Sunday, June 21, 2009

Too Big to Cry, Too Hurt to Laugh

My dad did not cry when his father died. Instead, he went out to the barn, selected the biggest wrench he owned, and whacked the heck out of the old tractor. His explanation to us? The choke was sticking.

He did not cry the year we lost the crops to drought. Instead, he climbed on top of the tool shed lugging an enormous hammer and tore off all its shingles. His response to our questions? Time for a new roof.

He did not cry the day his dog was run over. Instead, he ripped up a six‑by‑six‑foot‑square piece of sod in our front lawn. His reason? Mom wanted to put in a garden for cutting flowers.
These events all took place during my childhood and teens, but I remember them clearly. More for what did not occur than what did. As an eighteen‑year‑old I knew everything. And one of the things I was sure of was that my father did not cry.

He was a third generation, Swedish-American, Midwestern farmer, who expected bad things to happen, but was mystified when anything good occurred. Dad was prepared when his brother was diagnosed with cancer. When I won a prize for my writing, he had nothing to say.

I thought him a harsh and unfeeling man. We didn't have a bad relationship, we just had no relationship that I could discern. My mother and I were very close and somehow that made it worse. She would sit and cry with me over boys, mean girls, and disappointments. Dad would hide in the garage until Mom and I had come to our senses.

I hated living in the country and resented being raised on a farm. I counted the days until I could leave for college and had everything packed more than a month in advance. I knew my mom would miss me. I wasn't sure my dad would notice that I was gone.

The drive to my college only took an hour, and with the three of us working, I was moved into my dorm room in thirty minutes. It was time for my parents to leave. I had already been invited to go for pizza with a gang from my floor and I herd my parents down the stairs as if they were unwelcome door-to-door salesmen.

On the front steps my mother grabbed me in a hug and kissed me more times than I had the patience to tolerate. My dad stood on the sidewalk waiting. With a final wave I escaped into the building, only to remember that my purse was still in their car. Flinging the door open, hoping to catch them before they drove off, I found my dad still standing at the bottom of the steps, tears running down his sun-wrinkled face.

Our eyes met, and the realization of the enormity of what I was doing hit me. I ran down the stairs and hugged my father, allowing my tears to mingle with his.

Now, thirty-some years later, I’m happy to say that that instant was a turning point for me. It helped a self-absorbed teenager understand a little about the adult world and learn that just because someone doesn’t love you the way you want to be loved, doesn’t mean they don’t care.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

--In memory of Ernest Swanson 1927-2000--