My Father, His Father, and Wondering Who I Am As a Father

When I was twenty-six, my dad and I took an Amtrak train from Seattle back to my hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. It was a two and a half day trip and to save money, we didn't get sleeper cars. For multiple reasons, I thought this was a great idea,  but I had not taken into account that we’d be spending four days in a car moving me to Seattle from Anchorage before hopping on a train or the cost/benefits of a plane ticket for a MUCH shorter trip.

I didn’t really take those into account because I saw this as an opportunity to get to know my dad better and to see much of the country before I started graduate school. I had been living in Anchorage for the past four years, and we had only seen each other a handful of times with the occasional phone call in between. I had grown up a lot in those four years, so what better way to reconnect than on a train… sitting side by side for two and a half days after sitting in a car for four days!

I should also point out that while in Anchorage, my mother and I had grown closer. Our personalities and ways of communicating more closely aligned. That isn't to say my father and I didn’t communicate, but I was loud and animated. I leaned into my extroversion and natural networking skills while he was quieter and processed things internally.

The goal of this trip was to find out why.

* * *

Months before our scheduled trip, my father had called me at work. It surprised me. With the four hour time change, most of our calls took place on my commute home in the space between my evening activities and his preparations for bed. The topic of this particular conversation threw me for a deeper loop. He had called me at work because he needed my opinion as a social worker. He needed advice about how to engage a relative, who was struggling with mental health and addiction.

He had called me not as my father, but as a person seeking counsel and support much like many people had done when coming to the shelter looking for a relative. It was unsettling, awkward, and transformational. In that moment, I was no longer just his little boy. I was a man with skills and resources he needed.

I gave him my professional opinion and the call ended. I didn't bring the interaction up with my mom or sister. I kept it to myself and processed it internally, just like my dad did. 

I waited until day five of our travels together to bring it up. The first four days we were driving down the Al-Can with my cousin and it didn’t feel appropriate. Then, as we were chugging across Washington State on The Empire Builder, I brought up the call. And for the rest of the trip, in fits and starts, we covered topics that ranged from family history to sports to the other passengers on the train with us... And there were a lot of colorful characters.

One topic that took us the longest to struggle through was my grandfather. I knew him as a chain-smoking carpenter who loved Louis L'amour novels and wore the same bolero ties and cowboy hat of his favorite author. He was quiet, stoic, and died when I was in high school. I have many memories going to his house and smelling stale cigarettes. They permeated everything. This was only bested by visiting his wood shop where the pine smell of turpentine and lacquer thinner mixed with unfinished woods and antiques waiting to be refinished. I preferred the wood shop.

My dad did too. He even had a carpentry business when I was a child.

Both men were quiet and hard working. They could point to a piece of wood and know what kind of tree it came from and how to shape it into furniture. I credit my work ethic to them, though I never got the hang of carpentry. As my sister says, I have a lot of enthusiasm and imagination, but very few skills to back them up.

The difference in these men is how they approached fatherhood. Where my father was engaged in my childhood development by helping coach little league, leading my boy scout pack, and volunteering to build theatre sets, my grandfather was absent  in much of my father's. Where my father pushed and challenged my interests and sharpened my commitments, my grandfather left my father to find his own way. 

My father had mentioned some stories where they went on road trips to explore the West, but those are sparse. As the train passed through the rolling green hills of North Dakota, I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my father for sharing these memories with me and for his presence in my life.

* * *

Ten years later, I still reflect on that trip. With two daughters of my own, I ask myself if I’m being present enough and if that presence is too much or too little. 

I ask this because I’ve worked in higher education for most of my adult life and I’ve dealt with a number of helicopter parents and students who are in college all by themselves and I often wonder who will be more successful.

I ask this because I’m involved with dad groups, I read articles, and I observe fathers every time I’m out with my kids. I see father’s pampering their children just as much as I see father’s watch their kids fall and don’t lift a finger to help them back up.

I ask this because when my grandfather passed away, my dad cried at his funeral. Despite the quiet, distant parenting style, there was still an intense bond between these two men. A bond that was forged over a lifetime that I only entered into at the tail end. I cannot imagine a world where I don’t have my father to turn to, especially when I’m in the middle of Home Depot and trying to figure out how to fix my leaking sink! 

I ask this because I want to make sure I do right by my daughters. 

And so, to my fellow fathers out there: I ask you to share your stories, your insights, and your lessons learned. As we struggle together with the question of what to do best for our children, perhaps we’ll find a solution!