I asked my Dad, “Do you remember what it was like to be a son to your Mom and Dad when you were younger as opposed to what it felt like as you grew older? What did honoring your Mother and Dad look like as you grew older?” He said, “One of the things I have been appreciating recently is the overall climate that was in my home. So many people go through the turbulence of a home where this is going on, and that is going on, there is shouting and so on. I think being an only child was one thing . . .”
It was at that point that I interrupted him because I had this strong perception of what it must have felt like for my Dad to be an only child. So I asked, “About that! Does that part of your life make you sad? Do you wish sometimes that you had a brother or sister?” Dad surprised me. “I can’t say that I do particularly. That was just the way that it was. But I appreciate the fact that there was no cussing. Language was clean. There was no shouting. The atmosphere was calm. There was no alcohol. I lived 5 houses down from ‘Billy Shoe’s Grill’ in downtown Rochester and I saw what alcohol could do to a person. None of that was in my home.” His contentment challenged what I had come to believe about his childhood experience.
Frankly I still wasn’t convinced. My perception of the sadness he must have felt must be more accurate than he was letting on. Maybe he was repressing his real feelings. Maybe, because he was part of the don’t-ask-questions-and-do-your-job Builder Generation, he’d never honestly faced what he really felt as a child. This was my chance. This was my opportunity to dig up some hidden pain that needed to see that light of day. So I did what I usually do – I pressed my case. I said, “Dad don’t you ever look back and think being an only child was a bummer? I think about your Mom and Dad, how they weren’t around all that much because it was the Great Depression. Grandpa was away at the farm outside of Rochester. Grandma was teaching because they needed her to keep that job, being one of the few people who had a good job. So don’t you feel sad about any of that?” My question was met with a long pause.
Then Dad simply said, “No. Not in the least.” He could tell I need some explanation, “I remember how some people who will say, ‘we were poor but we didn’t know it’ meaning that everything was actually okay. I think that description fits how things functioned. Dad kept the farm going. He’d come into town on Sunday and go to church with us, then throw the ball around with me . . . He would also come in on Wednesday evening and he’d have this place where he’d park his green Ford-flatbed pickup truck. I would ride over with my dad to park the truck and then walk back to the house and I can remember him playing with me squatting down to my level as we walked and I would giggle and run along side of him.” Then with the tenderest depth of emotion, my 82-year-old Father looked back across the years and concluded, “My dad was very real to me.”
Dad’s response reminded me all over again, that my perception does not equal reality! I’d filled in the blanks from all the stories he had told me about his childhood and now I was discovering that I’d filled in those blanks inaccurately. I assumed it must have been hard. I assumed he must have been sad because he didn’t have brothers and sisters. I assumed he had regrets. Maybe it’s due to the consumerist culture I’ve been so tainted by, but I’m pretty sure I would have felt a little cheated by my Dad’s childhood experience. Not my Dad. In my Father I discovered a man overflowing with gratitude for the experience he had as a child. It made me happy to hear how pleasant my Dad’s childhood actually was to him. What’s that old saying? “When you assume you . . .”