Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dad is 70

Familia by Paul Granlund

So, Dad is 70. I’m just today back in Minnesota after a week-long stay in Oregon celebrating my dad’s birthday, which was the 18th, and Thanksgiving. I don’t really know what to say about a guy I’ve known for more than 40 years, for my entire life. Where to even begin?

He’s a great dad. We share the same first name. But it often seems I hardly know him. I’ve always been confident that he loves me, but often much less confident that he’s been proud of me, or, more to the point, isn’t disappointed in me. I’d guess he is. Proud that is. But I’d also guess he’s always wanted more for me. More from me.

I’m certainly proud of him. In preparing for his party, which was held last Saturday afternoon, I helped Mom put together a display board of photos from his life. There are pictures of him as a young man posing with his violin, which I later played for about 6 years, and posing with the trombone that my sister later took up. There are pictures of him roughhousing with the two of us, and my younger sister, too. There are pictures of him in the army uniform that he was lucky to be wearing in the brief peace after Korea, but before Vietnam. Pictures of him with archaic computers, fingers tapping at the chunky keyboards as glowing characters flicker on tiny screens. Pictures with his model trains, pictures of him covered with automotive grease. Pictures of him with his two younger sisters, with his mother, with his father, both before and after the divorce. I tried to find pictures of the man we know, and we did the best we could, but as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, in one of my father’s favorite quotes: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.

As a son, I’m sure I come up short. In whatever ways I do, it’s certainly not due to lack of effort on his part. I remember him attempting to teach me algebra when I was eight, sitting on the front steps with a small chalkboard and rapidly straining patience. Building dinosaur dioramas with me when I was six on scrap plywood, with papier mâché mountains, and a clear polymer lake. Modeling the human ear with a paper plate, a mailing tube, and a Dixie cup of water. A lot of it took - I grew to enjoy and excel in math and some sciences, but a lot of his efforts did not. I certainly also remember him throwing a softball with me at ten, until our mutual frustration dissolved us - me into tears, and he into angry shouting. He was never a sports fan, and he could not make me one, nor achieve the underlying goal (which I easily perceived) of making me less a sissy.

Both of my parents could wield disappointment, or the threat of disappointment, like a weapon; they seldom raised a hand to us, but a lowered gaze and a sad head-shake could sting just as deeply. We learned to achieve grades as high as possible, not always for the joy of learning, but just as often for the fear of bringing home something less than expected. And the expectations were always high.

I lived in terror of the day they would find out I was gay. I had no illusions that this would be the worst disappointment I could deliver. Not only my own failing, but a clear reflection of their failure as parents to shape me. I would shame the family, and they would blame themselves, and I hated myself for being the cause of that shame. I could picture it; Mom would be sadly devastated, but aver that she still loved me, while Dad would be unable to hide his anger and disgust when he looked at me, would shout, would humiliate me, and would never look me in the eye again. I don’t think I could have been more mistaken. I really will never have any idea how Dad will react to something, I think.

When it came down to it, and I took my stumbling steps out (I’ll save the embarrassing details for another post), Dad took the higher road. He took me for a ride in the car, and told me that they knew. He said that Mom was having a very hard time with it, and would be angry for a while. He said I needed to know that they both loved me very much, even though Mom would have a hard time showing it right now. He said he was worried about my future; that I might be lonely, and that made him sad. That he didn’t know very much about “it”, but that there was a lot of misinformation about “it”, and that I should be careful. That he didn’t subscribe to cultural and religious evaluations of morality, and neither should I. That I should be a good man. He repeated that I should be careful. He drove us home.

He was right about Mom. She’s due her own complete tribute on another day, but I can say that the parenting cliché “this hurts me more than it does you” could have been invented for her alone. She was angry, and she said a lot of angry things. I’ve forgotten all of them, because she was angry and she didn’t mean them, even though she thought she did at the time. But I know that she remembers every word she said, and that every word cuts her to this day. I forgave her almost immediately; I think she’s forgiven herself, finally. But unlike me, she’ll never forget.

This all happened on a college break, and, lucky for all of us, I was soon 2000 miles away. We wrote. We stopped talking about it. I thought it was behind us.

I think Dad knew that without him to remain calm, Mom and I could do some real damage. Maybe having his own father wrench himself out of their family when he was ten shaped that for him. Maybe having to spend summers at a boy’s home because his divorced mother, a school teacher, couldn’t afford to feed three children when school wasn’t in session shaped it. Maybe it happened later, in the five years before I came out, when his career moved him to Portland while Mom’s kept her in Toledo, and he had to drive three hours home each Friday and three hours back each Sunday to maintain the connection. That he values family. That family matters more.

He had been so calm about my coming out that both mom and I could move along. I was surprised, therefore, to hear a couple of years later, that Dad was attending pflag meetings in Portland. To me it sent a clear message – Dad had issues with me. Maybe it was because I was now in a relationship; my big move out of the dorms and in with David. Or maybe it was because “it” was still happening, and hadn’t turned out to be just a phase. I took it to mean he wasn’t all that okay with me being gay; wasn’t completely free of “cultural and religious evaluation” after all. I found out inadvertently that he was going to pflag, and that added to the feeling – that he was attending “behind my back” suggested that there were things unsaid between us. I thought things were worked out, and it seemed that they weren’t after all. I shyly said that if anything came up that he wanted to talk about that it would be okay. But it never really did. He kept going. At some point, after they sold the house in Toledo and she also moved to Portland, Mom started going, too.

Then along came the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, and Ballot Measure 9. Measure 9 stated that all government agencies and schools would recognize that homosexuality was “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” The proponents of the measure touted the fact that Measure 9 would stop “special rights” to gays, but in reality, Measure 9 ensured that civil rights of gays would be stripped away by prohibiting and revoking laws that protected gays from discrimination. Well, you can’t tell a family man that his kid is going to be fair game for discrimination. You can’t tell a school teacher like my Mom that public education systems must assist in fostering hatred and bias. The OCA turned my parents into gay activists.

They were good at it too. They were well-established in their communities and careers. They were Toastmasters, well-practiced at writing and delivering speeches. They had leisure time, and passion. They were church-going, long-married, parents of three. But most of all, they could turn the whole “protect the family” argument on its head – the OCA was clearly attacking our family, and if it could attack us, it could attack your kids, too. They could easily connect, speak with passion, and inflame the passions of other parents and families.

I was at least a little uncomfortable with this – it’s irksome when your straight parents are better gay activists than you are. But I soon realized that it really wasn’t about me. The more we talked, and could talk about it, I found that I factored in somewhere at the beginning, as an impetus to find out more about gays, to find a way to understand. But when they found out what it was like in America, in the world, a situation to which they’d been largely ignorant, they simply couldn’t live with the discrimination and keep silent. As they talked with families who’d lost their children to violence or AIDS, offered support to parents with more troubled family relationships, hugged children whose families had cut them out, it became really clear to them what the real threat to the family is: ignorance and hatred. For almost twenty years, they’ve been fighting ignorance, and hatred, and the OCA.

When this is your dad, it seems like you ought to become something. A politician, an activist, a spiritual leader, something. I want to be great, to make him proud. But so far, I haven’t. Been great, I mean.

I’m a simple adult educator in a large bureaucracy. I struggle continually with money and making ends meet. I’ve had relationships fail, and I’ve been treated for mental illness. I’m an artistic dilettante, developing a recipe here, writing a script there, arranging a song over there, but mastering none. I have made no great statements. I’m only beginning even to be able to articulate my spirituality. I have a long way to go.

Dad is 70. Most of his more memorable achievements, aside from parenting, have been in the last 25 years. That gives me hope. I have a debt to honor. And I need to get started. The expectations are high.

I love you, Dad. Happy Birthday!


Grouchbutt said...

I think you're great, and so does everyone else who knows you and/or reads this blog. Don't sell yourself short.

Grouchbutt said...

Oh, and belated happy birthday to Wylde pere.

julie beth said...

beautiful post, randy. happy birthday, randy's dad!

callën aléssandro said...

happy birthday to your dad. the little prince is one of my favorite books of all time. it's cool that your dad likes it too.