It seems many people who struggle to connect with their parents as flawed humans as opposed to authority figures eventually find a natural connector when they have kids. Seeing their parents interact with their grandchildren gives the relationship a new dimension.
That wasn’t my path. Frankly, I don’t completely understand people who take that path, but I spent a lot of time in my early adulthood wondering why they didn’t understand me.
I’m a person who derives great satisfaction, fulfillment even, from connecting with all kinds of people one on one. I always wanted to connect with my father that way.
Ultimately it was therapy that helped me have a relationship with him. I explored what that would uniquely mean for us, with our very different lenses on the world. What might, or can, that relationship look like? After years of feeling “not understood” because my life’s desires weren’t conventional for an Italian-American female in our family, I yearned for my father to “get” me.
To that end, I am ever grateful that I opened my mind to therapy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With that work, I started to see my father as a person, not just a parent whose approval I desperately wanted. I embraced the concept in the Prayer of St. Francis, which inspired me to augment that feeling of wanting to be understood:
“To be understood as to understand.”
Yessss. Emphasis on the latter. Understanding. Not just myself, but others.
What formed my father?
Hard work formed him. From the time he was a mere child. The last few weeks of his life, as COVID-19 depleted him, when I heard the weariness in his voice, I kept thinking it was all the years of work catching up to him. I started to think he deserved to close his eyes and just go. It’s why I chose a specific prayer for the prayer card at his viewing – “You toiled so hard for those you loved.”
Dad was often moody in my childhood. It left a mark on me, to the point where I was following suit. It’s part of why I sought therapy. What I learned is that – barring any mood-altering drugs or ailment – a mood is a choice. I literally changed my behavior and became a better person from this giant revelation.
The thing is, Dad retired in the 90s and his moodiness practically disappeared. No therapy needed. While he loved and took great pride in working for Conrail, it involved going out in the elements on little sleep at odd hours. I remember many nights hearing the phone, then him shuffling to head out in a snowstorm in the middle of the night. I was well into adulthood when I understood the provider aspect of my father in full. He didn’t know my hopes and dreams, but his physical labor was making it possible for me to have them.
When he retired he began working part-time as a security guard at Merrill Lynch’s big campus in Plainsboro. I lived just a few miles away and visited him there one day. As he walked me from the front desk to the cafeteria for coffee, one employee after another greeted him by name and with respect. I had never seen this carefree side of him. He was so in his element I teasingly told him he was like the mayor of Merrill Lynch.
One of his fellow security guards apparently was a fan of my sports columns in The Trenton Times and complimented me; Dad seemed surprised, as he rarely agreed with my feminist bent on things. Yet he beamed as he introduced me around. All those years of manual labor and he had found a less strenuous gig and easy rapport with his co-workers.
The day after he died (April 27, 2021), I found in his music room the card those co-workers gave him when he left there. One wrote, “John, I will miss you and no one will take your place as a lieutenant. You were the best.” It made me sob for the first time since he’d died 24 hours before.
When my parents moved to Leisure Village in Ocean County 17 years ago, Dad missed that job but became even more chill. That’s when I was able to visit and have a cup of coffee with him at the kitchen table or whisk him away for lunch and he’d tell me how much better Caruso was than any of the other tenors. Or how my mother was driving him crazy but he didn’t know what he’d do without her. Somewhere in all that, I realized I had forged the kind of relationship that was possible with my father.
In the last few years he had been going weekly to have his blood pressure checked at a medical office in a little mini mall. He was religious about it. I drove him there a few times; he was on a cane or walker, depending on the day. Once when he was feeling spry he pointed to a café with a long counter and motioned me over. We sat and he bought me coffee and a bran muffin; he, of course, had a jelly donut.
While it is hard knowing Dad spent his 90th birthday in a rehab hospital with no visitors allowed, I am grateful to have been the primary planner for his 60th, 70th, and 80th birthday celebrations. They were all so different and he enjoyed and appreciated each one.
The last bit I’ll share here seems almost frivolous. For a while Dad had been telling me I would like a TV series called Rizzoli and Isles. I shrugged it off; he enjoyed it because he thought Angie Harmon was a “dish.” But one night during pandemic lockdown I decided to give it a try and I got hooked.
Jane Rizzoli is an Italian-American detective from South Boston who is career driven and has great fear and dread around becoming domestic and all that comes with it, even when she becomes engaged to a man she loves deeply. She worries about becoming the stereotype. They break up because neither wants to give up jobs they love and being together would require one of them to do so.
In one episode, her mother, the perfectly cast Lorraine Bracco, tries to set her up with a guy and Jane, frustrated, reminds her mother she solved a homicide that day. But Mom explains that she can’t rest until Jane is “taken care of.” Because I am single, I have heard this exact phrase from both my parents over the years. I’m not sure Dad ever reconciled my path, but I take great comfort in knowing he recommended a TV show with a character so much like me.
He didn’t get to walk me down the aisle, but on some level, I think he finally got me.