Stories Told

Telling Dad’s stories

When I launched this blog in 2007 I was beginning to heal from a destructive marriage and a brutal divorce. With a few key exceptions (like this, this, and this) I haven’t told stories from those years. And in those exceptions I made the stories be about me and not my ex.

I could easily have written a few dozen very unflattering stories about my ex. I had considerable righteous anger and I would have loved to vent it. But I made a vow to myself that I would not do that. I feared that it would be unhealthy for me to wallow in it. And I sure as hell wouldn’t like it if my ex blogged unkind stories about me. We were a hot mess — we both have terrible true stories to tell about each other.

dad&son 5x7

Proof that this father and son could be happy to be with each other

I have stories to tell about my father, too. Plenty of them are right on the tips of my fingertips when I sit down to blog.

My dad could be most unkind. He was also frequently domineering and controlling. It did damage that hindered my ability to form healthy relationships when I was an adult. It contributed strongly to why I chose my first wife and to my dysfunction in that marriage.

After Dad died and I wrote his life story I had a conversation with my cousin Susie. She’s Dad’s first cousin, born when Dad was a teenager. She has always loved and looked up to my dad. She tells stories of him tutoring her in arithmetic when she was a girl, making it all come to her so easily when she just couldn’t understand it in school.

I mentioned that I had more stories to tell and not all of them were flattering. But I was reluctant to tell them because the family respected my father so much. I didn’t want to come across as an ungrateful son, petulant, unforgiving.

Susie’s response surprised me. “Tell your stories if they’ll help you grieve. Don’t worry about how we’ll take it. We all know how he could be. It’s no secret. I’ve received it from him, too, and it hurts. It’s a Grey family trait. Some of us have learned to control it.”

I didn’t know anybody else knew. And: ooh, she is so right. I’ve had to beat that same trait down in myself over the years. To learn how to manage my emotions so I can speak and act kindly, in ways that build people up.

I’ve also learned how to choose better the people I keep in my life, and to behave in healthy ways in my relationships. I’ve done a ton of work on myself and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

In my late 30s I was finally able to make peace with most of what happened between my dad and me when I was young. The remaining few difficult moments were damaging enough that, a couple years ago, I saw a good therapist who helped me heal.

As I continue to grieve my father’s death I’m sure I will write more about him. Or, rather, I’ll write more about me in my relationship with him. Some of what I write will likely show some of my father’s unfortunate traits. I will write it only when I can’t tell my own story without revealing those details.

Because like Susie I know two sides of my dad. The other side of him is remarkable. My father, who exited a chaotic childhood feeling unwanted and having no idea what normal was, went on to make a stable, successful family. His two children were the first Greys ever to graduate college right after high school. The conditions he created and his encouragement helped us both move from our working-class roots into upper-middle-class careers. Contrary to the American mythos, this is actually enormously difficult. My father was satisfied with what he accomplished, as well he should have been.

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12 thoughts on “Telling Dad’s stories

  1. The older I get the more convinced I become that every one of us comes our of childhood with some unfortunate traits that affect those in our own families. These things are always damaging, it’s just about the degree. And of course those things are mixed in with the good traits, which are there in even the worst parent-child relationships.

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  2. Jim, I see this in my own family. What comes to mind most vividly for me, is how my dad could have a very short temper and be very violent (ie throwing and smashing things, not to people), but how if I ever showed a glimpse of such behaviour he would come down on me very hard.

    I realised in time his father was like this (“volatile” is probably the word I’d use), probably more so than my dad, and I guess my dad didn’t want his son(s) growing up to be the same.

    I now see it in my son, and notice how quick I am to clamp down on his “volatile” behaviour. I think I have become calmer and learned to take a breath before reacting, but it’s a deeply embedded trait, that obviously gets passed down (either genetically, via learned behaviour, or probably both) through the generations…

    I often think to myself, “the age I am, surely I should have learned how to become a balanced individual by NOW!”. Because I still, in the right conditions, can explode in a split second. But we are all works in progress, throughout our whole lives…

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    • When I was a kid the only person who was allowed to express anger was Dad. If my brother or I did it, he clamped down hard. Really, any emotion was challenging for Dad to cope with and he tended to deflect it. It taught me, unfortunately, that feelings are bad. Took me most of my 20s to properly sort that out.

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      • Yes it’s not a good state, when all the anger turns inward. I’m far from my 20s, but still dealing with this stuff.

        If we thought about it too much we wouldn’t have any children ourselves.

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  3. brokenwriter81 says:

    Thank you for sharing this good and bad. It was a struggle after my mother passed and all I could focus on was the bad. Growing up I rarely ever got to see the good that other people experienced of her. However, I never had a place, other than my mind, to express any of it.
    I hope as the weeks pass you continue to find peace.

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  4. Heide says:

    What a beautiful and wise post you’ve written, Jim. You’re generous to be careful of the stories you tell about other people — because we always bring a little bit of our own baggage to our observations, don’t we. But Susie is right: These stories can help you grieve, and also heal. Even if you don’t publish them, I hope you’ll write them. As JP observed, no one gets through childhood unscathed. What matters is how we get on with our lives after that … and you have gotten on admirably. Although he wasn’t perfect, your father taught you well.

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