality not quantity’ doesn’t seem to hold much value in life experiences or in relationships, for that matter. It’s all about one-ups-men-ship, a bombardment of shocking facts and numbers, with no stamina to listen to or ‘read more…’

Occasionally, the lunchroom one-ups-men-ship topic drifts to a place where I once lived. I mean, really lived. Like my parents, storytelling was in the natural order of things. I learned to sit and listen, to mentally walk in their shoes, thereby experiencing the places and people that I knew I might never experience in my own life. This started at a young age, of course, before people bought into the concept that children have limited attention spans and are aching to go stimulate their brains with something more exciting like a video game which has resulted in, well, a host of new childhood problems that have run amuck.

Back in the teacher’s lounge, someone asked, how far north have you gone…south, east, and west? I’m sure the question wasn’t meant to elicit long answers, as we have all of maybe 20 minutes to inhale our lunches and get in a little adult conversation. But, of course, my early training kicks in, and a little excitement sprinkled with beautiful words in the hope of ‘getting others there’ starts to pulse through my storyteller veins, as if I’m sitting in front of a hearth with children at my feet who, ugh, are interested.

I lived in North Dakota for almost three years in my early 20s, through some of the meanest winters on record. I can still hear the frozen snow crunching beneath my boots and see my breath turn to ice crystals around my face…creating a snow-globe effect that was magical. Okay, on to the next person, who has miraculously driven through every state in the Union. I guess she wins; conversation over! And that appears to be what it’s all about these days; who wins with shortest, most dramatic comment.

People seem intimidated by the stories of others, as opposed to interested or curious, and terminology has changed. Lived-in, driven-through, or visited are not measurements that weigh the experience, anymore. One would argue that the questioner didn’t ask where we had lived. Yet, what is the point of ‘rating’ how far one has been, if they have simply driven through a corner of a state or stepped over a border only to yank their foot back with a proudly earned participation ribbon. That’s sort of like saying; I’ve had many lovers…in my mind (but not in my arms)! “North Dakota? It was dark and cold, I don’t know, I slept most of the way, but I’ve been there!! Ribbon please!”

Throw in the geocentric belief that everything where YOU LIVE is somehow bigger or better (as if one was personally in cahoots with God and had a hand in making it that way) and the attention quickly gets narrowed down to the, well, less experienced.

This is unfortunate.

Anyone who has ever LIVED in North Dakota, for instance, can tell you things that are anywhere from breath-taking, like seeing the northern lights dance across the plains, to horrifically desolate. The visual delight of seeing miles of indigo-colored flax in bloom, shoveling through the snow to get OUT of your house, and the dismals feeling of standing in a small grocery store in the dead of winter observing one’s choice of produce…a cabbage, an onion, and everything else is either rotten or not available; this, my friends, more aptly describe just how far north I have been.

Raised in the 1960s and 70s, many in our generation were all about leaving home as soon as possible. People strapped on their REI backpacks and headed out to hike the mountains, went off to ‘find themselves’ in far off places, thumbed their way down roads less traveled, joined communes, and left ‘the settling’ for later. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had never left. Yet, it was in the leaving that I learned to appreciate coming home. And it’s ‘in the living’ in different places that taught me how to appreciate other cultures and vistas, establish new friends, and navigate the highways of life. In short (if I must), I grew. I also found that I can ‘sit and listen or read’ other peoples’ stories without a need to one-up anyone. I just find it interesting how I am meeting fewer and fewer people that have this same sensibility. People just seem so uninterested in other places and life experiences other than their own.

A fellow Northerner and I were once dreamily recalling the beauty of autumn ‘up North.’ A Texas co-worker shook her head and said, “I could never leave Texas because I need the beach!” My friend, from ‘the land of 10,000 lakes,’ and I, from the ‘Great Lakes’ state, just looked at each other with puzzlement. There is safety in ignorance, I suppose, but it’s rather boring, and in this case embarrassing. When you try to explain the inland seas to people who have never seen them, it’s like trying to explain having a baby to a man. They don’t get it, and they don’t really want to know. End of conversation.

Photo by Alamy

Photo by Alamy

On another occasion, I was sharing my memories of Tahquamenon Falls, one of 84 magnificent waterfalls in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The falls are more than 200 feet across with a 48 foot drop, colored brown by the tannins leached from the cedar swamps which the river drains. Tahquamenon Falls is noted as being the land of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – “by the rushing Tahquamenaw” where Hiawatha built his canoe. Naturally, someone quickly piped in with, “Oh, WE have tons of waterfalls here! You haven’t seen waterfalls until you’ve seen Gorman Falls!” one of 28 waterfalls in all of Texas, most fed by rainwater run-off. So, when there is no rain, they don’t fall. But, really, why does ‘sharing’ have to be so competitive? “My falls are better than your falls, nana-nana-boo-boo!” Given my before said training, I was curious about Gorman Falls, and quietly listened to the other’s experience. She didn’t seem to want to know anything about the root-beer colored water that rushes through the Hiawatha National Forest. End of conversation.

Likewise, try to explain the smell of Texas….rich with the warm roasted aroma of BBQ in the air, the intoxicating fragrance of Mountain Laurels in bloom, or how quickly a big rain can turn into a flash flood, to a Michigander, and one is met with a raised eye-brow and a quick dismissal. They’d prefer to hold on to their limited belief that all of Texas is covered with rolling tumbleweed. Try sharing the joy of canoeing a river and having beaver and river otters playfully flirt with one’s paddles, and get met with ‘beaver’ jokes. Share one’s experience of the Ozarks and the beauty of Arkansas with anyone from anywhere, and get the ‘dueling banjos’ whistled back at you. Share the bounty of Wisconsin apple orchards and serenity of its pastoral scenery to someone from Illinois and you get the cow-town jokes. Really? Is there no judgment-free wonderment left in people?

In short, people don’t want to know ‘how far you have been,’ in any detail. In fact, it seems to make people feel threatened. Blinders on, ear-plugs in; they proudly talk up their little neck of the woods. They don’t seem to want to know what else might be ‘out there.’ What gets lost in this disregard for other’s experiences are the stories that inspire travel, geography, insight, romance, and …growth.

To me this is leading to a very shallow and uninteresting human condition. Not unlike celebrating a couple who has been married for 50 years, neither of whom even talk to each other anymore, in fact their disdain for each other may be written all over their harden expressions, yet everyone around them is celebrating their longevity; it’s all about the quantity not the quality of the years. Let’s not tell the ‘real’ story of their long marriage. No one wants to ‘read more…’ After all, we may learn something that shakes up our safe status quo.

How far have I gone? I stepped over the Mississippi River once. Do I win?! Of course, it was the mouth of the Mississippi in Bemidji, Minnesota, which at that time was a babbling brook. But, oops, adding more of the truth just took away from how cool (and short) my answer was. No ribbon for me! I lose, but not really.

My mother, who in the last years of her life shared a bounty of wisdom with me because, well, I would listen, told me that after awhile no one wants to hear the stories of older people, so you learn to just smile and nod your head like you’ve never been anywhere or experienced anything. “It’s a peaceful feeling” she said, “like letting go. You can’t tell anybody anything. They have to live it for themselves.”

Texas Hill Country road Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

Texas Hill Country road
Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

I’m so glad I lived it for myself, from the North Dakota desolation, to the playful river otters, the deafening sound of 50,000 gallons of water per second pounding over the Michigan falls, to those loves (yes, sir, heart break and all), and the serenity of a drive along the wildflower-edged roads in the Hill Country of Texas. You can have your life-in-the-moment tweets and your competitive snap to out-do others. I, for one, will gladly listen to your stories, but have learned not to expect the same in return.

I imagine there will be many empty hearths someday. Maybe the tide will change, and a new generation will have a need to sit, listen, or read about other peoples’ lives without the urge to one-up the story-teller, thereby missing the beauty in the ‘sharing.’ With any luck, they may change the bleak course of our social interactions, to include more engagement, and less judgment or need to prove their experiences are ‘better.’ That’s my hope, anyway, as I learn to yield with, ‘a smile and nod of my head.’