The Secret Lives of Our Parents

The Secret Lives of Our Parents

Rev. Anthony David

June 20, 2010

In her poem entitled “Prayer,” Daisy Rhau tells a story about her father when he was only ten years old, his life threatened during warfare in Korea, 1944. He was fleeing enemy soldiers with the rest of his family, hiding behind a burial vault in an ancient cemetery, waiting for the signal to move forward, from one tomb to the next. “I want to tell you,” Daisy Rhau says to her father,

that my life depends

on imagining

your hard boy feet, the way

they hit below sea grass,

below the packed sand that lies

the other side of this world,

in the grit of my heart.

I know how the heart grows

from running like this….

Yes it does. “The heart grows.” “My life depends on imagining your hard boy feet.” We can say precisely this about the stories of the parents and parent-figures in our lives, and so too can our children say this about the stories we tell, if we are parents.

“My life depends on imagining….” It starts very naturally, when we are young. We ache to know what the adults who are so central to our worlds were like before we were born, before we came to know them as Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa. Especially when they were kids our age. Their secret lives, so to speak. Our aching to know is a developmental yearning, a need for a place to grow from. Their stories are the soil, the nutrients. They’re the missing pieces of our life puzzle. We’re trying to become ourselves, through imagination, and this is how it happens.

Take a moment to reconnect with a story about a parent that has meant much to you. Is it a story of amazing courage, as in Daisy Rhau’s case? Is it a funny story that always cracks you up? What inspired your imagination?

They’re places to grow from. Though it’s important to add that the growing is not always tidy. Our child minds can take the stories we hear and do very interesting things with them. For example: When I was young, I loved it when my Dad recounted episodes from his Boy Scout days, in the 1950s in Canada, roughing it in the Wild with other boys, under the night stars, meals and songs around a roaring campfire. Here’s one of those songs, that Dad and I would sing together (and you can join me if you like): “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer, take one down, pass it around, 99 bottles of beer on the wall.” That was the campfire song. But it was a world apart from my own personal experience. I was a fairly solitary boy, a rambler in the woods and hills, caught up in daydreams. And I had never done any official camping before: Dad was always busy at work and Mom was not a friend of the Wild, preferring to be in spotless, neat & tidy, air-conditioned environments. Not right for a boy wanting to try life in the Wild. So when I was five, I came to a decision—decided I’d make my OWN campfire. I was still too young to venture out of the house alone—Mom wanted me safe and sound—and you better believe she wouldn’t allow sticks and twigs and leaves inside, shedding dirt on her spotless rugs. So I improvised … with Crayola crayons. They were like sticks, and I had a lot of them. I set them up like I’d seen the cowboys on TV’s Gunsmoke do it. Borrowed Mom’s cigarette lighter when I was sure she was busy upstairs and out of sight. Fed the flames with scrap paper I’d torn out of her Better Homes and Gardens magazines. My very own campfire. Beautiful sight enhanced by the vivid Crayola colors bubbling and flowing. I sat there happily humming the song Dad and I would sing: “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer….” I’d become in my own mind a genuine Boy Scout! But not for long. Sounds of Mom thumping down the stairs. Mom snuffing out my beautiful fire.  Mom screaming words I’d never heard before. And me seeing it as if for the first time: the reality of what I’d just done: a ruined living-room rug. The black clump of wax melted right into the carpet fibers, hardened now, impossible to remove. That this would be a by-product of me building my own campfire in my own special way just hadn’t occurred to me. So in the hours between the event and Dad coming home, I truly feared for my life. I was terrified he’d kill me. I was ready to run. But as angry as Mom was, Dad, strangely enough, just seemed sympathetic. He just said, “Don’t play with fire anymore, Son”—and then he added, “indoors.” As for Mom, she got that new coffee table she’d been wanting for far too long. With the new coffee table in place, right on top of the burn spot, the house looked as if nothing had ever happened. Life went on.

And that’s the cautionary tale. As kids, we’re just trying to become ourselves, and the stories we hear want fulfillment through us. In the process, sometimes the living room carpet takes the hit—absolutely—but I just want to tell my Dad that in some way or another my life depended on imagining him as a Boy Scout, out there in the Wild. Our lives depend on imagining. We need a place to grow from. The secret lives of our parents are so powerful, and we need them to be.

Though, as we age, the nature of this need changes. As I grew into adolescence and then into my twenties, the need fell to an all-time-low. Which makes sense developmentally, because at this time you’re trying to firm up your own sense of identity separate and apart from your parents and other parent figures; you’re trying to do your own thing with the growth material they’ve already given you. If they have secret lives, good: let them stay secret.

But the seasons of life cycle onward. Until there came a time in my own life when this hunger to know stories about my parents returned, and was felt more sharply and keenly than every before.

The hunger’s return was connected with the discovery, back in 2001, of this photograph. Let’s take a look […] My Dad’s the guy in the center, showing off his yo-yo skills. It was probably taken in 1974—something like that. Check out those 1970s fashions. From my Dad’s boots, you can tell it was wintertime in Northern Alberta.

When the photo was taken, I was around seven years old. And maybe back then I knew about Dad’s hijinks with yo-yos, but over the years, I had completely forgotten, until the day the photo surfaced, which was one of the saddest days of my life, because it was a day when I was going through the ritual of sifting through a dead parent’s things. Dad had died unexpectedly. He was only 61. The funeral had taken place the day before. I was in his study, surrounded by the silent witness of his things. A shelf full of hundreds of editions of classic works of history and literature, leather bound, from Franklin Mint. Guns in his desk drawer. A sheet of paper in a big, messy pile of papers, and on this sheet, a list of personal aspirations he made for himself, to lift himself out of the despair he felt and had been feeling for years—so far removed from the playfulness reflected in his yo-yo picture. All these things and more I saw. Silent witness.

I sat there, sifting. And then the hunger, which had been at an all-time low, returned with a fierceness that astonished. But the underlying motivation was no longer finding a place to grow from. I already had that. Now, I found myself wanting to know who my Dad was, not because he was a God to me and I wanted to bask in that glory, but because he was a human being, and a flawed human being at that. I wanted to know him on different terms now. I wanted to understand him, and through this, to understand my own flawed self better. By the time he died, I had gone through enough living to get a firsthand sense of how life can hurt you, wear you down, as it had him. But how had Dad experienced that, and what did he do? The mistakes he had made—how might they speak to some of mine? “Daddy, tell me your best secret,” says the child to his father in a poem by William Stafford, and the father replies, “I have woven a parachute out of everything broken; my scars are my shield; and I jump, daylight or dark, into any country, where as I descend I turn native and stumble into terribly human speech and wince recognition.” Moving forward, my life depended on imagining that. That’s the answer I was ready for, now that I was an adult.

But there were no answers coming, as I sat there in my Dad’s study, sifting through his things. Their silent, silent witness. I found myself full of questions. Dad, why did you have so many guns? What did that mean for you? Why did you have an entire library full of leather-bound classics, but you never read any of them, or at least only very few? What ever happened to the playfulness and joy I saw in your yo-yo picture? All these questions coming up, and the only person from whom the answers could come was gone.

This morning I grieve this lost opportunity, but I also grieve the lost opportunity for my Dad. It’s not a one-way street. As adults we need to be telling our stories, and when we do not, the harm is irreparable. Not just to our children, whatever their age happens to be. But to ourselves. Psychologist Erik Erikson once defined the various life challenges each person undergoes throughout life, and for adulthood, they include the challenge to establish and guide the next generation, as well as the challenge to come to terms with our own history, to ask, “What kind of life have I lived?” As adults age, we face these challenges whether we like it or not; we move through these stages like nature moves through Summer, then Fall, then Winter, and either it is generativity or stagnation, integrity or despair.

Telling our stories is an important part of this journey. And the stories want to be told. They want to be completed through the telling. It’s just like our film clip today from the movie Secondhand Lions. The Haley Joel Osment character finds the key to a trunk covered in stickers from far away places, exotic places, so apparently unlike the uncles he’s staying with, who seem to be nothing but country-bumpkin farmers. The trunk is opened, and there, under sands of time, a picture—a beautiful woman, mysterious. Who is she? And then, a startling sound, from outside. The boy goes to investigate, only to see one of his uncles, the character played by Robert Duvall, called Hub, shuffling forward in his nightdress, carrying a plunger like it was a rapier. Hub’s sleepwalking. Fighting old swordfights in his sleep. Slashing away at invisible enemies, slashing away…. The old stories are still alive in him, still wanting completion. Next morning the boy and his uncles wake up and sit around the breakfast table, and Hub complains about soreness in his back and shoulder, says that the new mattress isn’t working, totally oblivious to how the stories won’t let him alone until he tells them faithfully and fully, for this is the stage of life in which he is. The challenge before him is either generativity or stagnation, integrity or despair. The boy asks, “So, you two disappeared for forty whole years—where were you?” and Hub just shuts him down, growls, “We’re old men, washed up. That’s old history, dead and done.” But we know it’s not dead and done, not at all.

Can you relate to the sleepwalking scene? Do you have secret stories in you that rattle around, want to be completed through the telling, won’t leave you alone?

Often we don’t know, unless we just start talking. Often the really important stories bubble up in the middle of others, grip you with an urgency that surprises. Tell one story, and this act of remembering triggers more remembering, more stories. “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember” becomes “Oh yeah, something else occurred to me.”

One story I would have loved Dad to start talking about had to do with his relationship with his own father. When I knew my grandfather, he had his gruff moments but he was generally loveable. I’d enthusiastically tell Dad that his Dad was great, and Dad would pause and say something like, “He wasn’t so loveable when I was a kid. He was different back then.” I wish he had kept on talking. Years later, after Dad’s death, I came to learn that his Dad at times could be positively brutal. My Dad, as the yo-yo picture suggests, had a streak of zaniness to him, and as a teenager, one form this zany streak took was a mad-scientist obsession with chemicals. Creating “reactions.” In other words, blowing stuff up. So, one day, he decides to get back at his older sister for something. He’s going to create a small chemical reaction in her bedroom—a tightly controlled explosion and burn. Something like that. Well, as in the campfire episode from my own childhood, that anything more could have happened just hadn’t occurred to him. He ended up destroying her bed and several pieces of furniture. But the truly horrible part of the story is what happened when his Dad found out. His Dad goes to the garage and gets his axe, comes back and in a chillingly cool voice says that he’s had it, he’s had enough, the kid is going to die. My grandfather starts chasing my Dad down; Dad’s terrified, running for his life. No one in this story is laughing…. And this had not been the first time that Dad had experienced such grimness from his own father. But what must that have been like, to carry a memory like this throughout your life? Your Dad chasing you with an axe? How had his heart grown from running like this?

I wish Dad had kept talking. All I know is that in my own campfire episode, Dad’s response to me was 180 degrees different. Our parents try to do better than was done to them, and so do we. We do the best we can.

Today, on Father’s Day, there are two things that we can do to honor the day. One is to tell our stories. Don’t be like Hub in the movie and shut the boy down when he asks, “So, where were you for 40 years?” For your own sake, if not for his, tell him where you were. Tell him what you did, what you yearned for, what you achieved, what you failed at, what you hoped for, what you feared. You may remember from a few years back Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor diagnosed with fatal pancreatic cancer. He became instantly famous from his Last Lecture, delivered as he knew death was imminent. At one point he was asked about passing on the essential parts of himself to his children. “If you had six months to live,” went the question, “where would you begin with your children?” And Randy Pausch answered, “Don’t tell people how to live their lives. Just tell them stories. How they apply—they’ll figure that out for themselves.”

Just tell the stories. That’s one thing we can do to honor this day, whether we are father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, or other parent figure. And then there’s this, a second thing we can do: ask. Ask to hear them from our own parents. Don’t wait, until all that’s left is the silent witness of mere things, and the one person who could answer your questions is gone.

For myself, today, I’m carrying in my heart the picture of my Dad playing with the yo-yo. Life can hurt you and wear you down, and it did that to him. Yet there is triumph in being able to choose the stories we emphasize going forward. I’m going forward, this day, remembering his playful joy.