Me and My Father in 1967

A Forgotten Father

The best portion of a good man’s life: his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.” William Wordsworth

Small acts of kindness are treats for two souls, the giver and receiver. They’re my emotional bread and butter. One of my favorite things to do is offer my spot in line at the supermarket when I have a full cart and the person behind me has a few items. It’s easy and always appreciated. I also enjoy asking people how their day is going. I’ve received some great recipes and restaurant recommendations as well as cultural insights and history lessons.

My dad was a chauffeur for a few years. He had several regular clients who were fond of him and very kind to him as well, especially Mrs. Schaeffer. She baked him cookies and cakes. She even knit a sweater and hat for my daughter Emma when she was born. By all accounts, my dad was the sweetest child in his family and everyone’s favorite.  My friends loved him too. When he walked into a room, they circled him like the March sisters in Little Women, offering hugs, coffee, and cookies.

Shooting the breeze was my dad’s specialty. He was never in a hurry. His favorite expressions were, “Don’t worry about it,” “Who the hell cares,” “What’s the rush?” He didn’t mind waiting for me. No matter how late I was, I’d find him nonchalant with an arm hanging out the car window and a cigarette dangling from two fingers. Sometimes I’d step outside the school building and find him chatting on the sidewalk with my principal. I’d apologize for being late, and he’d respond, “No big deal. Wanna get a burger?” “I have to do my homework.” I’d say, and he’d laugh, “You’ve got plenty of time for that. You study too much anyway.”

My dad seated on his mom’s lap

Relatives tell me stories of his kindness. The most recent one came from my cousin Brian whose mother, my Aunt Cathy, married a widower with two young children. During her engagement party, my dad went upstairs with tea and sat with his new niece Kerry who was sick and in bed. He liked to drive over to his brother Dan’s home and load his five children in the back seat of his white Cadillac. He’d take them to the local ice cream shop with the top down and a couple of kids riding shot-gun on the tops of the white leather seats.

I’ve left no room in my mind for fond stories about my dad’s kindness in recent years. Instead, I’ve been showcasing my dad’s dark days in my memory store. Nearly every aisle is filled with judgments and personalized horror stories. He was an alcoholic and not shy about drinking around me. He rarely lost his temper, but when he did get mad he rocketed all the way to evil. The flare ups were sudden and explosive as if someone shook a bottle and uncorked it.

He couldn’t hold a job for long and when money came in, it went right back out the door. If he got depressed, he sat in a leather recliner for weeks. Those days had a milky quality. I packed lies in my lunch box and brought them to school. No one talked about mental illness in the 1970s, so I made things up. One time my father didn’t speak for three months. I continued my high school routine and avoided deep conversations because I couldn’t engage or think clearly. It was is if I was in my father’s blank space. I floated in a still black ocean with dreams of walking on sharp, shoreline rocks to bring back feelings.

My dad continued with the same struggles until I figured out he had bipolar illness. I read an article in New York Magazine about the relationship between manic-depressive illness and alcoholism. Then I tracked down the psychiatrist in the article. My dad started treatment, but it was too late to get him on a productive life path. He was forty-five, three credits short of a college degree, and in possession of job skills you could count on a few fingers.

Over time, my dad’s character curdled. He became a man who manifest his heartaches and disappointments by unleashing on neighbors and openly expressing his racial biases. In a similar fashion I soured on him, carrying too much anger.

My dad doesn’t have fame or fortune. I’ve never heard anyone say his kindness made him great. Most people would say his life has been small and sad. Thanks to the words of Wordsworth, I’ve made space in my heart for memories of his kindness and the belief his acts of kindness have earned him a place among angels.