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My dad, II. My father

Published: Monday 10 Aug 2020 | Edited: Monday 10 Aug 2020

I had a great father, in a lot of ways. He dedicated a lot of time to parenting. He became quite detached from his family in the last decade of his life, so my younger siblings may disagree with me, but I remember my dad being a big part of my childhood. He did a lot of the standard, middle-class good parent things: came to my tennis matches, took me on camping trips and business trips, taught me how to tune up a car, coached my softball teams.

He had a Puritan orientation toward hard work, especially hard work for children. When there wasn't enough to keep us busy doing actual projects, he would literally make things up for us to do. We had to move rocks every morning in the summer. Shit like that.

Beyond the nihilistic brand of labor, my dad was also a committed altruist. Tons of positive, healthy lessons I learned about who I am as a person and what my relationship is and should be to other people come straight from my father. East Idaho was a really good playground for helping people out. It can get downright scary when extreme cold and heavy snowfall coincide. Even though our neighborhood was suburbany-rural, my dad eventually bought farm-grade equipment to help clear snow from driveways, private roads, and access points for the people who lived around us. He would wake us up on bad weather mornings, and for a couple hours before the sun came up, we would shovel snow for elderly couples, widows, and people who were new to the neighborhood.

Throughout his entire life, he did so much for so many. Like, he wasn't just a friendly guy or a good neighbor; he took on real responsibilty for a lot of folks. In the weeks around his funeral, a lot people came out of the woodwork with stories about how my dad helped them. A lot were students who knew him as the dean of students at BYU-I. Some were members of his congregation when he was a youth bishop. A lot of the stories were like, "Your dad helped me from getting kicked out of school when I was in trouble." Some were like, "I was about to kill myself, and your dad got me help and continued to follow up with me for months as I was recovering."

From at least as long as I've been storing memories, to the day he died, my father wore himself out responding to the needs of other people.

As a new parent, he was a big fan of physical discipline. It happened to my siblings less, but I got hit often from ages three to seven or so. And for just like small things: knocking a cup of water over, not responding when called to, etc. Probably about a third of my very early memories are getting beaten, spanked, or slapped by my dad.

It would be an understatement to say that I feared my father. I wasn't just worried I was going to get smacked, I really, positively wanted his acceptance and approval in everything. I don't think this is very unique to me, but as a child and preteen my dad was my god. He demanded obedience and worship, just like the god of our faith. And I gave that to him. In school, when we wrote or talked about our heroes, my subject was always him.

He was a major talker. The positive aspect of talking with my dad was that he addressed me with honesty and maturity on a lot of topics. He was happy to answer any question I had from the full breadth of his experience. The downside was that he used "chats" as his most disturbing form of punishment. Whenever my brother or I did something to disappoint him (forget to vacuum the car, leave a bucket on the lawn, take a shower longer than 5 minutes), he would make us sit down in the living room to talk about it. Over the course of several hours (seriously, consistently at least one whole hour, but up to four), he would berate us for our behavior, make us apologize multiple times for whatever it was, and literally force us to answer questions like, "How can you disrespect our home by leaving it a mess? Like, I actually want to understand how I've failed so completely as a parent that I've raised such a selfish child." If, at any point, we started to lose focus or give one-word answers, he would get super intense - sometimes screaming - and demand engagement with the conversation.

When I give you the list of ways we disappointed him, I'm not exaggerating their triviality. None of us got into any real trouble as children or teens, but our dad was always yelling and angry. He framed it as a matter of disobedience, but really, almost all the rules revolved around his stuff: vehicles, the storage shed, tools, etc.

And he was really into keeping everything clean and orderly. It was like he compulsively obsessed about his external environment... almost like he had a disorder of some kind...

Once I moved away from home, and even after I moved back and stayed with my folks during college, I was never reprimanded or belittled again. But once the relationship of power faded, nothing substantial took its place. As an adult, I had a very workable relationship with my dad. I sometimes went to him for advice (about school, marriage, my career), and he even occasionally confided in me about his personal stuff (the deterioration of his relationship with my mom, and conflicts he was having with my brothers). But there seemed to me to be a wide and uncrossable gap between us. Like we were bound by some strange etiquette to keep the tempo and content of the discussion within certain limits. Our interactions were stiff.

Like any life, there's so much that could be said about his. I don't know if it's my place to tell all the stories I have about him, because, in many of them, I'm not one of the main characters. The way my dad treated each of my siblings and my mom factors in to my memory of him. But, my understanding of those relationships is based, usually, on what he or they told me from their perspectives.

I was afraid of my father. I respected his authority. I loved him. I still love him. I'm thankful for the lessons he gave me. But, life us so much easier, freer without him.