Looking back at my challenging relationship with the most influential man in my life: my father.
by Marcia Singer, MSW
Maybe you too have a complicated relationship with the man you call your father. Maybe you are even a father yourself, reading this essay, aware that you are a mixture of good, better or worse yourself. Regardless of whether you are a parent, you were some man’s son or daughter, and have sometimes been pleased or proud of yourself as a daughter or son — or not, as sometimes, the case may be…
My father was a complex soul. I relate deeply. Now in my mid-seventies, I marvel that I’ve lived longer than he did, surviving the onslaughts of society’s injustices, the proverbial slings and arrows that wound our souls. I can appreciate and see in myself what I consider to be the best and worst of my father’s persona. I’m pretty much ok with it all. if still single and lonesome around the edges — a romantic at heart, but one who prefers her “own company” mostly, just like her dad preferred his own, way back when.
That was back when I was a curious, precocious, shamefully shy little girl who needed her shy and intellectual Daddy’s company, I often found him in his study or “den,” with its huge library, reading, alone. I hesitated, not sure I should bother him. He would ask me in; I don’t recall if I was totally sure I was wanted, but probably, if we could discuss life, philosophy, and things immediate to a little girl child’s world (like
I recall a particularly eventful discussion we had when I was fourteen. I was arguing that there must have been something good about Adolf Hitler. You must understand that for a Jewish father, whose experience as a first generation of survivors of the Holocaust was all too poignant still — -having his daughter argue on behalf of the most hated man on the planet was no small thing. He feared I “could not perceive evil.” I on the other hand, my brain not yet well developed enough to deliver a fine argument, simply knew in my heart that everybody had to have some saving grace about them (maybe I was channeling Anne Frank, an early heroine of mine.) Also, because I suffered mightily within, at my own perceived insufficiencies, I hoped with all my heart that God was forgiving enough to ensure that I too, on my worst days, had bestowed some undeniably good quality in me. And if me, then why not Hitler too?
I never lost that faith; it’s one of my best qualities I think, one of which perhaps Daddy, peering in from The Other Side, is actually proud of me for philosophically now. He once tried to persuade me to be a philosophy major, following in his footsteps, and dissuade me from the pursuit of psychology, intimating, “It’s not a good thing to air our dirty laundry…”
As he had enormous influence on me, I did not choose to be a psych major, but the laugh on us both, is that I have spent most of my life studying the nature of the mind and soul anyhow. And naturally am drawn to varying philosophies of how to live and experience a satisfying life. I did manage to get a master’s degree in “psychiatric social work,” maybe stepping around my father’s fears, as both he and my mother were themselves very dedicated to community services. But that M.S.W. was also bought with my denying myself a formal art’s degree as well, giving in to Daddy’s advice to get a degree “in the humanities” first, then consider art later. Which I never did, feeling too inadequate to the task, and too far behind other students my age who had jumped right in.
No regrets. Not really. Not now. I share the genes for philosophical thought, great teachings and teachers, the ‘holy questions’ perhaps underneath our ponderings. I certainly inherited his penchant for having a broad vocabulary, for reading a lot, and for writing –and for puns, plays on words: his intellect? And a certain athleticism (inherited from Mommy as well).. Characteristics I like just fine. But I have mixed feelings about the kind of self-righteous indignation I can feel towards people I disapprove of, or an ‘elitist’ posture I adopt, patronizing stance… that I also trace back to my father, criticism (“Jerks!”) that would sometime erupt out of his stoicism… He was a child of patriarchy, and worst of all, was the way he criticized his wife, my mother. Though I don’t remember what the particulars were, I still feel the stings to my sense of being femme, as he articulated put downs for the way she did this or that… even the noisy way she crunched celery with “a porcelain head.” Eroding my chances for a happy marriage, a happy ending.
Before his death in 1991 five weeks before my mother’s (they more or less went and left this earth together), he referred to his wife as “a saint, just like her father.” I was a bit surprised, and quite relieved to know something more real and dear had emerged as his truth, indirectly providing another small salvation to me. He died of complications from cancer and a botched surgery to remove a rare tumor from the base of his spine. My mother died of a cocktail of Lou Gherig’s Disease (ALS), Alzheimer’s and dementia. I found the whole of our complicated family history as well as our genetics in those diagnoses. And I found solace where I could, and have continued ever since.
Before I let you go, know that I would not change a thing about my life. It’s all been for my benefit, stirring me up causing me to dig deeper for treasured understanding and compassion, or lifting me to new, ever higher heights. I believe I’ve taken my inheritances, used them well enough, and am appreciative that I will continue as long as I can on this Path. May I wish for you as well, with complicated relationships with your own fathers and mothers, to cultivate your relationship gardens. Respect governing laws (fate), pull the weeds gently wherever needed, nourish, tend and reap your harvests as blessings (destiny.)
May you and yours be well.