Asking for Forgiveness: A Memoir #memoir #MondayBlogs

Yesterday would have been my father’s 96th birthday.

I think he's rather handsome.

I think he’s rather handsome.

He died in his sleep in November 1992.  The kind of death anyone would want.  At least at the end, someone (God?) cut him some slack.  You see, he hadn’t had an easy life.  Born in poverty.  Never finished high school.  Classified 4-F.  And he couldn’t hold a job.  That, in a weird sort of way, was my good fortune, or so one of my sisters told me once a long time ago.

You see, I’m the youngest of four.  My sisters are 13 and 11 years older than me, my brother 3 years older.  The middle sister remembers our father as working during most of her childhood, not there to take her to matinees like he did for me.  Not there to draw pictures for her on demand like he did for me.  But she forgot that those were the earliest years of my childhood.  By the time I was around 10, he was starting to spend less time at home and more time at Utica State Hospital, formerly known as the New York State Lunatic Asylum.

Not a fun place to visit your father.

Not a fun place to visit your father.

I do agree with my sister that I had some fun times with my dad.  He and I both took perverse pleasure in Grade-B horror films.  You know, the ones produced by Hammer Film and that usually only showed during theater matinees or at 2 pm on the TV.  And, yes, I have a memory of finding him on our neighbor’s porch (because we didn’t have a porch), sitting out the hot summer afternoon, sweat glistening on his dark hairy arms.  But when I handed him a piece of paper and pencil and demanded, “Draw me a man,” he compiled.  Even gave the man a corncob pipe to smoke.

I think my parents were happy once.  Before it all got too much.

Happy Days

Happy Days


My mother told me that Dad had had his first nervous breakdown when he was only 17 and she didn’t know about it until later.  But, she went on, she would have married him anyway.  He was 23 when they married.  She was 19.  Perhaps as far as anyone knew, he was okay.  They had met at a dance.  My mother was one of seven sisters and five brothers growing up on a farm run by a father who was “not progressive.” (My mom’s words, not mine.)  She might have felt a desperate need to leave.  These are all fragments of memory.  And they are all I have.

My father loved to play the piano, although I don’t remember him having much of a repertoire.  I gave my mother a recital once.  She was in the kitchen washing dishes while I banged away happily. I can imagine her standing at the kitchen sink, praying for mercy.  I don’t remember when exactly, but it seemed that soon after, the piano disappeared.

I loved banging on this piano.

I loved banging on this piano.

By the time I was a teenager, my dad was sometimes living at home, sometimes not.  By then I had witnessed two of his nervous breakdowns.  Once when I was about 9 or 10 and I heard, rather than saw, him fall apart over the Vietnam War and the loss of “our boys” and heard, rather than saw, my mother rubbing circles on his back, trying to soothe him.  The second time when I was about 14 and he had just come home from the Village Tavern.  He collapsed on the cot in the dining room, crying and banging on the wall, his back to me.  I couldn’t make out what he was crying about.  Something about not being able to take it, I think.  I called my sister and stayed until she showed up.  I was terrified the whole time.  I was never afraid that he would hurt me.  He had never laid a hand on me, and somehow I knew he never would.  I was afraid of his pain, the utter anguish that poured through his tears.

I can’t tell you what was wrong with him.  No one seems to really know.  My mom and my middle sister have said that he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.  But he didn’t hurt anyone.  He wasn’t suicidal as far as I could tell.  He just cried a lot and blamed himself for things that he couldn’t control.  Like the Vietnam War.  He had it in his head that the war started when he quit the creamery and so there was a connection.  He felt responsible.  I once accused him of thinking he must be God.  When he laughed, slightly chagrined, I thought maybe he was really okay.

He had a fixation on Oral Roberts, a man I came to loathe for the spell he cast over my dad.  He sent money to Oral Roberts and in return got a small plastic plaque that read “Something good is going to happen to you.”  Nothing good happened to or for my dad.  And he blamed himself because, you know, if Oral Roberts said “something good was going to happen to you” and nothing did, you had only yourself to blame.

We went on that way until I was 18 and my mother no longer received Social Security checks for me.  And then she wanted to remarry.  She felt she could finally go ahead and start living her own life.  Whatever had been between her and my dad was no longer there.  It just wasn’t sustainable through all the pain and struggle.  By this time, my dad was well enough to live “independently,” but not at home.  He lived in a “halfway house,” with other men who had had it rough, so to speak. I don’t think, I don’t remember if I ever visited him there.

So my mom and dad divorced, my mom remarried, and my dad start visiting my middle sister when he could.  And then I moved to California.  He became very ill at one point.  Blood clot in his abdomen and we all thought that was it for him.  And no one thought that was fair.  My mother said, “He doesn’t deserve that.”  He had never hurt anybody so why should he suffer?

But he recovered and my sister was able to move him to a facility where he could get round-the-clock care.  It was essentially a hospital.  It smelled like a hospital.  He had a hospital room to live in.  Nurses abounded.  But it was also a five-minute drive from where my sister worked.  On one visit home, I was treated to this.


I think the piano was the one thing, the one constant in my father’s life that gave him pleasure.  You couldn’t count on people, especially your youngest daughter who avoided you whenever possible and rarely brought friends home when you were there.  Then again, that middle daughter more than compensated.


On a visit from California. I don’t think I was ready to see him like this.

I am grateful that for the most part he seemed happy during his last few years.  He was whittled down by God knows what kind of medications he was on and off, by the shock treatments he received in Utica.  He had Parkinson’s as if having mental health problems wasn’t enough.  Yet, his needs and desires were few.  Give him a piano and he’d bang away, play the same song over and over, but be happy.  Smile at him and he’d smile back.  Send him cards with kittens on them and he’d carried them around in the little bag attached to his wheelchair.

He didn’t ask for much, and I gave him very little in return. I spent most of my youth and early adulthood fearing that I would turn out like him.  I cry easily.  Especially when I was a teenager, I did a fair amount of acting out.  If my family had known half of what I did, they might have sent me to Utica too.  It’s taken me a long time to understand that my father’s mental illness was not genetic, that it was more environmental than anything else. Maybe.

My father wasn’t always sick.  I just have few memories of when he wasn’t.

This post is my way (pitiful though it is) of asking my dad for forgiveness.  I wasn’t a good daughter.  I let my sister and my mother do all the heavy lifting.  I want to go back to that night, so many years ago, when I was staying up late because I wanted to watch some stupid horror movie.  I heard Dad come down the stairs and I sighed.  I didn’t want him there, with me.  I wanted to be alone.  But he came into the living room, “What ya watching,” and sat down.  As the movie grew in suspense and we both jumped when a door was suddenly pulled open, we laughed and looked at each other.  I think I said something like, “I’m glad you’re here.”  Code for “this movie is too scary to watch alone.”  He laughed again and we went back to watching the movie.





33 thoughts on “Asking for Forgiveness: A Memoir #memoir #MondayBlogs

  1. This brought tears to my eyes, Marie. What can I say? You’ve shared a story familiar to me. We have our writing, though, and our keen ability to imagine lives other than our own. Hugs around you, Marie.

    • Thank you, Linda! Fortunately for many people, there are no pianos in immediate proximity to me 😉 I never learned to play. it would have been nice. I tried to play guitar (at least guitars are portable), but my “teacher” was my oldest sister’s first husband. When they divorced, well so went the guitar lessons …

  2. So sad. I can feel the pain and regret. I know we often blame ourselves for things we can’t help. I wonder if your dad would have had some time of better, more effective treatment today? I love the image of you and your dad watching the horror movie together.
    I bet the piano really did help. There’s a lot of research being done now on how music helps with all sorts of conditions (dementia, etc.).
    Your father is movie star handsome in that first photo!

    • Thank you so much, Merril! I do think my dad would have had better treatment today. Who knows? Maybe something as simple as an anti-depressant would have been enough. My dad did love music. At one point we had an electric organ and both he and I used to play on that. I think music was a safe place for him to be. Thanks again for your comments 🙂

    • Thank you, Susie! I did enjoy digging up some of these memories that still have the power to make me smile. I might be wrong, but I still harbor a suspicion that my dad was misdiagnosed, given meds and treatments that he either didn’t need or that just exacerbated things.

      • That could have easily happened. I think back to all the little boys who were ADHD in my class in grade school. They were always in trouble. The brain is the final frontier. They still misdiagnose!

  3. I was moved by this honesty Marie. You now have taken a great step toward forgiving yourself and I want to thank you for sharing it with those who care about you. It was a long time before I forgave myself for letting my dad die when I was ten. (yeah, I know. No way was I responsible) We punish ourselves when in reality we need to understand the circumstances and come to peace with the situation. You will get there. A hug for you.

    • Thank you so much for the hug, John, and for your kind words. I think I’m more forgiving of myself now than I used to be, but this post did help me see that I still have a ways to go. I’m so sorry about your dad and that you lost him at such a young and tender age. A hug for you too.

  4. I agree with Philip. This was so moving, and I’ve had very similar experiences and regrets with loved ones. I’m in awe of your bravery, compassion, and self-awareness. Thank you so very much for sharing this.

  5. Thanks for sharing this painful and beautiful post about your relationship with your dad, Marie. I’ve been challenged when it comes to my dad. Things are fine now but he lives in another state and I have to admit I don’t go out of my way to see or call him. I know my dad is the way he is due in large part to a horrendous early childhood of neglect. He’s in an assisted living facility, happy living a very simple life and I know he loves us. But, tucked way in the back of my mind are memories of my childhood and the neglect he bestowed on his family. All is forgiven but it’s shaped me and affected my own relationships and I’ve worked hard to understand it all.

    • Thanks so much, Geralyn. I just read your post on getting a Father’s Day card for your dad. Oddly (well, maybe not), my challenge was with my mom. I’ve felt shame and pity regarding my dad, but he never evoked anger or bitterness in me. My mom did. That’s another story, but it probably won’t be shared for a long time because she is still alive (almost 92 and still going strong). The good news is we finally have a decent relationship, one that I’m grateful for. I can definitely understand how childhood experiences shape us and affect our own relationships. I’m just grateful that at 58 I’m managing to “outlive” those memories. They’re there but they don’t rule me any more. You have to find that peace in yourself. I’m glad your dad is being cared for and you don’t need to worry about doing that for him. I can only imagine how hard that would be.

      • I like the idea of ‘outliving’ the memories. For me, it took a lot of work and coming to terms with dad’s limitations. When I look at him now I see a man who struggled but was unable or unwilling to figure out the tools he would need to help him. Instead he was cruel and shut down. I think it’s partly due to his generation. Glad I can look at him now with love and compassion.

        • I definitely understand what you’re saying. I had the same tension with my mom for decades. Finally I’ve accepted that she was also a product of her own environment. She had very few choices back in the day and really did the best she could. I’m relieved she’s lived long enough for me to put our past behind us and enjoy each other as we are now, not as we were. I’m glad you were able to get there with your dad, too 🙂

  6. Wow. Marie, that cut to the bone. You’ve laid out here thoughts and feelings that I’m sure most of us have had at some point (and continue to have). I have those same thoughts about a grandmother who had Alzheimer’s and a dear aunt who passed from cancer. Thanks for being brave enough to talk about this stuff here. It speaks to more people than you know.

    • Thank you so much, Phillip! I really appreciate your kind words. I hadn’t thought that this post would resonate with anyone but me, just because of the particulars. But I’m really glad that you feel it speaks to more than just myself. Thank you again.

    • Thank you so much, Andra. I was thinking of you and your #MakeaMemory project while I composed this post. The memory I ended the post with is one of my favorites.

  7. What a beautiful post, Marie. I pray that you’ll find peace.
    I haven’t been the best of daughters. My family went through turbulent times too. I rebelled when I was 16 because of all of the family battles.

    • Hi, L. Marie, thank you for your kind words. This post does give me some peace. The whole “get it out there and be honest” confessional. Being a teen-ager while your family is imploding is rough. I didn’t really rebel until I was 21 and moved across country to California. In a ’66 Dodge van with a boyfriend who looked like he could be a stand-in for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Nobody expected “meek little Marie” to do that 😉

  8. I was glad to have reconciled with my dad early in my adult life, but of course, the pain of my mother’s mental illness was her legacy. My own mental illness affected my kids in ways I certainly didn’t understand until they were older. My sons more resilient than my daughter, but I was a rather distant one. I blame it on the lack of a consistent role model for both of us. The right meds and environment make a huge difference.

    • Hey, Susan. I don’t know if my dad ever got the right meds or even the right environment. It was the 50s when I remember him being ill and we were poor so eventually he became a ward of the State. He was supposed to be the breadwinner of the family so having my mom raise four kids more or less by herself, well, I think that had an impact on his mental health too. Vicious cycle. I’m just forever grateful to my middle sister (a natural caregiver) who took care of him after my parents divorced.

      • I was also a ward of the state as a teen. Institutional living is so very hard. Bless your sister for all she was able to do for him.

        • I am so grateful for my sister. The other two siblings did as little or less than me to help her. I am truly glad you survive being a ward. Where would all your writing be if you hadn’t? And your lovely children and grandchildren? And yourself? You’ve enriched my life, Susan 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Rob. It wasn’t so much spending more time with my dad as it was appreciating the time I did have. I could have done.

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