My father

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(HOST) Father’s Day is tomorrow, and commentator Alexis Jetter reflects on loving an unlovable Dad.

(JETTER) My nine-year-old daughter asked me recently if my father died in World War II. This is odd, because my father is alive and well and living in central New Jersey.

My five-year-old son is also confused. “Have I met him?” he asks.

My children don’t know my father, although they’ve seen him several times. He’s a hermit, widowed for a quarter century, who rarely ventures far from his home and factory.

My father is 82. I called him recently to ask about his childhood, and mine. I was nervous about disturbing him at work. All four of us kids could recite, wincingly, his deflating wisecracks: “Time’s up. I’ve got more important things to do.” I asked if we could talk after closing hours, but he stopped me mid-sentence. “We can talk now, Lexi,” he said warmly.

Words failed me. I don’t have a single childhood memory of a walk, or even a talk, with my father. He’d raised us under the banner of “healthy neglect”. And he’d spent my mother’s last day, when she was dying in a New York City hospital, working at his shop. I’d never forgiven him for that, or for a host of other slights.

But his own childhood, I knew, was tough. His father, a Russian immigrant who owned a candy store in Queens, died when my father was 11 and away at camp. Dad came home to his empty bed. His mother was run over by a snowplow six years later, leaving him an orphan at 17.

“My parents did me a favor,” he used to say. “I did everything on my own.” That sounded cold when I was a girl. Now it sounded unconvincing.

I ask if his parents’ early deaths made him shy away from people. “I never took the time to know you kids,” he says. “My children I know a little better than strangers.”

I take the plunge. “Do you regret not knowing your children, Dad?”

And out comes the old Dad. “Not at all!” he bellows. But there is something pained in his voice. “Don’t damn me to hell,” he says. “I grew up with healthy neglect, of necessity.” He reminds me that he helped pay for my house in Vermont. “That’s better than a pat on the back,” he says brightly.

Again his voice changes. “Well,” he says, finally. “I can pat you on the back. I think what you’re doing with those children is just exquisite. And I’m glad that you’re independent and happy and creative.”

I draw a deep breath. Is this what I was waiting for? I’m usually so armored when dealing with my father that the rare compliment bounces off. But this feels right. I breathe out, released. “How do you want to be remembered, Dad?” I ask.

“Don’t remember me,” he exclaims. “Think in terms of what your next step is in the living world, and be useful.”

We talk a bit more and say good-bye. My father, as usual, does not say he loves me. But I smile, thinking of how the next conversation, if we have one, will likely begin.

“How are you doing, Dad?”

“No good, never was, never will be. How are you?”

This is Alexis Jetter from Thetford Center.

Alexis Jetter is a free-lance journalist and teacher. She spoke from our studio in Norwich. A longer version of this essay appears in the current issue of Health magazine.

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