By Scott Ross
My sister recently prefaced a remark about our father with the words, “I know you didn’t get along with Dad, but…” What I wanted to say, but didn’t, was this: It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with my father; I didn’t like my father. And I think the feeling was mutual.
When, in my late teens, I watched on television the 1970 film adaptation of Robert Anderson’s autobiographical play I Never Sang for My Father, I was immediately struck by the similarities of its painfully delineated antagonisms between father and son and that of my own relationship with, and to, my Dad. The Melvyn Douglas character is more charming than my father, and his affection for his son is expressed more fully than it was in our home. But the tension between him and the Gene Hackman figure, never far from the surface, is uncomfortably similar. It’s the reason I have never been able to bring myself to see the movie again, despite its moving qualities and its overall excellence. For many years I told myself it was the movie’s despairing portrait of a nursing home Hackman visits when he becomes concerned that his father can no longer live alone and unattended, an institution depicted in agonizingly unsettling shades of pity and horror, that was the source of my aversion. And while that sequence is harrowing, it is almost incidental. What hurt most was the enmity between father and son. It is this that, not coincidentally, which kept me from seeing the almost universally praised 1979 movie of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini on its release (or of ever reading the novel), which aversion has continued even to today, for both. Bullying fathers hit all too close to home. My home.
I was haunted, too, by the specifics of the movie’s action, as it is the death of the elderly mother (Dorothy Stickney) that precipitates the crisis between father and son. What would I do — what would I be able to do — should Mom precede Dad in death? Could I give comfort to the man? Would I want to? In our own case, the matter was settled by my father’s contracting lung cancer a decade ago, although the survivors are in agreement that the cure was what ultimately killed him. When Dad died, I was sorriest for my mother; he was pretty much her entire world, and indeed his death at 71, my sister and I believe, was the precipitating event that led to her rapid decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s. But when Dad died I felt little, aside from concern about his widow… and, surprisingly, for me, felt no guilt whatsoever for my lack of emotional response. I thought at the time I would grieve later. I never have. Grief, like trust, like loyalty, is earned. Dad could be thoughtful, and even generous. But he was incapable of expressing love, at least to and for me. Hearing from one’s mother that one’s father loves him, or is proud of him, feels too much like special pleading.
My father’s father was almost universally acknowledged as a bastard of the first rank. Physically as well as verbally abusive (he once struck his own sweet, gentle mother across the face during an argument when she was in her 80s) he is, I suspect, the physiological link to my own chronic major depression, just as my mother’s mother is the source of the high anxiety that, together, have blemished my life for decades. I recognize my father in me, all too well: The mood swings, the dark outlook, the anti-social impulse, the sometimes explosive anger (unlike my father, usually expressed only when I’m alone.) And in fact it was that very recognition that finally spurred me to seek treatment in the mid-1990s. Dad had a splendid knack for goading my mother without seeming to, playing on her nerves and her defensiveness until she reacted, at which point his own stubbornness asserted itself, leading to the argument I sensed was imminent — and, nearly always, easily avoidable.
Occasionally Mom rose above it. A single example from late in my father’s life is illustrative.
A year after my parents retired to Naples, Florida, they flew me down for a visit. Mom had baked a pumpkin pie and suggested to me that we cut it after dinner. After lunch, Dad asked, “What’s for dessert?” (Dessert was something he often eschewed, until he gave up smoking at 50; after that, it became a concern of abiding interest to him.) “Let’s have some of that pie,” he added. Mom innocently noted that she thought we would wait until evening, and have it with after-dinner coffee. Dad was instantly argumentative, Mom calmly asserting that he could have pie whenever he liked, but that she and I were going to wait. When she asked if he’d like her to cut him a slice he said no, he didn’t want any pie. After he stormed away from the table and I was helping clean up, Mom, with slightly amused resignation, said, “He’ll keep saying he doesn’t want any pie. He won’t eat it now.” And indeed, that night, after dinner when she asked if we’d all like some pie with our coffee, Dad barked, “I don’t want any pie,” and left the table. Mom, for once, and to my pleasure, was blithe about it, and made no further comment to him. But for the remainder of my visit (two or three days) my father not only continued to refuse pumpkin pie when it was offered, but seldom stirred either from his office space or my parents’ bedroom, where he sat reading paperback mysteries and — there is no other word for it — pouting. And all because my mother had the temerity to suggest he consider waiting a few hours to eat a goddamn slice of pie.
Things weren’t necessarily always so tense. When I was small, Dad seemed genuinely to enjoy me; it was only as I grew that I became aware of a fissure. When we lived in Canton, Ohio, where I was born (and where, 28 years earlier, Dad was also delivered) we for a time traveled to the man-made Meyers Lake during the summer, to enjoy the water and, on the 4th of July, the fireworks display set off from Goat Island in the middle of the lake. Once, when we were preparing to leave for the fireworks, Mom served a light supper consisting of sandwiches made from strawberry preserves. Something about the jam, the texture perhaps, disagreed with me, and I found it almost impossible to swallow. My father angrily insisted on my eating every crumb of that sandwich. I forced it down, loathing every bite, and later, on the threshold of the front door as we were leaving, was violently ill. I was blamed for vomiting that sandwich, and it was at that moment that I became afraid of my father, and of his unpredictable temper. I avoided strawberry preserves, and even strawberry pie, for years after that.
One of the worst of the old (now, happily, discredited if not entirely discarded) theories of the “cause” of homosexuality was the Distant Father/Overbearing (or Overprotective) Mother school. A newer theory has been bruited about during the last few years which turns this on its head, suggesting that many fathers may sense, subconsciously, their sons’ emergent sexuality at an early age, withdrawing emotionally as a result. I remember laughing once when Ronnie Schell’s recurrent interior decorator character on the late-’60s Jim Neighbors variety show did a pratfall, and being told by my father that it was all right to laugh at the character, but to never be like him. What could that mean to an 8 or 9 year old? Throughout my childhood I kissed both my parents goodnight before I went to bed. When I was 11 my father informed me it was more manly to shake his hand. Whatever his reasons, the edict felt like a rejection. And when for my 12th birthday we were taken to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, and on the ride home I expressed my admiration for Frank Kopyc, who played the Emcee, Dad said (shades of Ronnie Schell) it was okay to enjoy the Emcee but not to behave like him. “Like what?” I asked, confused. “Like a pansy,” was Dad’s response.
For a long time I wondered whether our father enjoyed my sister and me until we became little persons, with minds and wills of our own. Whatever the reason for his distance, two events in my then-young life cemented my fear of, and aversion to, my Dad. Both date from the time I was 7 or 8, and 9, respectively, during the period we lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Taken together, these memories anatomize for me the moments that crystallized my distrust, and dislike, of, my Dad, which lasted more or less to the end of his life. While the second event is perhaps the more extreme, it is the first one that really hurt.
Event the 2nd: I am perhaps nine years old. I am arguing with my mother. About what, I no longer recall, and the subject is undoubtedly, in the scheme of things, trivial. My father enters the room and angrily strikes me, hard, across the face. As he’s telling me never to speak to my mother that way, my nose begins to gush blood. I run upstairs in tears. Attempting to staunch the crimson flow, I hear voices raised below, and the slam of the side door. My mother attends to me. I am, somehow, made to understand that Dad has stormed out of the house. It’s the only time an argument between my parents about their children has escalated to that degree, or ever will, but it is also the first time I can remember my parents being so at odds over their respective treatment of me.
Event the 1st: I am seven or eight. On one of our long weekend drives to nowhere in particular — these were the days when Americans could actually afford to drive for pleasure — I begin to notice a plethora of service stations under the banner “B.P.” and finally ask, innocently enough I think, what “B.P.” stands for. I won’t divulge my father’s answer here, as it’s both too private and too painful; suffice to say that he uses the opportunity to make a profane, and notably ugly, joke at my expense. That my sister, and even my mother, laugh uproariously, make my shame and embarrassment that much more acute, as does the story’s being told, and re-told, endlessly throughout my childhood and adolescence. That it has never occurred to any of my relations how damaging that joke, and the subsequent sobriquet, were, and are, both to an 8-year old boy and to the adult he became, is, to me, staggering. What sort of adult takes pleasure in humiliating his children? And why can no one in the family except myself see how hurtful the obscenity was? Would they ever say such a thing to their own children? I strongly suspect not. Why, then, is it so hilarious, that the remark was made to and about me? Had I been older, even an adult, when that joke was made at my expense, I might have been able to shrug, if not exactly laugh, it off. But not as a child.
Nor should I have been expected to.
I was given some comfort a couple of years ago from, of all people, Tom Selleck. Or, rather, from Selleck and Diana Son and her collaborators, the writers of the Blue Bloods episode “Cellar Boy.” An elderly neighboring couple of the Reagans have been murdered. The chief suspect is their adult son. During a family meal, one of the splendid hallmarks of that remarkable series, the father’s mental cruelty is discussed. To one of his grandsons’ questions, patriarch Frank intones, with appropriate sobriety, “A father should never humiliate his children.”
Forty years late, but thank you anyway, Frank. And amen.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross