Celebrating my father, exorcising a demon

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It happens every Father's Day.

My thoughts go back to the day after he committed suicide.

"If you say anything nice about him, I'm walking out," my sister said to the pastor planning the funeral service.

I did not agree with my sister, but I didn't have to live near him in Denver as my sister did.

I lived a thousand miles away in Nashville, where it was considerably easier to get along with him.

Yes, my father was a curmudgeon who could make life difficult.

"Damn you, Richard. Can't you do anything right?" he asked while I was a 12-year-old trying to help him stucco our Denver home. There were a lot of "damns" in my childhood.

I still remember the welts on my arms when Dad became especially angry at me for overstaying swim time at Washington Park Lake.

Mother could control Dad when no one else could.

"Calm down, Ralph," she'd say. And he would.

No one to calm him

But in the final chapters of my parents' lives, Alzheimer's disease claimed my mother's mind and there was no one left to calm Ralph down.

As a result, my sister, Connie, would literally shake whenever Dad called her or when she visited my mother. My brother and I were thousands of miles away, so Connie was the only one on the scene to stressfully honor our father and mother.

I was angry at Dad when he committed suicide one month after Mother died.

"You had your health, you had a good mind, you had money, and you were free from the 24-hour caregiving responsibilities life had dealt you," I lamented to my deceased father. But that chapter was over. If Dad and I were ever to work out our relationship, it would not be in this lifetime.

To try to exorcise the demon that haunts my memories on Father's Day, I need to remember that Dad always provided us with a home, food and clothing. He took us on annual two-week camping trips and taught us how to cook bean-hole beans by burying a pot under a fire.

He threw a baseball with me, mounted a tire swing in our backyard, went ice-skating with us and was home every night promptly at 5 p.m.

An unseen softer side

I also need to celebrate Dad's sense of fairness. My family remembers Dad telling them about how he once gave me an undeserved spanking.

He had found his screwdriver handle chewed up and lying on the floor.

"I didn't do it," I cried.

"There is no one else in this house who uses my screwdriver," he said as he spanked me harder for lying.

"The failures of our fathers need to be understood and forgiven and their finer attributes celebrated, and they should be honored by words and deeds."
-The Rev. J. Richard Peck

Later he found our English bulldog gnawing on the same screwdriver.

To my surprise, he cried as he told my family about the long-ago incident. I had no idea an undeserved spanking could bother him so much. Dad did have an unseen softer side.

But, Dad's greatest quality is that he loved Mother.

I know I've made hundreds of mistakes as a father. I was on too many business trips when Josh and Heather were young. Most of the parenting was done by Joyce.

Heather tells me that I frightened her when as a child she tweaked my nose. I thought that was a sign of disrespect and became overly angry with her.

I'm sorry, Heather. You can tweak my nose anytime you want.

Understand and forgive failures

Honoring fathers is relatively simple when we are young and fathers are idealized.

It is more difficult to honor fathers as life experiences pile upon one another and mistakes become magnified. There may even be a period in young adulthood when we blame our fathers for everything that is wrong with us.

Perhaps we need some lap time with God in which we acknowledge and forgive the mistakes of our fathers and try to understand the reasons for these perceived shortcomings.

As a child I was insensitive to the problems with which my father was coping.

He had lost his job as a civil engineer during the Depression. He lost our house and we had to move to Pueblo to live with his father, where he worked as a carpenter. I was an unwelcomed addition to a family without heath-care insurance.

When Dad later regained employment as an engineer, he had lost pension benefits and started at a much lower salary.

Dad would yell at us if we left a "damn light on." But I don't think I once thought about the financial issues with which he was struggling.

When I think back to tensions between my father and me, I know that while they were major in my life, they were incidental in his.

In the same way, frustrations in my professional life no doubt have resulted in some short-tempered actions with my own children.

Perhaps you regard your father as having no faults, or perhaps you think your father has no redeeming qualities. Either attitude is wrong.

The failures of our fathers need to be understood and forgiven and their finer attributes celebrated, and they should be honored by words and deeds.

Happy Father's Day.

*Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference.

News media contact: Maggie Hillery, (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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