A Hallmark Dad?

Hardly. But he left a meaningful mark.

He was not an easy man to love. Stern and strict. Moody and prone to tears. Or teasing and cajoling, eager to make us laugh. I think if we'd known about bipolar disorder when I was growing up, my father might have been on medication.

But he wasn't on meds, unless bourbon counted, and all of us — my mother, four older sisters, and younger brother — bore the brunt of his difficult personality until he died at 51. That was 40 years ago and every June as Father's Day approaches I think of the legacy he left us. Not the warm-and-fuzzy kind you read about in a greeting card. No, our legacy was fraught with fear and sometimes fury, confusion and mixed messages, questions with no answers, sorrow and regret. But for me, despite all that, a bittersweet love prevails.

My earliest memories of Daddy are happy ones. As the baby girl who most bore his likeness, I could usually make him smile. He thrilled me with promises of rides at the fairgrounds, delighted me with Bugs Bunny coloring books when I had the measles, let me watch Dragnet with him when I was barely 5 years old. Later, when I brought home a grade unheard of in my family — a C, in Geography — he said if that ever happened again, he'd use his belt. I gulped and stuttered; he let me go with a hint of smile. My folks believed in not sparing the rod, so I knew I'd gotten off light.

I learned early that my dad was a Democrat and that the "good guys" were men like Adlai Stevenson and Albert Gore. Once in grammar school, when I proudly announced "my" political views to kids around me, a boy named Ricky, someone I really liked, called me a n——lover. When I told Daddy about the slur, he said, "You don't need friends like that." Another time, when we were driving through a black neighborhood, I asked him why Negroes were poor. His answer: "Because white people mistreat them, honey, and that's a terrible thing."

As we kids grew up, two rules were hammered home: We would go to college, and we would absolutely go to church. My father held many roles in the small congregation of my youth, among them teacher of an adult Bible study class. Somewhere in my attic are the spiral notebooks filled with the lessons he prepared each Saturday, his scriptural insights sharp, his faith in salvation solid.

But oh, how we yearned for salvation from him: From his drinking, out of a bottle he hid in a dresser drawer. From his ridiculous curfews and his rage when we rebelled. From a brooding misery that forced him to his bedroom where I could hear him weep.

Some moments I wanted to comfort him, others to kill him. The only time I saw him make my mother cry was on a summer evening before I started college. He was ranting, she was sobbing. I heard myself yell, Leave her alone! — and was stunned when he retreated into a morose silence.

Perhaps hardest for me to take was his hypocrisy about race. He taught us to believe in equal rights for blacks, and during the 1960s, when integration sparked furious debates at churches, my father was a voice of reason. Yet at home, by this time, he was calling Martin Luther King a communist agitator and cursing civil rights marchers on the evening news. How could I reconcile this father with the one I'd respected as a child?

Daddy suffered a stroke — one Sunday morning in church, ironically — and died in January 1969. I won't mince words: We all felt a sense of relief. Yet when the curtain was gathered around his coffin one last time, I was dumbfounded by the depths of my mother's grief. Remembering all those troubled years she spent with him, I knew the sorrow sprang from a source I couldn't fully understand.

I was only 20 when we buried my father. But I haven't buried the questions I want to ask: What demons drove you? What fed your self-hatred? Why did you stop heeding your better angels? I know you had them; I could sense them now and then. Did your God let you down? Did you let Him down?

I'd tell him, too, that I inherited his love of words, which shone through in those old notepads and in articles he occasionally wrote. I'd tell him I haven't abandoned the faith, although I struggle with it, and if I'm allowed to meet my Maker, I'll have questions for Him too. And I'd tell Daddy something that's bothered me for years: That I wish I had slipped into his room when I heard him cry. Would it have made a difference if I'd offered comfort? Was he longing for someone to ask him why he hurt? I'll never know, but I wish I'd tried.

Finally, on Father's Day, I'd like to share this with my dad: For better and for worse, your values and vices shaped me. In spite of you, because of you, I turned out okay. Like the man, I've brooded and raged. I've committed wrongs I've tried to right. But at the end of most days, I'm proud of who I am. I think, I hope, that you would be too.

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