I never sang for my father, either

Today the river flows green in Chicago and my dad turns 84, and so I wish all a happy St. Patrick’s Day and I write to honor my father on his birthday.

Although my father forbade singing, whistling and even humming in the house, I recall him really liking the film, I Never Sang For My Father (a “tough film” he would say about anything that moved and/or depressed him).  It came out in 1970 and I’ve still never seen it, but I know he related to it in terms of his own dad, and the difficulties of becoming one’s own man.

The father-son relationship can be a difficult one, and I’ve spent a good deal of my nearly five decades trying to figure out my dad… in fact trying to cure him.

It has been said that therapists become therapists because they fail to cure their parents, and I am probably no exception to this theory.

While depression runs in my family, my dad at times seems to embody it.  Born in 1926, my dad was 2 ½ when The Great Depression hit.  His dad came from nothing, leaving Russia and the pogroms with the clothes on his back and starting out on the streets of Chicago pushing a fruit cart.  When I see folks selling oranges by the side of the road in LA, I think of the grandfather I never knew—a man who went on to build a chain of groceries and then liquor stores before losing all his money and falling into that black Russian depression that runs in the family veins.  My grandfather was one of the first to get electroshock therapy back when it first came on the scene.

My dad told me that he really enjoyed the navy, particularly the food.  It was his way of saying that his childhood sucked—his scant memories of his mom included watching her fall backward through the railing of their apartment and thinking she was dead—lying motionless a few stories below, and of her coming into his room one night and scraping the mud off his dirty shoes and onto his face with a knife.

By the time I was born my father had become master of the heavy sigh.  Yet the old photos of him before he lost his hair bore a distinct resemblance to Gene Kelley, and his dapper air had proved charming to more than a few women before my mom.

My dad built up a successful sales agency, but he always feared that he was, or would become, Willy Loman.  In his mad dash to not be like his dad and lose all his money… he quit sales and started an ill-advised business that… caused him to lose all his money.

Pisces is a difficult sign and one that may explain a lot about my dad, but in the end I think that it was my father’s dreaminess and keen sensitivity (not to others, but to hurt and slight), coupled with a particularly brash and egoistic time in America, that conspired to make him to want to kill his own true nature—trying to be a captain of industry when he secretly wished to be a writer.

Another cliché that my dad often said was that the son lived out the unfulfilled dreams of the father, and so I may write because he did not—I might even have to write a novel to put the beast fully to bed… and then it will by one of my kids who will have to make a film to slay my dragon.

I find the fact that my dad’s long-time shrink failed to move the needle and, after throwing in the towel, retired and… won a huge lotto jackpot to be karmically confirmatory of my perspective that my dad is a difficult guy.

Yet with my dad recovering from a stroke and struggling to walk once again unassisted, in the assisted living, all I really feel is love for the guy… at least on his birthday.

My mind drifts to a dinner we once shared in New York city at the peak of his success, sitting next to Diana Ross and drinking too much scotch… and afterward swaying arm-in-arm down Fifth Avenue on a soft summer night, laughing together.  Or watching him emerge from the turquoise waters of a bay in the Dominican Republic, smiling like a child (it was on that trip that I asked him to make his stern face that I snapped for the photo above).

As parents, if our own parents live long enough, we come to parent them (or at least help them out as best we can).  I don’t think of 84 as an unfathomable age by any means, seeing how fast it all goes and seeing that money, youth, health and good times all ebb away as the river of life laps at the sands of time; however, I also increasingly recognize that all I would really hope to have when I am older is the love of my children and the knowledge that they are okay.  On those counts my dad can know that I honor him and love him.

Ironically, as I tap at these words my fifteen-year-old came to ask me to come talk to him in his bed, to help ease his busy mind and assist in the transition to sleep.  The kitchen clock ticks, night growing later… and so I cut this short to keep the chain of love and honor going in right direction.

Namaste (and happy birthday Dad, I love you)

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18 Responses to “I never sang for my father, either”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    Oh, Bruce, this pierces me today. I am on vacation with my parents and for some reason feel I am confronting for the first time, or in a newly immediate way, their aging. They seem old to me, and frail, and human, and I am flooded with complicated feelings about this. Thank you for writing this; I can’t articulate exactly why, but it’s just what I needed to hear today.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This is lovely. My father was killed in a car accident, barely older than I am now, and in perfect health. It was at a time when he had embarked upon a newer, happier life with a second marriage, and was making every effort to get to know me. At last.

    There is great love here, in this writing. And in these histories which you have the good fortune to be able to tap into and retell.

    As I wonder about the struggles that lie ahead for my own sons, as they come to know the man who is their father in ways that will belong only to them, I am glad for the short time I did have to get to know my father, before his passing. And I would like to sing to your father today, to his history and his challenges, in honoring all the fathers and their children, that they may eventually come to know each other.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I’m so sorry that your dad’s life, and your time with him, was tragically cut so short… it makes me think of my own mom who’s dad died when she was young, and my (now dead, but still dear) mother-in-law who lost her dad at age four.

      As I say to Lindsey, I find comfort in feeling that we’re all in something together—something both vast and crazy, unbearably light and sometimes unbearably heavy.

  3. Michael Says:

    This touched me. Thanks, and happy birthday to your father.

  4. Katrina Says:

    How beautiful the way in which you “keep the chain of love and honor going in right direction.” Thank you for all that you share, and happy birthday to your dad.

  5. Linda Says:

    That’s so moving, Bruce. Especially the idea that you become a therapist to cure your own parent. My father was also born in 1926, though he was born in Poland, and he died in 1975. It’s startling to realize that, had he lived, he would have been 84 this year. Happy birthday to your dad.

  6. Beth B Says:

    A very moving post Bruce.
    Your boys are truly blessed to have a father like you. Even if they don’t fully realize that now, they will…

  7. privilegeofparenting Says:

    That’s sweet, but I truly think we (and by which I mean ALL of us) are truly blessed to have each other—sometimes the great challenge is figuring out just how this is so. Thanks for the kind words though, which I return in kind.

  8. Khim Says:

    Bruce,

    I was so touched. This brought me to tears. You have so eloquently stated things, once again. You’re a good man!

    With love,

    Khim

  9. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful words, Bruce, and for giving me the inspiration to reflect on this middling role we children/parents play – trying to shepherd our kids, our parents, and ourselves, all the while continuing to learn from all three generations.

    Happy birthday (now one day late) to your father.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Kristen… I’m seeing that this middling role is one that seems to really touch a nerve and potentially bond all of us together in a life-affirming way, maybe even a life-transcending way. Thanks for your spirit as well, it really helps me middle 🙂

  10. krk Says:

    Happy birthday to your dad, and ,may we all rejoice in another year.
    Thank you,as always, for your tenderness and care.
    krk

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