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COMMENTARY: A day for honoring fathers and exorcising old demons Rich Peck, Jun 15, 2012
By J. Richard Peck Special Contributor
It happens every Father’s Day.
My thoughts go back to the day after he committed suicide.
“If you say anything nice about him, I’m walking out,” my sister said to the pastor planning the funeral service. I did not agree with my sister, but I didn’t have to live near him in Denver as my sister did.
I lived a thousand miles away in Nashville where it was considerably easier to get along with him.
Yes, my father was a curmudgeon who could make life difficult.
“Damn you, Richard. Can’t you do anything right?” he asked while I was a 12-year-old trying to help him stucco our Denver home. There were a lot of “damns” in my childhood.
I still remember the welts on my arms when Dad became especially angry at me for overstaying swim time at Washington Park Lake. Mother could control Dad when no one else could.
“Calm down, Ralph,” she’d say. And he would.
But in the final chapters of my parents’ lives, Alzheimer’s disease claimed my mother’s mind and there was no one left to calm Ralph down.
As a result, my sister, Connie, would literally shake whenever Dad would call her or she would visit Mother. My brother and I were both far away, so Connie was the only one on the scene to honor our father and mother, however stressful that might be.
I was angry at Dad when he committed suicide one month after Mother died.
“You had your health; you had a good mind; you had money; and you were free from the 24-hour caregiving responsibilities life had dealt you,” I lamented to my deceased father. But that chapter was over. If Dad and I were ever to work out our relationship, it would not be in this lifetime.
Unseen softer side
In an effort to exorcise the demon that haunts my memories on Father’s Day, I need to remember that Dad always provided us with a home, food and clothing. He took us on annual two-week camping trips and taught us how to cook beans by burying a pot under a fire. He threw a baseball with me, mounted a tire swing in our backyard, went ice skating with us and was home every night promptly at 5. I also need to celebrate Dad’s sense of fairness. My family remembers Dad telling them about how he once gave me an undeserved spanking.
He had found his screwdriver handle chewed up and lying on the floor.
“I didn’t do it,” I cried.
“There is no one else in this house who uses my screwdriver," he said as he spanked me harder for lying.
Later he found our English bulldog gnawing on the same screwdriver.
To my surprise, he cried as he told my family about the long-ago incident. I had no idea an undeserved spanking could bother him so much. Dad did have an unseen softer side.
But, Dad’s greatest quality is that he loved Mother.
I know I’ve made hundreds of mistakes as a father. I was on too many business trips when Josh and Heather were young. Most of the parenting was done by Joyce.
Heather tells me that I frightened her when as a child she tweaked my nose. I thought that was a sign of disrespect and became overly angry with her.
“I’m sorry Heather. You can tweak my nose anytime you want.”
Honoring fathers is relatively simple when we are young and fathers are idealized.
It is more difficult to honor fathers as life experiences pile upon one another and mistakes become magnified. There may even be a period in young adulthood when we blame our fathers for everything that is wrong with us.
Perhaps we need some lap time with God in which we acknowledge and forgive our father’s mistakes and try to understand the reasons for these perceived shortcomings.
As a child I was insensitive to the problems with which my father was coping.
He had lost his job as a civil engineer during the Depression. He lost our house and we had to move to Pueblo to live with his father where he worked as a carpenter. I was an unwelcomed addition to a family without heath care insurance.
When Dad later regained employment as an engineer, he had lost pension benefits and started at a much lower salary.
Dad would yell at us if we left a “damn light on.” But I don’t think I once thought about the financial issues with which he was struggling. When I think back to tensions between my father and me, I know that while they were major in my life, they were incidental in his.
In the same way frustrations in my professional life no doubt resulted in some short-tempered actions with my own children.
Perhaps you regard your father as having no faults, or perhaps you think your father has no redeeming qualities. Either attitude is wrong.
The failures of our fathers need to be understood and forgiven, and their finer attributes celebrated. They should be honored by words and deeds.
Happy Father’s Day.
The Rev. Peck is a retired clergyman of the New York Conference.