When I was growing up, my father rarely said “I love you,” and almost never hugged me in a display of affection. But I knew he loved me.
What he did was engage.
When my second grade teacher said I had a problem with reading comprehension, it was my father who read aloud to me from the Oz books and then listened while I read aloud. My father took me out to the shooting range and taught me how to fire a rifle and later a shotgun. He shared his enthusiasm for poetry.
What I remember most, however, was the simple act of sitting around the dinner table, talking. There we discussed current events and world affairs, poverty and discrimination. Dad drew upon his library of stories — tales of the Old West, meeting Mom, fishing and hunting successes. Often, books were brought out for reference: tomes of Shakespeare, an Atlas, the dictionary. If you didn’t know where something was, or what a word meant, you had to look it up.
I was the youngest. I could easily have been overlooked or out-argued. But when I spoke up, Dad listened attentively. Dad might challenge my thinking, but he never dismissed it. (My brothers were a little less circumspect.) I always felt that Dad was interested in what I had to say.
It wasn’t all polite conversation. There was a certain amount of “monkey feeding time.” Dad had a strange expression that derived from his adoption of the Management By Objectives technique. When facing a challenge (like our family budget, which was a frequent source of concern), one methodically stated the situation, considered alternatives, developed solutions and assigned accountabilities and timeframes, preferably on a flip chart pad. Then came monkey-feeding time, also know as follow-up.
Dinner was follow-up time. My parents never asked me what homework I had or checked to see if I’d done it. But Dad did ask the result. I was never criticized for the grade I achieved. If I was doing poorly in math – as was often the case – he offered resources. (My best resource, I learned surreptitiously, was my boyfriend, Jerry Hooker, who could be persuaded to do my trig homework for me.)
I wanted Dad to tell me he loved my writing, but I knew he didn’t. As a fledgling writer, I was given to flights of multi-syllabic adjectives and wandering sentences, the more complex and flowery, the better. I’d be waiting for a compliment and Dad would say something like, “Very nice.” His tone of voice, however, said, “Adequate.” If I pushed for feedback, he would say, “It’s a bit purple for my taste.”
Mom laid it all out there, for better or worse. With Mom in menopause and me hormonal about half the time, our household was the scene of lot of estrogen-fueled interaction. When we started in, my brothers would exit. At the end of our fights, her jaw muscles flexing and her eyes shooting lasers, my mother would say, “You know I love you, Betz, but I don’t always like you.”
I’m not sure what I wanted more: to achieve my father’s approval or to avoid his disapproval. Just as he didn’t dole out compliments, he rarely said anything harshly critical. Anger did not take physical form.
All of us, however, feared my father’s disapproval and anger. I don’t know what to call it but Dad’s command presence. Even when leaning on the arm of the chair, he exuded a state of readiness. Even relaxed, you had the sense that he could snap to attention and his focus would be on you. In stillness, his eyes would shift your way.
I talked to my brother Bruce on the phone yesterday and I asked him, “How is it that we knew when Dad disapproved without him saying or doing anything?” It was the look, we agreed. Dad just looked at you.
“The eye of Sauron,” I said.
Yesterday, I read that only 56% of black fathers say they hug or show physical affection for their sons every day, and only 45% of the same group tell their sons they love them.
I thought to myself, Dad generally didn’t hug us or tell us he loved us either. How is it that we were confident in his love?
He showed us.
His model for fatherhood was everything that his father wasn’t.
As he told me once, his Dad wanted to be a loving father, but couldn’t bring himself to be. Dad often wondered aloud, “Why wouldn’t my father want to spend time with me?” He couldn’t understand it.
Dad treated us like we mattered, introducing us to the things he loved most: the challenges of the mind, the beauty of nature, the thrill of outdoor pursuits.
He may not have been a hugger. He rarely said, “I love you.” But he loved us in thought, word and deed.