Opinion: Hidden in plain sight - Where I found my father

“Well, you can try this acting thing,” my father told me, sitting at the dinner table in our Midwestern home, anger in his voice, “but you have to have something to fall back on. You have to get a degree in education too if I’m going to pay for it.”

I could feel fury, the same storm I often felt in him, rising in my throat.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll get the degree but I’m going to be an actress. And you won’t have to pay for it. I’ll do it by myself.”

I hated to admit that my passion to do this thing was matched by his passion for me not to, to be safe, to settle down, have kids and be normal. Different was a pejorative to my father. “Well, he’s different,” my dad would say, meaning he couldn’t understand that person. So I set my sights on different. I didn’t need his approval. I had a bigger world in mind than his.

It was a place he himself had brought me to, where I could fall in love with another kind of life. Because every summer he drove Mom, my sister, my brother and me somewhere in the United States. Each time he stopped for gas he gave us kids a quarter to slip into the soda machine and yank out a treat they never allowed at home.

Then, when I was in the eighth grade, he took us to New York. We saw “The Miracle Worker” on Broadway from the nosebleed seats and that was it. I couldn’t stop my yearning.

My father was a small town Iowa boy and the only child of constantly bickering parents. I often wondered if having to sit through every meal and mutely watch them go at each other gave him the rage I saw explode when he spilled something or hit his thumb with a hammer. “Goddam it Jim!” he’d curse himself. “What’s the matter with you?”

He worked for General Electric, came home every night, read the newspaper and fell asleep in his chair until dinner. As I grew to college age this seemed more like death to me than life. I left it and him behind for a career in New York and later Los Angeles.

My mother died at 77 and Dad lived on alone. He still got impatient with my choices, still didn’t approve. I still needed him to, so I wrote him a letter.

“I love you because you taught me how to ride a bike and made us breakfast on Saturdays. When I got nervous on an opening night in High School, you told me as you drove me to the theater that if I took deep breaths I’d feel better … and I did. You were willing to drive so far to show us the country we live in. I love you because you came to see me in my tiny apartment in New York and stole me an ashtray from McSorley’s Saloon because they wouldn’t let women in there. I love you because you always fix whatever is broken when you visit me. And I love you because you plant roses and feed the birds. Merry Christmas Dad.”

He never said anything about what I wrote but after he died I found it among his effects. I also found a stash of letters written in the year before he married Mom. Circumstances kept her in Milwaukee running the Women’s Exchange and him in Schenectady working as a new engineer for General Electric.

He was a stranger in these letters; a talkative, enthusiastic, emotional guy.

“Hi Darling. I soloed today! Ain’t it wonderful?”

I had no idea he had a pilot’s license.

“Last Sunday three of us were down in New York. We went down Saturday afternoon and saw the play ‘Native Son’ in the evening.”

I never knew he went to the city, my city, as a young man and saw theater.

And this: “Here’s a simple rule for you to remember. My love for you varies directly as the square of the time since I last saw you. The cash value is improving every day.”

An engineer’s joke!

“I know I’m the luckiest person in the world, Virginia, because of you. As I sit here looking at your picture I wish that I could hear you say a certain little three word sentence because Iloveyou very much, Virginia.”

I inherited his anger and rejected his ordinary life, but I missed his heart. These are letters I could have written.

I labor over the roses in my garden. Slowly I get better at keeping them alive. But hundreds of birds visit my feeder.

Linda Carlson is a resident of the Gaylordsville section of New Milford.