When I was 22 or 23, I wrote my father a really nasty letter. I no longer recall what prompted this, though I’m sure he ticked me off in some way. Nor do I recall what was in it, except I’m sure there was something pointed about his spanking policy. I suppose my goal was to engage him, even angrily.
The results: he didn’t talk to me for six months. Any communication that took place went through my mother. But I should not have been surprised. My father’s modus operandi when angry was often to become like this black cloud, and he’d just shut down. One didn’t always know WHY he was upset, but you usually knew THAT he was upset. I was pained by this, and I hated having my mother in the middle of this triangulation.
So I wrote him another letter. I described how great he was, how much I appreciated him coming to school every semester to sing to my classmates. How much I liked singing with my sister Leslie and with him. How much I enjoyed going to minor league baseball games and exhibition pro football games with him. How much I really enjoyed playing cards – pinochle and bid whist in particular – with him. How much I enjoyed him cooking waffles on Saturday mornings, and spaghetti Saturday nights, especially during those six years he worked nights at IBM and we didn’t see him that much during the week. My father made a great spaghetti sauce; the secret is that he cooked it for hours.
Then my father started talking with me as though nothing had happened. For 50 years, we never spoke about the letters.
Now, I’m not recommending this. But I do think that it allowed me to vent my frustration with him and my love for him in a way my sisters did not have the opportunity to do. I talked with sister Leslie at length around her birthday, and she agrees with the theory. There were things she and our sister Marcia never said to him.
Not that there aren’t issues I still wish I could ask him about, such as his genealogy or his time in Europe after World War II. But I don’t think I had unstated FEELINGS left unsaid.
The bottom line is, ultimately, I think it helped our relationship. I remember one day when I needed to catch a plane back to Albany from Charlotte, NC. For some reason, peat – the stuff you burn – came up in discussion, and I, as was (is) my wont, went to the dictionary or encyclopedia to look it up. He said that he tells people at work that I’m prone to do that, in a way that made it seemed like a good thing. And I’m thinking to myself, “You talk about me at work?” I was floored. Pleased, but very surprised. He’d often given me the impression in the past that me, buried in some reference book, was somehow, for lack of a better word, nerdy.
Sidebar: if you wanted to get a ride from him to take you to the airport or train station, you needed to lie to him about the departure time. In fact, that particular day in question, if the rules of flight now were in place then, I’d have missed my plane altogether, rather than running through the airport and just catching the flight.