To teach her children about forgiveness a dear friend had her children collect several stones and write on each stone a word to remind them of someone against whom they held a grudge. Each child put the stones in a backpack and carried their backpack on a hike. From time to time they stopped and were invited to remove a stone from their backpack and leave it on the trail.
It is hard to make any declarations about my relationship to my parents. I can say my mother abused me and it would be true but not truer than that she loved me desperately. I can say I could never be close to my father because I so feared him and that would be true but not truer than my memory of his stubbly cheek and his rank aftershave when he let me jump into his arms at the end of his workday.
Even now that they are dead these many years who they were to me and who they are keeps changing. In writing about them I realize I have wanted to fix them in my memory, to make them characters in my story, to know them once and for all and, in that way, to bury them.
In some ways it’s hard to believe they are gone and at the same time that they existed at all. Could memory and imagination create such changes in people who were once real? I, of course, understand that my experience of them does not define them but it has shaped me so profoundly, I think I am owed some license in how they will be remembered.
Why couldn’t my father just have been the imperious self absorbed jerk who deserved the contempt of his military school classmates? I understand the way they seem to have felt about him. But when I saw the evidence of their disdain in his high school yearbook, I couldn’t help but hate them and want to comfort the pain he never showed and perhaps never felt. He was not just cut off from me but from himself. I want to believe caring, for him, must have seemed too big a risk.
His violence towards me created a template in my personality of fear and aggression shot through with my relentless need to please. Not surprisingly, I gained favor with other older men in need of an acolyte. I courted and left several till I found a man even more hurtful than my father. The approval I gained from the kind and generous men who took an interest in me seemed unearned. But when I met Frank, I sensed his approval would mean more. The wound from my father’s mistreatment must have created in me an emotional divining rod for the darkness of other men. In any case I found it in Frank. It seems odd that I can almost forgive my father but feel nothing but enmity for Frank whose approval I so assiduously sought out before he turned all his vicious paranoia on me.
It makes sense to me that I would be a threat to my father, a challenge to his manliness; a foil for his posturing that betrayed his unacknowledged insecurity. I don’t blame myself. I was only a child and an indefatigable, emotionally intense one at that: a poor fit for a man who wanted to be left alone, a man who, if he were to have children at all, was not cut out to be the father of six.
I can forgive my father because he had so much skin in the game. In the distorted or perhaps accurate way abused people think, I believe his violence toward me is evidence of caring. I want to believe his own intense emotionality was so unfamiliar to him, so much a threat, that it came out at me. I can forgive that but I still harbor resentment that he never took responsibility for it. I finally gave up on him when a few years before he died, he refused to acknowledge his violence against me, claiming I was confused.
Of course I am confused but not about that, only about what it means. A son means so much to a father that crazy behavior makes a kind of sense. It doesn’t make it acceptable, just understandable. But I was not Frank’s son, only his patient and protégé and I can’t understand or forgive his treatment of me. Or is it that I can understand but refuse to forgive? After all, his own son was an abject failure. I was the good son working tirelessly for his approval, shielding him from attack, forgiving his frailties. Of course, it’s embarrassing to look back and see how slavishly I courted his good opinion but that does not make it easier to understand why he so strenuously withheld it. I refuse to accept that it was precisely my slavishness that led him to attack me after finally winning his approbation.
To think of him disintegrating into psychosis after having praised my good work so lavishly, suggests a kind of helplessness in him at odds with my experience of malice. I don’t want to think of him as vulnerable. I don’t want to consider the possibility that post polio syndrome was ravishing him. I don’t want to imagine my love for him was more than he could bear. I don’t want to think of the little boy he was, shortly before contracting polio, being scolded by his father for claiming “Dad there are millions of butterflies in the meadow!” Being shamed in that reserved and hyper rational Puritan way by his father’s repeated question: “There are how many butterflies, Frank?” I don’t want to believe that my unabashed pleasure at his hard won praise triggered resentment in him over never getting that kind of praise from his father or mentors. To think of him that way would begin to melt my resentment, to open my heart to him once again.
But I can’t help myself. For me the sequence of the stones in the backpack has been reversed. I can’t write about my resentment without creating the opportunity to let it go. I’ve been carrying these stones for too long. Only by naming them will I be able to put them down.