Tag Archives: father-son relationships

Love in Thought, Word and Deed

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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.


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My brother Dean took Dad home


Of my three brothers, Dean is closest in age to me, just three years older. As he explained in his remarks at yesterday’s memorial, he and I knew the kinder, gentler version of Dad. Dad used to say that he and Mom raised Scott and Bruce, but he let us raise ourselves. I’m not sure that’s quite true, but he did perhaps trust the process more than he did when he was first a father. Here are Dean’s remarks:

“I would like to thank you all for coming today to help us remember and celebrate the life of my father, Henry Snively Campbell. I know he would be and, I like to think, is very pleased to see all of your familiar and beloved faces. I imagine his broad smile, and the warm greeting he would extend to all of you. On his behalf, I welcome you.

Today each of my siblings and I are sharing a few fragments of our memories of and love for our father. In some respects, my sister and I experienced a different father figure than did our two older brothers, so different in age were Betsy and I than they were.  Scott and Bruce knew the fiery, hard-charging, career-oriented Marine officer, a decorated WWII veteran who aspired to the Commandant’s mansion in Washington D.C., whereas Betsy and I were raised by a less rigid and more compassionate father. I believe that two events led him to re-balance his life outlook: the loss of his 4 year old daughter Midgie to leukemia in 1953; and his heart attack in 1962 that led to his premature retirement from the Marine Corps. I think these events made him re-consider what was most important to him in life; and it’s clear he decided it was his family.

My first memory of my father dates to the latter part of his Marine Corps service, during his post as Executive Officer at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC. I was about 4 or 5 years old at the time. Each Friday during the summer, an Evening Parade is held on the grounds within the barracks; the Exec is the parade commander, the conductor, if you will. In my memory of those parades, I see a marine platoon in spotless dress uniform, flawlessly conducting their silent drill with M-1 rifles, fixed bayonets gleaming in the twilight. The President’s Own Marine Band plays John Phillip Sousa. My father stands at the center, calling for the precise maneuvers in his full-throated, commanding voice.  You can imagine the impression that made on a 5 year old boy. He seemed about ten feet tall to me back then.

As I grew older, I naturally came to know him differently and more realistically, but the legacy of his Marine career was still much in evidence. He carried himself with an unmistakable grace and military bearing. He dressed smartly, and he spoke with authority, confidence, and courtesy. He modeled, more than he taught, the values and behaviors expected of a Marine, an officer, and a gentleman: respect; integrity; honor; courage; and commitment. I realize now more than I did during my childhood and adolescence that I tried to emulate him.  It was in this way that he taught me how I might become a man, poor student though I was.

Some of my most enduring adult memories of my father are of the times we spent together in his native eastern Washington, hunting chukar partridge in the hills high above the Columbia River near Bridgeport. The images are clear to me, as though they happened yesterday. This is my memory: on crisp fall mornings while it is still dark, we drive under bright stars from the river to the top of plateau, and out across the wheat stubble fields to our destination. We strike out before sunrise into the arid grass- and sage-covered land adjoining the cultivated fields. At the very edge of the Columbia gorge, we walk in the mist of early morning fog as it is driven off by the light breeze coming from the plateau. We move in silence, the only sounds coming from the snuffling dog working in front of us, and the crunching of the frosted grasses beneath our boots. The pungent smell of sage hangs in the cool morning air.  As the sun rises behind us in the eastern sky, we pause to stand at the precipice, looking out over the majestic expanse of the Columbia River gorge that spreads before us.  The hills across the river, many miles away, turn from dark to purple to tan as the sun climbs from the horizon. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that makes one feel humble and quite insignificant. I will always carry the memory of these mornings we spent together; and for me, he will live on within them.

I was truly fortunate to have been with my father in his final hours. The night before his passing, he was too weak to come to the table for dinner, even in his wheel chair – so Betsy and I brought our dinner into his room. We set up a card table in front of his recliner, squeezed in next to him, and had a quiet time together. In retrospect, he was clearly starting to fade, although Betsy and I did not realize at the time how close he was to the end.  He was very sleepy during dinner, and seemed to be in a waking dream state: still connected to the physical world around him, but clearly seeing and responding to other things as well.  As we sat together, he looked at me with half-closed eyes and asked, “Dean, will you drive?”. This caught me a bit off-guard, but I responded that of course I would. I wish now that I had had the wits to ask him where he wanted to go, but I did not. Afterwards, my first thought was that in his mind he thought we were sitting in our camper on one of our hunting trips, and that he wanted me to drive because he was too tired to carry on. What I’ve now come to believe is something else. In the few days preceding his passing, he was often restless and wakeful during the night, trying to get out of bed, even though he had become too weak and short of breath to walk on his own. Our hospice nurse told Betsy and me that such restlessness is fairly common, and offered the belief that perhaps those close to death know they have somewhere they need to go, and are so determined to get there they will get up out of bed and walk right out the front door if you aren’t watching over them. Today when I look back on my father’s words, I think he knew it was time for him to leave, and that he wanted me to drive him there. I think he was asking me to take him home.”

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