Friday, June 17, 2011

What I Learned From My Father

One of my favorite photos of my dad - circa 1970
I've written about my dad on this blog from time to time. I have a very complex and rich relationship with him. In many ways we are very, very similar. It is, perhaps, these similarities that give us the ability to understand each other and allow us to find common ground so often. It is also these similarities that cause us to hurt each other deeply and quickly. Even now, knowing each other for more than 40 years, we can wound each other with an offhand remark, an interruption, a stilted phone call. 

But there is no one I admire more than my father. No one I would turn to but him when it comes to a question about my writing or a book I read that I want to discuss. He is the first one I go to when it come to a desire to understand or delve deeper into something metaphysical, spiritual or just plain "alternative". 

I often joke that the reason I am so completely un-athletic (to the point of not even knowing how to ride a bike) is because my father was only interested in taking me to museums and art-house films when I was a kid. In some ways, this is true. Those are things he loves. And I wanted to be with him, I wanted him to love me and share with me. 

My father delved deeply into hallucinogenic drugs in the late 60's and early 70's.  This was partly because of the culture of the time and partly an attempt to reach his schizophrenic brother on an even playing field. He struggled with brief, but intense, anxiety attacks which he was able to keep from everyone, including my mother. At one point, while we were living in England, my mother took me back to New York to visit my grandparents and my father entered a meditation retreat.  There his attacks intensified.  On a subsequent trip to London, where he intended to sell our car and then return to New York, he experienced a terrifying mental breakdown that went on for two weeks, until he was arrested and put in jail with some Irish hippies who had taken him in.  By the time my mother and I returned to London, he was back to normal. I was just about the age my children are now when all of this happened. I don't remember this period, yet when I write about it, it makes me cry. Perhaps because I have no real memories of my own, the jumbled stories and bits of information I’ve put together over the years have colored this time for me. I know he was careful to not take acid when I was around, and even my mother didn’t know he was having these panic attacks, but I wonder if my 4-year old self sensed the trouble and it laid some groundwork for our later struggles to connect.

As a young girl, my father taught me to love books. By that I mean not just the words, but the books themselves. I remember him showing me, with great care, how books were bound, how some paper was more beautiful to the touch than others, how each type of font gave a different feel to the words we read. Every wall in our apartment was lined, floor to ceiling, with books. He read voraciously, always collecting more; from used book stores, from piles of "freebies" left on the curb, and later, from online booksellers. Parting with them (at my mother's insistence) was like asking him to give away a piece of himself. 

My dad and me during the father/daughter
dance at my wedding. 
He also taught me to do something that I feel passionate about, and to do it to the very best of my ability, whether or not I get rich doing it. Late into the night I could hear my father type, type, typing as he worked on translating pieces of literature from German to English, writing his own articles, essays, and novels. I watched as he considered every single word he put on paper, knowing that each made a subtle difference to what he was trying to say. I wondered if being the son of a Pultizer prize winning author was a double-edged sword sometimes. And with all these great writers in my family, for many years I channeled my creativity into anything but writing. 

As I grew older I think my natural need to push him away, my confusion about how he felt about me and his super sensitivity to feeling dismissed led us to go through a long period of emotional separation. Living away from home during college helped me see my parents in a different light. As a kid, my father's long hair and hippie style embarrassed me. Meeting other people who had "straight" parents helped me see how cool my dad actually was. Growing older, going through a divorce, therapy and intense soul-searching led me to understand my father and my relationship to him much better. And I can't take all the credit. My father has spent years figuring himself out as well. 

My kids LOVE Papa Jah
The best thing my father has taught me is to look inside myself, to try to understand why I do things, to not shy away from the uncomfortable or ugly. We still hurt each other now and then, we still have times of not understanding each other; but now we know how to talk about it and how to see both sides. Best of all, now I see my dad as a wonderful grandfather that my kids adore. The silly letters full of fanciful drawings he sends them are met with yelps of joy. Not being able to say his name, Joel, they called him "Papa Jah" which suited my dad perfectly - it sounds like some Indian guru.

Father's Day is on Sunday. My dad was never one for "Hallmark Holidays", but it's a perfect chance for me to tell him that I know I chose him to be my dad for a reason and I know whatever struggles we have had (together and separately) have served to make us better people. And most of all, it's a chance to tell him thank you for teaching me that being a good parent means sticking with it, even when it's hard. 

I'd love to hear what your fathers have taught you. Leave a message in the comments below so we can celebrate your dads, too. And happy Father's Day to you all!

Thanks for reading!
- Gina
The Twin Coach

For those of you waiting for my summary of Dr. Tina Payne Bryson's workshop last weekend, I'm working on it now and hope to have it up over the weekend! Thanks to all of you who shared my post on Dan Siegel's lecture!
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7 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

janetlansbury said...

Gina, this was a lovely evening read for me and a great reminder that we all have imperfect parents...and our children will, too! I'm enjoying getting to know you.

MultipleMum said...

So nice that you have taken the time to get to know your Dad. Really know him. He sounds like an interesting man, with a love of books. You are lucky to have such a great role model for your kids! A man who reads! Super x

Dana said...

What a lovely tribute, Gina. I can't imagine anyone who doesn't have a complicated relationship with their parents. Much as we want and try to be the best parents now to our own children, I imagine we'll have complicated stories too. I think it's the nature of the beast and a natural outcome of children pulling away to find their independence. Dunno.
My father is just about my favorite person on the planet. From him, I learned to love the woods, seek out physical and outdoor adventures, find beauty in the simple, make a fire, change a car tire and the oil, appreciate oddballs, respect the military AND question authority.
I learned poets don't always have college degrees.
I learned to never, ever, under pain of death, talk politics with people you love.
And I learned honor and devotion and commitment to one's word and this, his favorite saying: "It takes all kinds to make the world go round."

Christina Simon said...

Wonderful tribute to your dad and description of your somewhat complicated relationship. He sounds like a really interesting person!

Anonymous said...

Gina, what a lovely post about your relationship with your father. I just love the photos. My biological father actually flipped on his schizophrenia switch (was obviously predisposed) by doing hallucinogenics in the late 60's, so I grew up without knowing him. He became a literature professor and once I met him later in life, also had all his walls lined, floor to ceiling, with books. No tv in the house. I was raised without a strong father-figure to relate to, so having a wonderful father for my kids has always been a huge priority for me. I think of all I missed out on and am incredibly grateful that Duane is the man he is, and gives our children so much (and in doing so, fills me up as well). I get to watch their little faces, see how they react to him, and it touches me as if I were them. He's teaching them to love themselves, to laugh, to be silly and tender and free. He's showing them what it feels like to be secure, and adored, and accepted, no matter what. He's also teaching them how to love a woman well, and emotionally support her --- (their mama, me!); how to be an equal (almost!) around the house; and how to say you are sorry when your get upset. All of that is pretty amazing for a new father of 2 y/o twins to be able to do. Even if I didn't have an amazing primary papa myself... I'd much rather they do. Happy Father's Day! Here's to all the fathers in our lives. --- Libby

Katie Hurley, LCSW said...

What a beautiful tribute. Father daughter relationships are incredible, even when there are ups and downs. I miss my dad a lot, and enjoy watching the relationships grow between my kids and my husband.

The Twin Coach said...

Thank you all for such wonderful comments. Dana, you dad sounds like an amazing man. As does your husband, Libby. Exploring my relationship with my dad and getting to know him in such a deep way has definitely allowed me to see what a wonderful father my own husband is. It's been a fascinating journey trying to understand all the parent/child relationships!
I hope you all had a wonderful father's day this year.
- Gina

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