I’m going to jump around a bit, so please just bear with me.
When he was a boy in the late 1930’s and early ’40s, my father had to walk to school. He was desperately poor, and he was the oldest boy in his family of nine kids. In those days, my grandfather, just about the sweetest man you could ever meet, tended to drink away the pay that he earned from his various jobs as a laborer. There were a lot of mouths to feed, but never enough to eat.
So my father, who was probably seven or eight years old, got into the habit of crossing through a rail yard on this way to school. It was a shortcut because he could then follow the railroad tracks on for about a mile. They passed just across the road from his school. But on his way, he would crawl inside the many boxcars that were in the rail yard, and look for fruit or vegetables that might have fallen out of the shipping crates that had been unloaded from those boxcars. Sometimes he’d find chunks of coal that fell onto the tracks from passing hopper cars. Whatever he found, coal, corn, tomatoes, melons, what have you, he would carry into the nearby woods and hide. He’d cover his find with leaves and go on his way to school. After school, he’d pick up his stash of food and fuel and take it all home to share with his family. The coal would go into the small stove that was not only the cook stove, but also provided the only source of heat in the house. Daddy told me that he was always so hungry and so cold during those times that he thought he would perish. It’s no wonder he struggled in school.
He didn’t talk much about those days. It was only when I was well into my own adulthood, forty-something years old, that he sort of opened up to me about his childhood. I guess he had a lot of reasons for not wanting to talk about it. But I wish he had told me about those things when I was younger. I suppose I was too much of a hellion—we had a troubled relationship, to say the least. And it took many years for the two of us to reach the point of exhaustion so that we made peace. So it wasn’t all his fault that he didn’t tell me about his own growing up. I was partly to blame, too.
But still. I think it would have made a difference to me to have known how desperate and hopeless he must have felt as a little boy.
It wasn’t exactly a secret, his childhood. But it might as well have been. He’d always turn the subject of the conversation to something else. And now I get it. Some things just hurt too much, and talking really doesn’t ease the pain. At best, it just lets those around you know about what hurts, which I suppose might make you a little more at ease. What I got from my Dad was the unstated wish that he could have done more for his brothers and sisters when he was a kid. But I knew, and he knew, too, that such a wish was foolish because, after all, he was only a child. It wasn’t childhood that he was up against, it was all the adults he had to contend with. Adults who gave him a diet of worry instead of food. Who cloaked him with thin and threadbare helplessness instead of warm hope. Adults who, somehow, made it seem like it was all his fault.
“Children feel guilt and shame even when none is warranted,” is how Mirabella put it in The Bellringer. There was really absolutely nothing that my father could have done. That, I think, is what really bothered him. Helplessness. And that is something that he never ever wanted his own children to feel. “Do the best that you can,” he would say. “And don’t worry about the rest.”
Of course, now, I know that he worried about the rest. But he had to act as if he didn’t. Because we all looked up to him. Even I did. And his act really did make a difference to my brother and my sister and to me. What he did was take the burden of worry off of his children, even if only for a little while.
All this came back to me recently because of a photograph that I saw. In it is a man and a small boy walking away from the camera down a school hallway. They aren’t holding hands. Each of them is carrying a small tool bag. They are on their way to do a little fix-it job in a distant classroom. A teacher took the photo and shared it with me.
In the photograph, they are facing away so you can’t see their expressions, but I know that they are chatting as they go. Because I’m the man in that photograph.
A few years ago, I volunteered as a “special needs” mentor at a nearby elementary school. I was paired with a boy who had a lot of troubles. Poverty was one. But at least at school he had food. Sometimes a teacher would slip a small sack of food into his book-bag to take home with him over the weekend. Sometimes a teacher would give him a bag of clothes to take home. Just ordinary clothes, socks, or a sweater, or a pair of pants. He was on the autism spectrum, too, and that was another problem for him. (His special needs teacher was a gifted young lady who gave him and other kids like him good lessons in reading and geography and math and in conduct. She took that photo.)
On top of all that, the boy was the child of a single mom, no adult male in the picture. And his mom struggled for the below-poverty-line wage that she managed to earn. So there wasn’t much that she could do for her son, except love him and keep on trying. Needless to say, with all those strikes against him, the boy struggled in school.
So I’d show up and help him with reading, or maybe go over a lesson or an assignment with him. Sometimes we’d just talk. And, sometimes, if there was a need, he’d tag along as my helper to assist in some minor repair in the school. He’d hand me the tool that I called for. Sometimes he’d tighten a screw for me. I think it gave him a sense of worth, a little bit of pride, being with me and being helpful. After all, while he was with me, it was okay for him to think, or pretend, that he was like me.
But, unlike me, he had no father to look up to. No one, except me, to say to him, “Do the best that you can. And don’t worry about the rest.” No one, except me, just for a little while, to take the worry off of him.
At the time, I really didn’t get it. But now, looking at that photograph, I think I do.
I miss my father terribly. I can’t seem to work through my grief over his loss. In spite of our troubled and sometimes contentious relationship, his loss left a huge hole in my heart. Some of it, of course, is regret. But some of it, too, is just that I miss his moral support. His love. And our time together.
That little boy missed his father, too. He didn’t know it. He never really had a father. He didn’t understand that he carried around a big hole in his heart. But at least for few moments every now and then, he had me. And, for a short time at least, he didn’t have to worry about anything.
I don’t know if I can draw any kind of lesson out of it, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about. And I appreciate you letting me think out loud.