I was startled. Was he encouraging me to leave? Whatever he meant, exactly, his use of a bad word in those more innocent times made me giggle, which lessened the intensity of the moment and may well have been his intention. From time to time I was grounded, reprimanded, or punished, but there was always an unbreakable bond and a path to reconciliation.
Growing up Catholic, I was taught repeatedly about the importance of forgiveness and repentance. Forgive us our trespasses, the Our Father says, as we forgive those who trespass against us. But it was never really necessary to apply that idea to my own family, and it never really occurred to me that some people might have to. The fact that a father and his son or daughter might go through an extended period of not speaking to each other lay outside of my experience. I know it happens, of course, people have told me that they haven't spoken to their father for twenty years, or that a big argument decades ago was never resolved. As I read the letters that came in, which included a few stories of this type, I realized how fortunate I was that none of this sounded familiar. I also realized I ought to include a chapter on forgiveness, about healing some of the ruptures that do occur, from time to time, between fathers and their children.
Quite unexpectedly, I may have played a role in one of these reconciliations. During my book tour for Big Russ & Me, a woman in St. Louis asked me to sign two books—one for her husband, the other for her son. "I'm giving a copy to each one," she said, "and I hope my son will call home now."
Later, she sent me a brief note: "I just wanted to let you know that my son did call home."
That was it, nothing more. I don't know what caused the break or exactly what healed it. But her letter meant the world to me.
Sometimes, as the letters in this chapter of my book make clear, the rift between father and child is deep, painful, and long lasting. And sometimes it just seems that way. On Capital Hill, not long ago, a man came up to me to thank me for writing a book about my dad. "After I read it," he said, "I understood my old man differently. He rarely talked to me over the years, and I always thought he didn't like me. I understood his silence as disdain, until I read that you father was also silent, and yet you love each other very much." He went on to say that he reached out to his dad, who just needed someone to jumpstart their relationship. "My dad is still pretty quiet," he told me, "but now we are really enjoying each other's company."
So often, even when the rift seems insurmountable, all it requires is for one person to take the first step. More often that not, the other person is relived—and is more than willing to reciprocate.
The following are two responses Russert received about fathers and forgiveness:
A dream, a child, a question—and suddenly a door opens.
My parents separated when I was thirteen, and by the time I was sixteen I had no contact with my father. This went on for about ten years, until I had a dream in which a faceless child looked up at me and asked, "Mommy, why don't you speak to Grandpa?"
The next day I broke my silence and called my father—the best thing I ever did. It has been about seven year since we resumed our relationship, and in those years I have had three children who adore him as he adores them. I can't imagine them not having the chance to know this remarkable man I call Daddy.
-- Marla Kovatch, Flanders, NJ, speech pathologist, daughter of Michael S. Bailleau, produce manager
The Shell Game
I'm tempted to ask them what happened, but I'm going to accept it just the way it is.
Every birthday or Father's Day, I would buy Dad a bag of white pistachio nuts. We'd devour them together and then play tricks on each other by hiding bags of shells where the uneaten nuts used to be. How delighted he was when I fell for it and reached in to find a handful of shell! And I was delighted when I could trick him back. The day before my twenty-fifth birthday, my father disowned me. We had a major falling-out at Disney World, where Dad and his new wife were treating us to a week's vacation. Falling-out: a strange way to describe an argument but an apt way to describe the sensation of losing one's balance, of being catapulted out of childhood into a new and more frightening vision of the world and one's place in it. We were about to head off to a dinner show, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue, when Dad declared that my husband and I were "no longer part of this family unit." He summarily kicked us out of the hotel at Fort Wilderness village. It's hard to find a car to rent at Disney World on Christmas Day. Later that week, we got home to a letter from Dad. "Please take your husband's last name," he wrote. "You don't deserve to carry mine." For months, my dreams were vivid and violent. I dreamed I would pay him back every penny he spent raising me. Maybe that would unmake him my father. Then I dreamed I would take a hammer to his kneecaps.
I thought of his almost daily, my anger mixed with a yearning for reconciliation. Years passed with no contact until my first child was born. As a new parent, I would not imagine feeling anger and disappointment sharp enough, or pervasive enough, to ever cast off my child. How could Dad have done so, felt so? How wounded my father must be, how damaged his soul from his own father's stern disapproval that never abated before he died. While nursing my son one day, I decided I would reach out to him.
On Father's Day I mailed him a bag of pistachios. I sent no note. He sent me back the empty shells. No note. But I smiled, and I imagine he did too.
--Name withheld at the request of the author, who reports that the process of forgiveness is ongoing and can be a tough nut to crack.