My parents were very close in age, with my mother being the elder by less than a day. This, March 31st, is actually her birthday, with my father's following on, wouldn't you know it, April Fool's Day. I found a certain ironic humor in that fact. A lot of what I have learned about my father's early life came from my mother; things that he shared with her over the course of many years. I really never discussed his early experiences with him, that I can remember. That just wasn't his way, which seems to have been true of many, if not most, men of his generation. He was big, tall for his age as a kid, which led people to expect more of him than he was sometimes capable of, given his actual chronological age and stage of development, creating stresses for him as a child, and seemed to have left him with an unfortunate tendency to demand of his own children "Don't you get it?!" or words to that effect, when we didn't comprehend something that he deemed we should have, quickly enough. He moved away from a childhood "nemesis," only to subsequently have the "nemesis" follow him later to the new place. This also happened to me, in the move from junior high/middle school to high school. If he ever made those kinds of connections between his experiences and mine, though, he never shared that with me.
My parents, though close in age, did not grow up anywhere near each other. My mother was born and grew up in Tennessee, while my father was born in Spokane, Washington, and grew up in Eastern Washington and Northwestern Idaho. His mother's parents (I'm not sure about his father's, although clearly, their families had lived closely enough together that my grandparents met and ultimately married, and I know neither of them went beyond an eighth grade education at that point) had property in Hope, ID, near Lake Pend Oreille, and several ancestral family members are buried in the Hope cemetery. My father made it clear that he did NOT wish to be buried there, and his cremains weren't. He also insisted there be no ceremony of any kind upon his passing. What we did, was have my cousin's (my father's sister's oldest daughter) husband, a Presbyterian minister, moderate a kind of memorial gathering at my parents' home with just my sisters and my mother there. Tears were shed, but not by me. My predominant feelings about my father at that point were mostly anger and a certain sense of relief that he wouldn't be around to "pick at" me any more. I used to go through such ambivalence visiting my parents; as much as I enjoyed seeing my mother, in equal degree I dreaded seeing my father. I could count on him finding something to criticize about me, as reliably as the sun coming up in the morning.
My parents met, because my mother, upon finishing her bachelor's degree in W. Virginia, and her teaching degree in Home Economics and English at Ball State in Indiana, traveled to the state of Washington for her first teaching job, at the school where my father was at that point, the principal. They definitely had in common being children of the Great Depression, having been born in 1927, two years before the stock market crash of '29, and of WWII, which gave both of them their opportunity for a college education. My father gained his through the GI Bill, having joined the Navy at the tail end of the war (he was on a ship heading to Japan when the war ended) and my mother earned her college money from her job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (She figured she might well have helped build the bombs that were dropped on Japan and ended the war, and she was always proud to claim kinship with Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's Secretary of State, who was a distant cousin.) They both believed strongly in the value of an education, and were politically liberals in the tradition of Roosevelt, both values they passed along to their four daughters.
I can't in fairness say that the relationship with my father was all negative, nor that I did not get anything positive from him. A lot of my offbeat sense of humor comes from him, and though both parents loved and appreciated music, my dad was the one who "did" it, more so than my mom. He played piano, sang solos and in barbershop quartets, and directed church choirs for many years, though he himself was not religious, and was my first band teacher. (His undergrad degree was in music, and he got into educational administration as a grad student. For the three years we lived in Glenwood, WA, for example, he was, in addition to the superintendent of schools, the band teacher/director and a substitute bus driver.) I've already mentioned the importance of education both parents imparted, and beyond that, the love of books and reading. Though that felt more like my mother's "thing," my father certainly didn't object or hinder that in any way, nor did he ever imply that he thought his girls less capable than boys, or expect less in terms of accomplishments.
As I came to understand some of the things he had to put up with growing up, (I learned from my mother that my dad's mom used to literally throw him out of the house at times when she got mad at him in high school and he would have to go to a friend's house to spend the night, until she cooled off, for example) I was able to develop a sense of compassion for the child he had been and what he had suffered, though that didn't necessarily make dealing with him in the present any easier! I would not have wished the pain he suffered at the end of his life from the broken bones in his back and ribcage from the multiple myeloma that ultimately took his life, or the dreadful side effects from some of the chemo regimens they tried with him, even though those did put him into remission for a time, on my worst enemy, let alone my father, no matter how difficult our relationship may have been up to that point. My mother said, after his death on New Year's Day, 2005, that he had told her, prior to our last Christmas together as a family, he just wanted to get through Christmas, and after that, he "didn't care." Well, he accomplished that, and left at the end of the old year of pain, and the beginning of the new year, free of the pain at last.
I'm glad, and grateful, that my last words to my dad were "I love you, Dad," even though, or maybe because, it wasn't easy for me to get to that place with him. Having that memory helps.
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