Unconsciously, we bring stories – some true, some not as true, some false – that form our meaning. Every person has a different bodily reaction to the word, a unique pathway through the limbic system. Wandering through those stories and sensations can invite newness and openness, rather than defining and prescribing one right meaning. Inner work embraces feeling every emotion, regardless of its perceived importance or “rightness”. Anger and rage show up as they are, speaking the truth of what they saw and experienced. Shame and rejection receive invitations to the table so they may lay down what they have carried for endless years.
Love is an action, but it is not only an action. Emotions attach there, or they have for me, and the untangling of those has taken years of work, allowing the emotions to speak rather than denying or judging them as less worthy, as “sinful”, or any other number of choices that came to me from both home and church. Crying and sadness were banished to another room until I could “control myself.” Anger, though a constant companion to everyone with whom I lived, needed to submerge itself, swimming underwater until it could come up for air in some solitary spot. Fear heard Bible verses that admonished it to remain hidden because it obviously did not trust in God. Anxiety shivered in the corner. Forgiveness meant silence, another twisted message. Whatever you do, don’t speak. In cooperation with the systems in place, I denied, judged, and controlled those consummately uncontrollable feelings and I joined the systems in passing judgments on others. How could she, how could he, how could they, etc. It didn’t feel good and it didn’t happen all of the time, but it fit.
Wanting to love my father as he was, not as I wished he would be or as others thought him to be, guided me over rocky cliffs and through surging waters that coursed within my body. Having come to the conclusion from years of exposure that the body, MY body, was suspicious, unruly, untrustworthy, shameful, and full of betrayal, imagine my surprise to find that my body holds everything I have ever experienced with great honesty, honor and kindness. The trinity of me – body, self, mind – lives in concert unless. Unless I learn to cut it off, which is actually impossible. But the mind can hold on for a long, long time, pretending that the body doesn’t know what happened, where the blows landed, how the scars lay. Piecing together the lives of my parents constitutes an act of love because love no longer means silence, complicity or denial. Love holds all – anger, peace, envy, fear, anxiety, kindness, hope, laughter, sadness, every single thing is held in love.
The stories of my father’s life are limited because he did not tell them. Some people believe that it is natural for a person to not speak of his life, that it was just a generational thing, that this was humility, that this was normal. I disagree. I believed that for a long time because it was said so many times, but as I became friends with older folks including my friend Mary, I realized that some people don’t speak because they don’t speak. Generally, if we don’t speak, we don’t want anyone to know. From my religious background, speaking could be considered selfish or self-centered or vindictive. For me to speak, I needed to notice all of those internal spaces that told me what I could expect from others who wanted me to say something different, what I was, what I intended. It has taken time and others’ presence to accept wanting, desiring, hoping, speaking, needing, feeling, a continuing work in progress. So I tell the few stories of my father in tribute to him, in gratitude for what he gave me, in sorrow and anger for what he took, in hope that he is well, in reality of what was, knowing that love is holding.
Dad was born in New London, Connecticut, in 1920, the oldest child and son of his parents, Marion and Priscilla. Priscilla’s family lived in Connecticut, so I imagine that they were there to be surrounded at the time of his birth. No stories exist of this time, only a photograph of Dad and Aunt Frances, my favorite, around the ages of five and three. The picture is packed away after moving, but the two children sit silently for the portrait, with little expression on their faces, an accepted practice at the time.
Childhood. I know that Dad was a choirboy – yes, he really was – at a church they attended. Whether this was in Connecticut or New York City – I don’t know. He was a good student and a favorite child. When he was young, his maternal grandmother, Priscilla’s mother who had moved from England and married Priscilla’s father, tied him to a tree for some minor mishap. He was not a hell-raiser. He was a little boy. From what I sense, he felt terror. Since these stories come again through my mother, the emotions remain at bay, a guessing game from the telling. Needless to say, there was no great kindness in his grandmother, so there are no stories of picnics or playing or reading. His father, Marion, hailed from South Carolina, the same county that gave the world Pat Conroy and Prince of Tides. According to family lore and lingo, he was the proverbial black sheep of the family so there are no stories of Dad’s paternal grandparents. The Hyrne family, a somewhat rascally group, bought Medway Plantation near Charleston, SC, in 1705 or thereabouts, only to lose it in debt, but the family name remains and continues in coastal South Carolina.
There are no love stories, no tales of how Priscilla and Marion met, but there are numerous tales of violence and terror. Marion was a violent alcoholic. The most commonly told story by far of Dad’s childhood revolved around Marion’s drunken rages. Priscilla, Fred, and Frances rode the subway in New York through the night to remain safe while Marion stormed the house. They would return in the light of morning, and according to Mom, the job of determining whether it was safe to enter the house fell to Dad. I don’t know how many years this happened, how old they were, how many times, what was the result if Marion had not sobered up, nothing. This is the nature of trauma. It is timeless. It is eternal – that is the sense in the body. It is no surprise to me that my father, who avoided and disparaged all external help that was essential to his growth, would not tell the story himself. I am grateful that he told Mom, and I am unclear why he did.
After Dad died, I took Mom to Long Island to see Aunt Frances, a dear, kind soul. Frances did not travel to Florida for Dad’s funeral because she suffered numerous health issues throughout her life, a fragile, bent body that endured much. I sat in the room with them both, Aunt Frances seated in an easy chair, Mom on a sofa, and me across the room, listening to the conversation that followed while the girls played outside in the yard with the dog. Mom had the ability to be intense. Understatement. She zeroed in intently, quickly, and with a certain ferocity on a story that Dad mentioned to her but had never quite had the courage to tell her. Sometime during their childhood or early adolescence, the family took a trip, possibly to Connecticut, definitely intended for pleasure, but horribly gone awry. As Mom described what little Dad had said – that there was a trip in a car, that they got lost, that something bad happened – I watched Aunt Frances. Her back that had been bent for years from health issues and general weakness, hunched over further. She sank into the chair, her eyes drifted to the floor as the memory returned to the present, her face held an incredible amount of pain, like a writhing knot had arisen in her stomach and she said, “It was very bad. It was very bad.” She shook her head. Mom pressed, but Aunt Frances did not relent. And that was it. The story died when she died a couple of years later, immediately followed by her only child, my cousin Priscilla. But the trauma continued, has continued and is in the process of being resolved by the generations who can name it for what it is.
Dad supported his family financially since his father would disappear for days, weeks, and possibly months at a time, leaving them to try and figure out how to make ends meet. Now, it appears odd to me that Grandma never went home to be with her family, though perhaps not surprising. I never connected with her – the peculiar relationship that she had with my father always made me feel uncomfortable in her presence. Whenever we went to visit Aunt Frances and Grandma in the summer because they lived together, Dad would enter Grandma’s room, close the door and spend hours in there with her while we did….whatever we did. It wasn’t a normal grandma situation – I had friends with stories about their grandparents, going to the house, playing games with them, listening to them, but not this family. That is my story of my grandmother, Grandma, the woman who raised my father. I never knew her.
World War II shook the country, and Dad enlisted. He had moved to Washington, DC, to work for the government, and went straight into the army, heading overseas. Officers noted his intelligence and chose him to be in officer’s training though he had not attended college. One of the few stories he would tell exhibited that he wasn’t as respectful as he was supposed to be. He ended up having to repeat some part of training or go someplace else because he had a smart mouth. I can admire that, and I think it was a point of pride since he was willing to tell the tale, an indication of the acceptable stories. I use the word exhibited intentionally versus exposure. The parts of him that were on display were accepted but the parts that were full of shame and self-loathing burnt a hole through him as he refused to allow the exposure of the wounds.
As an officer, he learned to give orders by going out into the forest and yelling. Again, for people who knew him, that might be surprising, but I believe it. After everything he endured throughout his life, being silent had saved him more than once. Whatever happened with his father, he took it and did not fight back. Learning to yell was a task he could handle. In the letters he wrote to my mother that she destroyed after his death, he told Mom about taking his beer rations and throwing them into the middle of the men boarded on the ship to watch them fight over it. I imagine he told her as a way to convince her that alcohol had no hold on him, with both of her parents killed by drunk drivers. He didn’t tell her about his rage, though, and she didn’t notice that that was an odd thing to do.
Dad never told stories about World War II. After he died, a man who had been in his unit under his leadership came to visit Mom. He brought with him a small book he had written years before that described the capture of the unit that Dad commanded in northern Italy. We only knew that he had been captured, that he had escaped, and that he credited his faith in God to an experience during that time. Of course, this is also through Mom, who had her own filters and needs in the telling.
Dad commanded a group of about twenty men, ready to take a hill in northern Italy as a new station for the troops to move forward and gain ground. As they advanced and took their places in an empty barn on an exposed hill, the enemy, Germany, cut the communication lines, leaving the unit without support or further assistance from the larger battalion. Discord within the unit about what to do, where to station themselves in the barn, how to approach the coming attack left Dad out of control, the control he rightfully should have had, and ended with several men killed and the rest including him captured by the Germans to be taken as prisoners of war. Some of them wanted to go out with guns blazing, taking as many Germans as they could with them; Dad wanted to surrender. The writing left me feeling gutted, something I am sure Dad felt at the time. In his mind, I imagine that he failed. That people died because of him. That he had been cowardly. That he could not save them. That he was helpless. In a telling dream that we would laugh at around the dinner table, Dad would describe something from his more current world, driver’s education. He repeatedly dreamed that, while teaching high school students to drive onto a ferry, each car would turn the wrong way and drive into the water with Dad yelling, “Turn right! Turn right!” only to watch them plunge into the cold, and he couldn’t stop them.
Dad did not suffer at the hands of the Germans. Treated with respect and according to accepted norms of battle at the time, as an officer, he received better treatment and was separated from the men in his unit, not to be seen again by them. He recuperated, healthy enough to escape with a passing group of Russian soldiers as the Germans prepared to move the prisoners to another location towards the end of the war. He hid among the Russians using the very little Russian that he knew, and used his survival skills gleaned from a lifetime to make it back to the United States, ready to marry the woman he had met before he left, Eleanor.
Today, we know and accept that veterans returning from overseas duty frequently deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dad married Mom in Miami, no family present on either side, no one that they knew, and suffered consistent nightmares from all that he saw and lived. Mom asked him to see a psychiatrist, a therapist in the late 1940s, but he refused. She knew that great problems lay ahead in their marriage and asked for help with that, as well, an amazing recognition for that time period, but he refused. He suffered, and so did everyone else.
More stories exist, more ways that I experienced Dad’s intense shame over his body, his extreme fearfulness one time when we missed an exit in New York and needed to consult the map at night, another enormous reaction when we went through an area that he considered unsafe, his profound and utter silence in situations as a leader in church and in school where a courageous man would have spoken and acted. Reality requires that I acknowledge its existence. More important than more stories, though, is my feeling that, though I do not feel that I know my father personally and though he worked to put out my eyes, I have a growing sense of him. I have a sense of the child who endured more than I can imagine, who grew to be a stunted and limited yet gifted man, and a man who longed to be worthy. And most importantly, I love him and I thank him.