Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Man, the Myth, the Legend?

At five foot six inches tall my dad seemed like a giant to me. Barrel-chested with Popeye arms, he was easily the most powerful man I knew. His thick police style mustache, and close-cropped hairstyle exuded an air of authority that I rarely saw anybody challenge. His personality was quiet but strong, and his powers of persuasion second to none.

He himself came from a rough childhood. His father took up drinking at some point and the results were disastrous. By all accounts my dad's father was a great man until he started drinking, but when he was drunk he was a mean, angry drunk. He could grow extremely violent, and more than once my dad would have to step between his father and his mother or sisters, or sometimes both, in order to shield them from another drunken rage.

My dad was a man of honor. It would not be from him that I learned his childhood history, for he never had a sour word to say about his father. My aunt was more forthcoming with the details of their tortured upbringing trying to survive the wrath of a tormented soul who was drowning his bitter disappointments in alcohol and taking it out on his family. However, my dad would never breathe a word of it, even after we kids had become adults. Earlier than I can remember, and after my dad was an adult, he would give his father a place to live when he had nowhere to go, and my grandfather died knowing he could count on his son.

An extremely hard worker, he moved his way up the ranks in his company and ended up being handed a territory in Upstate New York. It wasn’t long before he held the distinction of top sales rep in the company, and was recognized with a number of prestigious awards. As a result we as a family never wanted for anything. He provided us with a nice home, plenty to eat and new clothes every year. We had every material need met and he was the reason why.

Having served a stint in the Navy, he was a particular man preoccupied with details. He expected his sons to stand at attention when he addressed them and he had no patience for slouching or fidgeting. Anyone or anything that resembled laziness was summarily dismissed as worthless, or not worth his time. He expected perfection when you performed your duties or chores, and he did not settle for less. One of his favorite clich├ęs was “If it’s not worth doing right the first time then it’s not worth doing at all.”

As a youngster I wanted nothing more than to make him proud.

However, my dad was a strict disciplinarian and he ruled our home with fear and an iron hand. His demand for respect was of paramount importance, and our actions were sculpted by our need to abide within the parameters he laid out.

As children, we were never to address him without calling him sir, and it was yes sir or no sir when asked a question. While at the dinner table, we were to keep our faces in our plates, unless specifically addressed. We were taught to anticipate our chores and take care of them before we were told to. If he had to actually tell us to do our chores we knew it was already too late to avoid the consequences of not doing them. We were expected to excel in school, to never question authority, to be better behaved and more attuned than the average child from the average family, and to know all of this intuitively.

He expected compliance from us children, and he would watch us to make sure we were acting in accordance with his wishes. Often, he would sneak up on us when we were unaware and catch us in some act of childish behavior. To affect the most dramatic outcome possible he would burst in upon us with a loud and sudden eruption and catch us by surprise.

To this day loud, startling noises cause me to consider tearing the head off the person who perpetrated the act.

It was common practice for him to watch us play outside from just inside the window, behind a curtain. He would stand there for long periods of time to see what we were up to and try to catch us misbehaving. My brothers and I became experts at detecting his silhouette behind the glass and adjusting our behavior accordingly.

We also learned every creak and groan of the stairs coming up to the second floor and every noise caused by loose floorboards in the hallway leading to our bedroom. Many times, upon his explosive entrance to our room, he would find us pretending to be playing in a manner that we thought he would be least likely to find fault with. Although he almost always did, the end result was not nearly as hard to deal with as when he caught us unaware.

What worried us most was provoking his anger. His rage was legendary, and just a look from him could send me blubbering in a pool of tears. His vicious putdowns and withering words could be unleashed without warning, and it took little from me to raise his ire. Combined with his sometimes-violent outbursts it created a dangerous mix that could go off without any notice.

I don’t remember ever feeling relaxed in his presence. Truth be told, if he was home, nobody in our family was relaxed.

There was no questioning that he was the man, (our household revolved around him), and although measuring up to his standards proved to be a myth for me, he has long since passed from legend to mere mortal.


Greg said...

Wow, Paul... sounds like your Dad may have been dealing with some issues of his own... like, wanting to be perfect, but he (like all of us) could not. I am pretty sure I struggle with that, and at times, want "perfection" from my kids. Not necessarily perfection, but it may seem that way to them.

I am sure there is a balance of helping your children understand responsibility, respect, a good "work ethic" and more that he was trying to teach you, and yet a constant, over-arching grace that leaves room for inevitable failure. Grace that makes the family a welcoming place to belong, and be loved for who you are. I think I am striving for that balance, and hope that I am able to (with God's help) provide that for my kids. Your words remind me of the importance of the second part of what I am striving to provide for them. Character training, yes. But perhaps even more important is the place to belong, a place where they are completely accepted.

Paul Robert Jones said...

I would submit to you that good character training is a by product of a home where children are allowed to fail within the safe confines of unconditional love.

Over and above that, a child who lives in grace has a heart like a blank slate that is open to being written upon, where as a child who has been bruised and scarred, under the pretense of love, develops a heart of hardened stone, that is rough on the outside and prone to breaking.

Reminds me of an old poem:

It was only a gentle word
And a word that was lightly spoken
Yet not in vain, for it stilled the pain
Of a heart that was nearly broken.

Maybe a little cliche and trite, but it should've been the adopted mantra in my home growing up.

For what it's worth, the fact that you are diligent in your approach, prayerful in your teachings, and thoughtful in your dealings with your children is a sign of a parent who is proactive and not blind to the huge responsibility we bare in shapeing our children.

It's not perfection, but then again it never will be.