"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Parsing the Lessons of a Perfectionist Dad

It was not always an easy ride for my dad and me. My mom used to say that one of her greatest accomplishments was getting me out of high school without my father killing me. I didn’t commit any felonies or cause bodily harm, but I’d sneak out with the car before I had my license, ditch gym class to stare at boys in the library, and generally not live into my potential as a scholar. On my last day of high school, I was busted with a group of friends for drinking beer in the ravine.

My dad came to fatherhood somewhat late in the game. Papal dispensation in hand, he was 36 when he married my mother after sixteen years as a Marist brother. More than nine years younger, my mom was introduced to my dad at a Knights of Columbus St. Patrick’s Day dance in Washington, DC. Dad married a nice Irish-Catholic girl and wound up the spouse of an Episcopal priest.

Dad rarely spoke of his own father, save a handful of references to a notorious temper. I know far more (although still not enough) about him through my own genealogical research than I ever learned from my dad. I wish I’d had the interest and the maturity to query him when I had the chance.

My grandfather Charles McAleer was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in 1887. He climbed out the bedroom window of the family farm in 1905 and eloped to New York City with an older neighbor girl. His Mum did not approve of their relationship. Charles’ wife died in 1910, leaving him with one, possibly two, young children. He took his daughter, Rose, back to Ireland to be raised there by his mother and sisters, returned to New York, and soon married my grandmother. Together they had four more children; my father was the youngest. I’d never even seen a family snapshot of my grandfather until recently when I found some old photos in a box in the basement of my mom’s condo. He died before my parents ever met. If my mom knew more about Charles at one time, she no longer remembers.

Fathers are so formative that to not know one is to feel like a piece is missing from a jigsaw puzzle. You can still see the big picture, but there’s that one important detail missing. Because of that, it’s an opportunity begging for one’s imagination to run wild. Was my grandfather a mean drunk? Was he abusive to his children? What anger went unresolved between my father and his? Was my grandfather proud that all three of his sons graduated from college? Or did he feel inferior because he didn’t? Maybe he was a sad, bitter man who had lost the love of his life too early and made his best effort at starting over…

Just as I am not a perfect mother, I didn’t have a perfect father. He was a perfectionist with a big personality. He was smarter than most people and didn’t mind flaunting it. My dad was a teacher—high school English--and then an editor of high school text books, so I was frequently subjected to both his literal and figurative red pencil. (Speaking of pencils, he did not like the way I held mine and, along about the third or fourth grade, insisted I correct the position of my fingers on my No. 2s.) He was an exacting grammarian who would quiz me not only on English but Latin and French. There was no winning an argument with my dad. He could reduce me to frustrated tears by both maddening logic and mockery. I’d retreat to my room, licking my wounds until my mom urged me to make peace. “You know you’re going to have to make the first move,” she’d say. As infuriating as this was, it helped me formulate my own parental code: When I am aware that I have wronged or hurt my children, I admit it and apologize. It’s important for them to know that parents are human and make mistakes. That none of us, no matter how much we wish it were so, is perfect.

There were times when I felt cherished by my dad. I remember him taking me to lunch for my birthday and playing that early video game “Pong” while we waited for a table. When my brothers and I were little, Dad made up “Baseball Pete” stories and sang to us at bedtime. He taught us to play poker on camping trips. At least once a year, he’d pull us out of school for a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. He took us to hear the Chicago Symphony every summer at Ravinia. He instilled in me a love of literature, art and music.

One of the greatest transitions for my dad came as he moved from being a very religious man to a deeply spiritual one. He remained a Roman Catholic until the day he died, but his journey was greatly influenced by Native American and Twelve Step spirituality. In the last years of his life, he became very interested in healing prayer. That would become the thing that ultimately healed my relationship with my dad as we read and discussed books by Francis MacNutt and attended a healing prayer group together. He would ask me to pray for him and with him with great regularity in the final year of his life. I felt loved and respected. I was with him ten years ago when he left his earthly body and was finally set free of ailments that had plagued him for years.

Above all else, my dad still remains, in spirit, a great teacher. One of the things I learned from him (from both of my parents) is that it’s never too late to change course—whether it’s a mid-life career change, learning a new skill or embarking on an enlightened spiritual path—as long as we’re on this earth there’s still time to change for the better. In a world where it’s often easier to take the path of least resistance… to remain stuck in bad habits… to be content with mediocrity… to be resigned to injustice, war and poverty… my dad taught me that complacency is not an option. Carpe diem, he would say. Thanks to him, I know what that means. Seize the day!


  1. You struck a chord with a couple of your postings, about parents and children and realizations and lessons learned. Not knowing for certain, because I haven't had my own... but I can see, and feel, a certain rush of fear – no, terror – when I think of this particular time in the life of my nephew. He is 18, and the time is raging past during an age when he has begun to make his own decisions that will begin to shape his life. All by himself.

    I often reflect on the strangeness of my youth from 15 through 20, and how at odds I was with my own father. It was, in a word, horrific. But reading through your thoughts, it occurs to me how intense that time must have been for Dad. He might as well have been taking adrenalin intravenously. Three boys, each two years apart, becoming men, making choices without guidance, BIG choices... it's no wonder he seemed so harsh and judgmental and superior and angry and distant and controlling and unhappy. We sure weren't listening. Plus, of course, there was no "father" school, either, since my parents' families grew up way too fast during the Great Depression.

    I have always loved the statement made by... Mark Twain, I think, "When I was a mere teenager, my Father was the dumbest man on the planet. But it was astounding how much he had learned by the time I was 22." (or, something like this...) Chalk it all up to the lessons we learn and thank God we turned out okay. That's their fault, that we did turn out okay,... thinking, kind, generous and caring. And, as it turns out, just like them.

    1. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I guess we humans are a complicated lot. XO


Would love to hear from you! Due to spam, comments are moderated before publishing.