I can still remember the intense, almost indescribable fear I experienced sitting in my bedroom as a kid, hearing the footsteps thumping up the stairs, knowing what was about to happen. My whole body would tremble. I was frozen in that spot, absolutely terrified.
It might have been a bad report card day or something like that. My father would push the door open, charge in, and begin screaing at the top of his lungs for whatever ill-conceived batch of mischief I’d gotten myself into this time. My dad wasn’t so much one to hit as one to scream. His face would turn beet-red and he would thunder in righteous, angry indignation. Once he got it out of his system, he was fine.
If I had been smart, I would have rationalized that all I had to do was look humble and apologetic, let me scream, and then he’d leave me alone for the night — which he always did. But when you’re 12 and your dad has a temper, every fit of anger feels at the moment like the prelude to your last day on Earth. It takes years to know better.
The last time I saw my Dad was in November 2009, in South Beach, at my niece’s wedding. Dad lives in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the same house he bought a few months before I was born, the one I lived in for the first 30 years of my life. I left Massachusetts in 2002 to relocate to Florida and have only been back there once since then.
I sat next to Dad at the wedding, and again at the dinner reception. Today my dad, exactly 30 years older than me, no longer seems like the intimidating guy I knew as a kid. He’s relaxed, easygoing, fun to talk to. He takes a great interest in my career and what I’m doing, asking me constantly how things are going, offering me advice when he can. He brags about me shamelessly back home, my biggest cheerleader and booster. When the wedding photographer came around to take our photos, Dad put his fingers up behind my head as the camera clicked my photo — Dad as the practical joker. What a far cry from my teen years.
I never got grounded when I was a kid, never had my driving privileges suspended, never had anything taken away for a week as punishment. Mostly I was too scared of my Dad to get into any serious trouble. But looking back, it’s easy to see the good things I missed. Dad was a great provider. He was of the generation where the dad went to work, mom stayed at home and raised the kids, and he provided us with a big home in a good neighborhood, cars, vacations — everything we needed. An engineer by trade, he held a professional job in Boston for two decades. I never knew what it was like to go without.
My Dad was practical. The values he tried to instill in me were old-fashioned and embedded in common sense virtues: keep up with the Jones. That was my parents’ Bible — they were pure creatures of the 1950s. Get good grades in school, Dad always said. Go into a professional career. Earn enough money to buy a nicer house than your neighbor. Earn enough to get a better car. Earn enough to take better vacations. My parents were devoted capitalists: if your neighbor is doing better than you, you were doing something wrong.
My parents were opposites. Mom was the one I could sweet talk into letting me skip school so we could go to the mall for lunch and then see a movie. Dad was the one we had to hide that from.
Growing up, I felt nothing like my father, and used to worry that I was a big disappointment in his eyes. He was a star basketball player in college, and I couldn’t dribble for two seconds if you put a gun to my head. My dad got stuck with the world’s least athletic son.
As an engineer, my dad was a math whizz. Without a handy calculator, I was lost dividing and multiplying. And when I would tell him my dreams of becoming a writer … well, let’s just say my father was always very positive — positive I’d fail, positive I’d never make it. He wanted me to descend into a safer career, like becoming an engineer.
Today, it’s hard to find anyone who seems more proud of what I do. Back then, the criticism felt stinging. There’s nothing worse than a protective parent who assumes, mistakenly, that their children are heading in the wrong direction and need to be steered on the right path. Boy, is that a mistake. But it no longer matters. Today our phone conversations are pleasant, free of tension. The ghosts of the past are long gone, happily.
My father may have been the last of that generation that believed the parent set the rules, always knew best, and children should look up to them, respect them, and follow their example. When my sister Kerri had her daughter, she raised her quite differently — the parent as best buddy, not as disciplinarian or authority figure. I think a lot of parents today prefer that example, rather than the model my Dad used. I know my niece turned out great so I have no criticism of my sister’s parenting skills. Maybe the parent as pal does work better.
But I do know it takes a while to understand that the strict dad who haunted your early years had his heart in the right place, even if he wasn’t always graceful in demonstrating it. When I call him today to say hi, we’ll have lots to talk about.
We always do.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
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