perm_identity Celebration Days for Mom and Dad

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 181 ~ June, 2012

My father was born in June, June 20th, to be exact, and consequently, some years Father’s Day fell on his birthday, a double celebration.  My mother’s birthday was May 21st, with the same result, in her case, with Mother’s Day arriving in certain years on her birthday.  As a kid, I thought this was pretty cool, and somehow emphasized how special my parents were, that their respective birthdays were in the same month in which others were celebrating Mothers and Fathers throughout the country.

My parents had very different responses and feelings toward designated traditions, more in regard to whether things should be unquestionably accepted or not.   Surprisingly, my father, the renowned psychiatrist, the presumed specialist in human behavior, was the one who particularly loved making a big production over all so-called “special” designated days.  He took Father’s Day very seriously and loved basking in the spotlight, surrounded by his four children, of whom I was the oldest.

My mother, on the other hand, the wise housewife and homemaker, was much more independent than my father, at least in terms of a true belief system, and she could care less about Mothers’ Day, which would drive my father crazy.  He couldn’t believe it, somehow was convinced she was pretending indifference because she actually wanted attention, though nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, one year, when I was in my twenties, my mother sent me a Mother’s Day card with her familiar small but exceedingly legible handwriting inside telling me not to worry about doing anything for her on Mother’s Day, it was just another day, and she was a mother everyday, so she didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

I suspect my parents’ approach toward such days was influenced by their respective families and upbringing.  My father was an only child, while my mother was the middle child of three, with an older brother and a younger sister.  Despite my father’s intelligence, and all he had ever learned or experienced about human behavior, the lack of siblings severely handicapped his view of what his four children were like, forget about individual feelings, whether justified or not.  A simple squabble between two of us, myself and my sister, who I’m a year older than, or my brother and my other sister, who are separated by a year, inevitably caused my father to overreact.  Instead of accepting “kids will be kids”, as my mother did, my father always searched for deeper, hidden meaning as inevitably being responsible for any given behavior.  As a result, one was forced to try and explain or justify why one was feeling a particular way, even if it didn’t fit within my father’s generic interpretation.

I’m still not sure I have the answer about the difference between legitimate tradition and structured pretense. I do know that I came up with the concept of “forced fun” based on my father’s approach to day-to-day living, that you were supposed to feel a certain way simply because, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Conflict was a given.  My father and I didn’t share the same interests, and regardless of how much he tried, I simply couldn’t be converted into ever showing an interest in science, or how things were made, or household repairs, or even how a car engine ran.  I was more interested in playing sports, and in reading history, with a particular interest in biographies, and trying to imagine what it would have been like to live in different eras, mostly confined to different stages during the development of the United States.

It’s hard for me to imagine how my father and mother ended up as a couple, except perhaps that starting out, when they were in college together, my mother was dazzled by my father’s charismatic persona, that he seemed so animated and intelligent compared to many of the bland, unworldly fellows in my mother’s circle at the University of Toronto. I really don’t know. I do know that as a kid, my parents seemed like the perfect match, each bringing a separate, dynamic strength to the union. My mother told me from an early age that I was very much like my father, that I possessed many of his traits. But in truth, in reality, the years would prove I was much more like my mother, more aware of other people than I was in being completely absorbed with myself to the exclusion of all else.

My father was never athletic, due to a birth defect with his spine, so the only sport I ever remember him being somewhat interested in was golf, or at least that was the only event I ever recall him watching on television.  And I do know, as a doctor, as a psychiatrist, somehow he always regretted not being able to play golf with colleagues, as if that in itself would have been a crowning achievement which would make him feel more acceptable.  Still, I found it amazing, and somewhat intriguing that while he was in college, my father was the play-by-play radio announcer for hockey games played by the University of Toronto on Saturday nights. My mother told me that before each game, she would go out to dinner with my father for hamburgers, their major date of the week, before the game, on money my father had earned for announcing the game the week before.

My mother was a private person, whereas my father had a deep, pervasive need to not only be accepted, but to mesmerize others, leaving them in suspended awe as he continuously strived to be the center of attention.  His confidence seemed endless. He seemed so sure of himself, his understanding of people and life so complex, his knowledge immense.  At least that’s what it seemed like when I was young, long before the facade began to slowly crack, revealing layers of anxiety and insecurity deep within my father’s character, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say lack of one because he never really knew himself, never felt secure in anything close to true self-awareness.

Nana Bessie, my mother’s mother, was the first of my grandparents to die, suffering a fatal stroke in the month of December a month after I had turned nine. The phone call came from Toronto to our home in New Jersey.  It was before eleven at night, as I remember, and my father answered the phone. I knew something was wrong from the expression on his face.  In an example of miscommunication, unintended consequences, my father solemnly passed the phone receiver to my mother and gravely said, “It’s your Dad.”

Grabbing the phone, my mother, believing, based on my father’s words, that Nana Bessie was on the line, said, “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry about Dad,” only to be stunned when she heard her father’s voice respond, “No, it’s your mother who’s gone.”

Obviously an awkward moment, but I can see how my father thought he was choosing appropriate words, though his choice of words was not one I would ever use, or can imagine most others using in such a situation.  It was accurate, but misleading.  Indeed, Gramp, my mother’s father, was on the phone, yet it was obvious from my child’s perspective that something serious and horrible had occurred, and my mother knew immediately from the moment the phone rang at that time of night, and from my father’s demeanor, even before he had uttered a word, that one of her parents had died.

The irony in my family was that my psychiatrist father, who so valued communication, and repetitively reminded us how vital communication was, was himself so poor at communicating with members of his own family.  A colleague of his, a psychologist, whose mentor was an older psychiatrist who served the same role for my father, once said to me, “I’m not quite sure how to tell you this, but your father doesn’t know how to just be.”

I was in my mid-twenties, I think, and I wasn’t sure what Harold, the psychologist, was getting at until he provided a quick anecdote.  He said he was once at an outing at the older psychiatrist’s summer cottage on the Jersey shore.  Apparently, he and my father, and Irving, the older psychiatrist, were sitting around in beach chairs, “just bullshitting” about everything and nothing in particular, when my father suddenly intently looked at Irving and Harold and asked, “Who do you think is the leader of this group?”  Harold told me, all he could think of was “Who gives a shit?”

But, of course, my father cared very much, so preoccupied was he with appearances and acceptance, meaning approval, which was sorely lacking in his childhood, consisting of just himself, a boy in leg braces with a defective spine, trapped between parochial parents, an ineffectual father and a paranoid mother who’s mania could skyrocket to remarkable extremes.  Once when my father was nineteen or so, he and his best friend, were sitting on the front porch of the modest brick house my father grew up in and they were discussing the atomic bomb which had recently been dropped on Hiroshima.  Unbeknownst to them, my grandmother had slipped around from the side of the house and was down in the bushes in front of the porch.  Suddenly, she popped up on the porch, confronting my father with a twisted accusatory smile.  “I heard what you said,” she screamed at my startled father, who had no idea what she was talking about, and his friend, a rather mild chap, who didn’t know either.  “I heard you, don’t try to deny it, you called me an old atomic bomb!”

An attempt at an explanation or clarification from my father would have been  futile.  And a quick rebuttal of “you’re insane” would not be appropriate to his mother, whom he was always trying to please, unsuccessfully, of course.  No, my father and his friend were forced to endure his mother’s tirade, which, like many other of her sentiments, was grounded in the imaginative landscape of illusion rather than in accordance with any semblance of reality.

I don’t really know all that much about my father’s family, though we were accepted as part of my mother’s extended family, aunts and uncles, and cousins and such, who accepted us as Gramp and Nana Bessie’s daughter’s family from New Jersey.  I was aware of my mother being part of a large, loving family, the Cannons, and Gibsons, and Stewarts, and Valleaus, whereas when we thought of my father’s family, we never were aware of much beyond his parents.  We knew next to nothing about his mother’s family, except she had a “spinster” sister and a couple brothers, or maybe only one, who were farmers somewhere in Ontario.  And though I was aware my grandfather was the oldest of six, I only remember meeting two of them, the next two in line after him, a sister and his only brother, who went on to become a major civic leader, even serving as a member of the City Council in the municipality where my father was raised, but never really had much to do with my grandparents, and certainly nothing to do with us.

In one note, really just a few lines on a scrap of paper, referring to my father, which she may or may not have ever given thought to whether it would ever be discovered, my mother wrote, “Hard for me to identify, but I did have empathy and compassion for and an understanding of the man’s true feelings of terror — the real persona behind the bravado.”  She then added another line, quoting my father, “I would wake up every morning scared — a feeling so central to my drive for success.”

Whatever the flaws or imperfections of my respective parents, or the unexpected twists and changes during the trajectory of life, I’m grateful for the positive influences, and miss both of them, though my mother much more than my father.  And yet, while I wish both were alive so I could talk with them —  there are so many questions I would love to have answered, if possible — I do regret that toward the end of his life, my father drifted off into a realm more associated with his mother’s and we never really had a final conversation, with the result that so much was left unresolved.

In any case, Mother’s Day is behind now, and while Father’s Day comes up this month, the month of July was never a problem for my siblings and I because we could celebrate both Dominion Day, now known as Canada Day, on July 1st,  and then the Fourth of July, keeping a foot in each country, the Canada of my parents beginnings, and the United States where we were raised, and I still remain.