Redeeming the sins of my father

My father taught me that men work. It was a regular theme of his parenting. He demonstrated it every day: in bed at 10, up at 5, off to the plant by 7, home at 4, rest with the family all evening. He did this week in and week out all through my childhood.

As my brother and I entered our teenage years he all but ordered us to find work in the neighborhood. We shoveled driveways in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer. We delivered newspapers in all weather, including one Christmas morning when the snow was up to our waists. Once we painted a neighbor’s privacy fence. A couple times I minded a vacationing neighbor’s house and took care of their dog.

The four of us with Dad’s Aunt Betty in about 1980

During our college years Dad insisted we work to help pay our way. I was counterman at a Dairy Queen, a courier, a programmer, a gift-shop manager, a switchboard operator, and an administrative assistant.

While my brother and I were in college, the plant where Dad had worked all our lives closed. Manufacturing was in steep decline and jobs were scarce. Dad’s best friend ran the art museum at Notre Dame and had him make pedestals for sculpture and benches for people to sit on. Dad found he had a real talent for cabinetmaking. Well-heeled museum patrons began to ask Dad to make custom wood furniture for their homes. This kept the family going until Dad found another manufacturing job. He rose rapidly; by the time my brother and I graduated, he was plant manager. He worked hard all week at the plant and all weekend making furniture.

After my brother and I had both flown the nest, Dad quit the plant to make furniture full time. He designed and built beautiful original furniture for a wealthy clientele all across northern Indiana.

Dad hoped that word of mouth would build his business. I think he wanted to be sought out and chosen, and so he resisted making sales calls. He was advised to move downmarket, to hire a crew to make similar but simpler furniture in assembly-line fashion at lower cost, and to open a store. He resisted that, too.

The business never took off. After several extremely lean years, he found a job with a startup manufacturing company as plant manager. He found a building for the company to operate from, bought the equipment, hired a crew, and got the plant operating. But he had some difficulty navigating the politics with the company founders and was fired.

These two failures were a one-two punch to Dad’s gut. He gave up. Except when cabinetmaking work happened to find him, he never worked again.

I forget how old Dad was when all this happened. 55 maybe? 60? I was well into my adult life by then, was probably married with kids, and have lost track of the timing.

But I remember being deeply disappointed in my dad as he threw up every excuse for not finding a job, and instead donated his time to various social causes in my hometown. When Mom was forced to go back to work to put food on the table and provide health insurance, I became full-on angry.

I’m not sure that anger ever left. I just had to live with it. I broached this subject gently a few times but Dad wouldn’t let me go there.

I think for all these years I’ve lived with ambivalence toward my father. I loved him, but I lost respect for him and harbored, maybe even nurtured, a disgust for what he’d done. I yearned to be close to him, but I was repelled by how he let my mom down and by how he didn’t live up to the ideals he taught his sons.

My dad at Christmas just before he died, with my older son

Over the last couple years I’ve had challenges in my own career. Just as my sons were entering college a few years ago, I was laid off. Then last year I was fired from another job.

Meanwhile, it turns out I have a knack for writing and photography and I’ve built this reasonably popular blog around my work. I deeply enjoy how people have found and follow my work here.

I am very aware of some feelings and desires within me. I imagine that my dad must have had much the same ones. He and I are more alike than I care to admit.

I believe Dad wanted to be well known and loved for his furniture more than he wanted to have a profitable business. I believe he hoped he would become the wood-furniture darling of the wealthy and well-known. I believe this because I want to be well known and loved for my photography and writing. I’ve gotten a taste of that through this blog and have considered, even dipped my toe in the water of, turning it into a living and leaving my career behind.

And I believe that when Dad’s business failed and he was fired from his last job, a voice in his head screamed at him that he was always a failure and a fraud. I believe that voice told him that his age was a disadvantage, that he couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd, that he was being pushed out. I believe his urge was incredibly strong to let his career go. I believe this because when I lost my job last year, these are the things the voice in my head was yelling at me.

I wish I could say that I thought about what my dad would have done, as a way of seeking guidance. But I can’t. Instead, I’ve doggedly, determinedly done the exact opposite of what he did.

I resisted the urge to double down on photography and writing, and have kept them as hobbies while I kept pursuing my career. At the same time, I’ve worked to promote my blog to put it in front of more eyes, rather than just lay back and hope people will find me.

Both times I’ve lost a job in the last few years, when the voice in my head yelled at me to give up I told it to leave me alone, to get bent, to fuck off. I’ve worked hard to stay employed in my field. I refuse to let my family down.

It’s given me some compassion for my father. However, that compassion has yet to overtake my anger and disappointment. I hope it does, in time. Perhaps that will finally unlock my grief. Dad’s been gone for two years today.

Read Dad’s life story here.


37 thoughts on “Redeeming the sins of my father

  1. This one hits very close to home. The difference being that my father went on disability from health problems at the age of 56. And they were real problems, like surviving two heart attacks and being down to one lung.

    I understand those voices in your head as they were in mine as a self employment I had built slowly lost air like a tire with a nail in it. I discovered how easy it is to back off from hard work after the mid 50s when you want to do other things.

    I started a new situation last fall that has turned into a real job at the beginning of the year, and I have been fighting to recapture the work ethic I (and my father) used to take for granted. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • I remember saying in my 40s that I couldn’t imagine ever retiring; I loved to work. I still love to work — but I can absolutely imagine retiring now.

      Good luck with the new gig. I’m sure you’ll find the groove in short order.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    I thought I’d work until I died, if not directly, then freelancing, BUT I realized with the education of life and living, that you’re only going to work that long if someone is willing to hire you or buy what you have to sell! I’m struggling along on reduced social security here in the mid-west, while my college compatriots that left for the coasts 40 year ago are still gainfully employed! But the last few work environments I was in here, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Sometimes it’s just over….

    The mature employee has lost their cachet in society 20 year ago; even tho I could start a business tomorrow with no one younger than 55 and have the most efficient and smart business in the world!

    There isn’t one piece of senior management information I’ve read in the last 20 years, that doesn’t predict a 30%+ unemployment rate by 2035. There just isn’t going to be jobs, and a lot of that is going to happen in the mid-west. Unless we do something about it, the republicans will have people fighting on street corners for jobs, like Fight Club”, because they’ll still be pushing the rhetoric of laziness and lack of drive by the unemployed; pretty hard to promote when I lot of the unemployed have great work records and multiple college degrees!

    I decided to tough it out on social security in a small apartment, and work on reducing my possessions and footprint, because I’ve known literally dozens of people that died between 55 and 64 from stress heart attacks, cancer, and a lot of other maladies! This is a rising trend, which is actually impacting the death age in America. A few years ago, I read that Americans are now working harder in many cases than the Japanese, a work culture long identified for it’s “Work Suicides”. The republicans have a long history trying to promote financial success and the yardstick for measurement, and have worked long and hard to make simple, decent, middle class work go away so your all stressed at all times.

    BTW, your Dad’s story is not unique, I knew more than one family growing up in Chicago and Milwaukee where the Dad was marginalized by their negative experiences, and the Moms salary had to be relied on. Even my parents would have never had a house if my Mom hadn’t gone back to work after we got into full day school!

    • My dad could have gotten a job in the lumber yard at Menards. He’d have been very good at that. Yes, it would have been a step back from being a Plant Manager. But it would have been income and health insurance and he would have continued to provide for his wife.

      But now that I’m 52 I do see how age-based marginalization is real. I’m fortunate to have a great skillset and be well known in my market/industry as it has materially helped me stay very well employed. I hope I can ride this wave as long as I want, and go out on my own terms.

  3. Jon says:

    Well said Jim. I can relate a little, my Dad dropped dead at 50, and my Mom had to go out to work for the first time. Tough stuff.

  4. DougD says:

    Wow, lots to unpack here. Sorry your Dad’s been gone two years now, but you remain working through these things and know you are your own man and can choose a different path.
    My father in law retired last week, he’s 70. My wife remarked how we are older now then her parents were at the time we were dating (late 40’s) and how even then they felt a lack of opportunity and hope. We are trying not to do that, but we haven’t had any gut punches in employment yet.

    • I feel fortunate to work in the software industry, which is still growing where I live. It has provided good opportunity and even at age 52 I’m not sure my career has peaked yet. I am grateful.

  5. With variations, your story is my story. It’s the story of any boy who’s lucky enough to grow up with a father — which these days, many boys aren’t. Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable. Children need both of them.

    Oscar Wilde said it well: “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

    • Whose dad is perfect? My dad made sure we had a stable life growing up, and he was involved with us. When I got into Rose-Hulman he found the money somehow as a factory worker to pay for it.

      • In Judaism we have a saying: “Not even a tsaddik can stand in the place of a baal teshuva.” In plain English, not even a saint is as good as person who has sinned, repented, and then followed the right path.

        For saints and angels, goodness is almost automatic. The rest of us must struggle to achieve it. Only people who fall short of perfection are capable of that achievement.

  6. analogphotobug says:

    I think it’s time for me to think about writing My Dad’s Story. I Agree with N.S. Palmer. That was my experience. After I got married myself, I understood and forgave my Father …….

    • I forgave my father for his sins of my childhood in my late 30s. I never expected there would be more to forgive! And while we were living it he wouldn’t talk about it, so the air could never be cleared. Now I’m left with the hard work of forgiveness again.

      I hope you will write about your dad.

  7. You might enjoy Sherman Alexie’s book, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. He had two very dysfunctional parents and some good luck in making it through young adulthood as he saw most of his Rez contemporaries die young. He coped with it by writing with sharp humor about his experiences. In fact, he built a very successful writing career largely on looking back at his rather toxic parents and coming to grips with the relationships after they were gone.

    • I appreciate the recommendation, Mike. I’ll add the book to my Kindle to-read list. I like memoir as a genre anyway. In a way I write it here, sometimes.

  8. Thanks for writing this Jim. I am continually shocked at how much having your own children with its various challenges unlocks memories and the associated feelings with your own upbringing. My dad died in 2006, before I had my own kids, and I think I understand him and his ways far better now than any time when he was alive.

    • It’d be great if we could speak to our fathers of these things. But I suppose this is what is meant when people say our lost loved ones will always be with us.

      • It is incredible how much we must bury away in our memories that then surfaces years, even decades later as it if were yesterday.

        Yes people also say make sure you tell the people you love things whilst they’re still around, but sometimes it’s only once you’ve lost them and had months or years to process your relationship, that you’re able to make better sense of it. When they were around it wasn’t possible to have those conversations.

        • You’re right, there are some aspects of past relationships we can only see and process when we have later experiences that bring them into relief.

  9. -N- says:

    I think we all have issues with out parents, perhaps more so as we age because we have better insights and more experience. One thing I found helped me a lot was to turn my parents into people, not parents. Parents have so much power, even when we are parents. But, letting go of them as people, looking at them as we would our peers, takes off a lot of pressure, and opens the doors to forgiveness, understanding, appreciation, and deeper love.

    • I’ve managed that with my mom, I think. It’s probably because she made it easier by starting to treat me as a peer first. My dad would not allow it in any way shape or form. I suppose this is much like forgiving someone who won’t apologize. You just have to find the way to let go. I have tried to see my dad as a person and that has helped but clearly I have more work to do. Thank you!

  10. It can be hard work. I think the hardest part can be the realisation that a parent is also fallible, and sometimes unable to change a harmful behaviour even if they want to. Part of the human condition….Blessings

  11. I believe u r gen x also? I always wanted to support myself bc I’d seen women including mom, marry for the wrong reasons. Now I realize they didn’t have working choices, no excuse but..When I was in school my career choices were paralegal,not lawyer. Nurse, not Dr etc. After H.S. I went in army & couldn’t be infantry, let alone green beret like I wanted. When I got saved I couldn’t be a preacher. I raised by kids & started college & married twice. My son got SSI based on income only, that & his mental illness didn’t leave much choice. As a result he was able to requalify for SSI easily at 18yo. I did freelance during that time making moccasins & other traditional work- finished A.S. too 5 yrs. After a 9 yr work break the world changed. Also my experience wasn’t formal. Finally I got a great career position & didn’t make it thru probation. I was suicidal. I found I had a handful of friends who would not allow me shame.
    I’m a nanny now & still get to use my teaching skills.
    I know in my ❤ that God dies recognize my value of serving children & societal need. My son beat statistical homelessness/jail bc of sacrifices I made. I still struggle with ID bc empty nest & not teacher.
    I always wanted to make a difference but sometimes fruit doesn’t show. There is little cultural recognition for my work. My husband is the main breadwinner with a good job but at least I can contribute.
    I still struggle with not defining myself by my job. I don’t know why I still do. At 1 point after a divorce I worked my a** off not to be homeless and had 8 jobs in a yr to help my son get work experience & be able to help his 19yo crisis. Im not in this position from lack of work, effort, or marrying for $.
    I think I remain disappointed in myself due to old belief systems that I was raised with. Outdated bc no one works at 1 job until retirement anymore.
    Another long comment but I identify with overcoming parental habits. At my age mom had mental breakdown & started hoarding. If that’s all I overcome its enough haha. Thankfully
    Blessings & insight to u. Ty for sharing.

    • I am Gen X, tis true. Born in 1967. As I read your heart-wrenching comment I wonder what your personality style is. Have you ever done the Enneagram? You sound like a 3 to me, or maybe an 8. Both are driven, as it sounds like you are. I’m a 4 with a 3 “wing” so I have a fair amount of drive too.

      We all have the level of success our talents and hard work can give us — enhanced or limited by the luck and resources we come upon. I’m betting that your drive and willingness to work materially did save you from homelessness when you had the bad luck to be divorced (at least, bad luck from the perspective of income). My wife was in a similar place when her first husband flaked on the family. If it wasn’t for her willigness to work multiple jobs and some help from family, she and her four children *would* have been homeless. Even though I’ve had a pretty good career, it could have been so much more — and I’d be so much closer to being able to retire — if my first wife hadn’t decided she didn’t want to be married anymore and then put me through a brutal, protracted divorce.

      I get you about feeling disappointed over not being/having more, not having made a more obvious mark on the world. So much is beyond our control. Life hands us what it hands us and we have little choice but to make the best of it. And then try hard to be satisfied with what we’ve accomplished despite the setbacks we had to overcome.

      Meanwhile, you’re right, we know that God fully sees our value, and loves how he made us. I think he aches for us when our dreams don’t come true, but also asks us to figure out how to find sufficiency in resting in Him.

      • I have never done that test. Or heard the name of it . do you have a link , if not I will Google. I always have projects , I did sell freelance on etsy when my kids were in school & was told it was uncommon to learn to make lots of traditional native items in 2 yrs. I always have lots of ideas & need to give or make in a practical way I have no idea how that fits into personality. Recently learned Ulysses s grant life mostly personal failures. He never became a math teacher like he wanted & was always broke coz many failed business ventures. Even his 1st stint westpoint demoted and graduated as private. I summarized his life as 12 personal major failures vs 4 personal successes & realized it’s all about perspective. So I disregarded my personal life list summary also bc I don’t believe he was a fail

        • There are a bunch online, some cost, just google Enneagram Test. Success is never a straight line, it’s always got dips and valleys. And, frankly, some people just don’t succeed, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with their talent or effort. I think we all have to figure out how to find peace and satisfaction with what we are able to get.

      • I’ve never heard of that personality test do you have a helpful link? I recently found Ulysses s grant had many failures -never was $ successful, incl declaring bankruptcy twice – never got to be a math teacher as he desired. So really I mentally threw out my failures list bc it’s all about perspective. From what I’ve heard in his memoirs & the fact he never gave up in endeavors- I don’t think he saw it as failure I can’t see his life as failure considering his role in history so now I’m mulling over new definitions .

  12. Complicated relationship we have with our parents, isn’t it? My Dad was the smartest man I know, a nuclear physicist. At the same time he was close-minded about so many things, I grew apart from him and my mom. Some of this is natural – we worship our parents when we are young and grow away as we age and set up our own lives and beliefs. But it doesn’t have to be this way, we can have better relationships with our parents, at least I think so! I haven’t found it. But my wife had a wonderful relationship with her tolerant and accepting parents, and so did I. I was closer to them than my own. Sad how this works out sometimes. I hope you and I did better with our kids, I sense we did. Thanks for your honest and warm posts, I enjoy reading them.


    • There were a couple times in my life where if it weren’t for my mom, I would have stopped having contact with my dad. He never did anything so egregious to me to warrant it, but I was frustrated, disappointed, and hurt by him nevertheless. If he were just some random person in the world he is not someone whose friendship I would have sought. Which is a hard thing to think.

      But I love the man. Maybe that’s part of the challenge. Because I love him, I wanted more for him than he wanted for himself. Maybe I should choose to be satisfied with the life he chose for himself.

      I think we can have better relationships with our parents, too, if we work for them! I did. I wouldn’t have had as good of a relationship with my dad — even though I wished for more — if I had not.

  13. Jim Hanes says:

    I home that you can completely forgive your Dad. I am the family Christian and have learned that I have a duty to forgive others as God forgives us. That let me forgive my Dad, who drank, had a bad temper and beat the hell out of me more than a few times. My siblings bear long term grudges and Dad has been gone 30 years now. You are from S. Bend and I’m from Terre Haute— part of the country that was the Rust Belt and a lot of industry just moved on back then, leaving people unemployed.
    Sounds like your Dad got several hard punches and his self concept was K.O.’d. Too bad he didn’t recover from the bad luck. God bless you.

  14. Both me and my sister look at our father, and see what we don’t want to be. His life suits him, but for us it isn’t a life. It is just biding time until the end. Everyone is different, but I don’t think I will ever have a deep respect for my father that I see others have. It’s a shame as he has always had such potential. And that is it. I see a loss of potential, he sees a nice easy life were others will do have to do things for him. Parents are hard to figure out sometimes

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