My Dad and I were not particularly close during my childhood. The experiences of his childhood haunted him and he did everything possible to make sure that mine would be different. Unfortunately, in doing so he left his own minefields for me to negotiate.
Growing up in the poorest parts of the South Bronx, my dad had a difficult childhood. At times he had a close relationship with his father and would look forward to planned adventures. Unfortunately, these plans would often go unfulfilled, especially if his father was sidetracked by the local bar. This unreliability took a toll on my dad.
In many ways, I grew up in a single-parent household, even though my parents were still together. My Dad worked a lot; seven-day workweeks were not uncommon and he often came home after my sister and I had gone to bed. There was a snowstorm in 1978 where he worked long past anyone else only to find he could not get out of the driveway of his workplace, never mind negotiating the way home. He spent the night and most of the next day at the job, working without interruption.
This hard work paid off. My family moved from the Bronx to the suburbs into a house with a huge yard. We took marathon cross country road trips for vacations. My Dad coached my little league team. He had exorcized one of the demons from his childhood, replacing them with others.
While my Dad wanted his family to be more comfortable, he did not want us to take it for granted and he worried that we were missing the lessons that he had learned in his childhood. This was compounded by the differences in my parents’ child-raising methods.
My sister and I had a comfortable relationship with our Mom. When we did not agree with her decisions, she allowed us to present our opinions. This was foreign to my Dad who was used to a life where the parents’ decisions were followed without question. However, he had delegated the child-rearing to my Mom and his attempts to enforce his methodology when he was with us did not go well.
The status quo changed with the birth of my daughter. My move to the opposite coast had already removed much of the pressure from the relationship. I had felt his pride when I hit life’s milestones like graduating from school, getting married and buying my first house. When I became a father, I also felt pride in him.
Until you are completely responsible for another person, I do not think that you can truly understand what it means to be a parent. From the moment I cut the umbilical cord, I knew that I would do anything for my daughter. I also knew that my Dad would have done anything for me. He may not have been perfect, but he did his best. This realization changed everything.
Our new relationship was tested with one question four years later. My son was about to be born and we needed to set up a bedroom for him. Since my Dad was the handyman of the family, I asked him for help in converting the guest room. His response was that the room was much too small. The next thing I knew, plans were being drawn for adding on a new room to the house. And we were going to do it together.
This was not going to be an easy task. First, he still lived 3,000 miles away and was still working. Second, while he may have been handy with fix-it projects, by trade he was a Chief Financial Officer and I was an Office Manager. These did not exactly give us the skills needed for a major construction project. However, I did have a next-door neighbor who worked in construction who was willing to teach. This was my Dad’s dream project and he wanted to learn.
When my Dad would get a break in his work schedule, he would fly out and we would remove the tarps and pick up work on the project. My Dad was the quiet type and we mostly worked in silence, but occasionally would take the opportunity to learn about each other. We also got the chance to experience history together.
The first event that I remember taking place while we worked was the shootings at Columbine. I was on the roof when my neighbor drove up and asked us if we had heard what happened. We listened to the news as we continued working that day.
My Dad was also in town for the 2000 election. I gave up and went to bed long before he was tired of waiting to see what the results would be. He had never really expressed an interest in politics before but I think that night really transformed him. Eight years later he would be on street corners holding up signs in support of Obamacare!
The hardest event for him was the terrorist attacks on 9/11. My Mom was working in New York City at the time and you could visibly see the worry on his face. Luckily, it did not take us long to get in touch with her, but the sound of her voice was not enough to calm his nerves. It was a rotten time to have that much distance between spouses and the disrupted air travel system only served to prolong the wait until they could be together.
As we approached the end of the project my Dad shared the biggest news of all. After years of devoting everything to his job, he was ready to go cold turkey. To everyone’s surprise, he was retiring.
That room served as my personal refuge for a few good years. And then a really bad year as my first marriage fell apart. Even then it was comforting to know that I was sheltered by a room that my Dad and I had built together. Eventually, I moved on to blend a new family and the house was sold as part of the divorce. The room is no longer mine, but it holds a lot of my memories.
It is hard to believe that it has been seven years since my father has passed on. As I reach new milestones, I miss the ability to share them with him. In times of crisis, I still crave the ability to seek his advice. When I miss him the most, I remember the project that we undertook and I am thankful for the memories we created. It makes me grateful for the opportunity we had to grow our relationship.