My Dad and I Wrote to Each Other

I don’t even know if Grandpa Norris was literate, growing up in an orphanage and all. I do know that my grandma and her second husband were only educated through the sixth and eighth grades. They could definitely read and write: my grandma wrote folksy poetry and songs, and my grandpa taught himself calculus and got his ham radio operators license. It’s just that public schooling in the United States was still pretty sketchy in a lot of places a hundred years ago. So my dad’s parents were marginally educated, working class people. But my dad and his half brother were artistically inclined. My uncle made his living as an artist/painter, and my dad went to college and became a high school teacher. My dad had many talents, actually. He had a lovely singing voice, entertaining audiences with Woody Guthrie tunes, strumming away on his guitar or ukulele. He and a buddy had a nightclub act full of songs and jokes. And he was a radio DJ on weekends, had a column in the local newspaper, and started the theater program at our high school. He was always in demand as a public speaker, sweetening his insightful remarks with hilarious one-liners. But mostly, he wanted to write “The Great American Novel.” Never did, though. He planned to in retirement, but unfortunately he already had stage four lung cancer when he retired. He died at sixty-six. I am sixty-one now, so I think about that a lot. Maybe that’s why I retired early, to try to beat the clock.

My English teachers heaped praise upon my writing, beginning in seventh grade, when my teacher exclaimed I was a budding Will Rogers. I had no idea who that was, but she thought an essay I wrote was particularly funny. In high school my creative writing teacher tried to get me to submit a story to a national competition, saying I was one of the few students he’d had who might have a chance to make it as a writer. And so forth. I always figured I would spend my twilight years punching out some stories. And here we are.

All this to say that my dad and I didn’t fight with light sabers. We penned missives. We saw politics and economics through the same lens, so we didn’t fight about such things. But over the course of our lives I think we both cared a lot about what the other one thought of us. So when we wrote to each other there was an undercurrent of urgency, maybe even desperate hope. Because we both felt we were poorly understood by other people, we found in each other a certain fraternal affinity. Nevertheless, we often disagreed about each other’s priorities in life. Most notably, when I was on the verge of entering into a hasty marriage with my high school sweetheart just shy of my twentieth birthday, he wrote me a twelve-page handwritten letter begging me to reconsider. I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about. Yes, he made excellent points, and the similarities with his ill-advised marriage to my mother were numerous, but I was offended that he thought I was as stupid as he was. I knew what I was doing! Three years later I stumbled upon that letter. The marriage had only lasted a year and was a total disaster, as he predicted. As I reread his words, only for the second time, I realized he knew of which he spoke. So, another eight months down the line, when I hit alcoholic bottom, perhaps I was more open to reaching out to him than I would have been. It saved my life.

The roles reversed a little towards the end of his life. He was going through some deep therapy and seemed to be flailing about, while my life had really come together after a decade of sobriety. So we wrote to each other frequently. He was grateful for my helpful insights. My next post will touch on some of what was going on, and what I think about it all now.

My Ongoing Relationship with My Father

I am old enough now (sixty-one) to have lived through the end of innumerable worlds. We all do. It’s common. The end of childhood, for example. Divorce. Losing one’s parents. Any major life transition, frankly, is experienced as the end of one world, the beginning of a new one. Optimistically speaking, I am entering the final one third of my life. (I am not so optimistic as to believe I will live past ninety, but it is theoretically possible.) Having just recently retired from a fourteen year career as a licensed massage therapist, I feel the end of that world acutely. The new world in which I find myself is less structured, less complicated, and, I suppose, lonelier. But it feels good to have the newly expanded energetic space filled with people I truly love: my life partner, Sarah, her teenage daughter, and my two grown children (both around thirty.) And I finally have the time and freedom to write, which was always the plan for my final stage.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my father, who passed away in 1998. At sixty-six he was only five years older than I am now. We shared a love for the game of chess. He taught me to play as a child. He had a few books and was a decent player. In my teens I remember playing quite a few times with my best friend, Chuck, who was an avid member of our high school chess club. He frequently urged me to attend, but I was too busy with musical activities to ever try it. It wasn’t until my father purchased a chess computer in 1979 that I became truly fascinated with the game. I vividly remember visiting him over Christmas break during my first year of college. My brothers and I watched my dad play against his new contraption, and we took turns ourselves. I managed to beat it on my second or third try. I explained to my older brother the mistake I believed the computer had made. Puzzled, he mused, “Wow, but I thought computers don’t make mistakes.” It was the earliest stage of computer chess and the machines of those days were rather weak. I explained to him about the billions of possible positions that exist even a few moves ahead, and how the computer must examine as many of them as it can with limited processing capacity and memory storage, in a finite time. There is no way it can think of everything, so it was possible to beat it. That began for me an exploration of what makes a good player better than a weak player, an obsession that has stuck with me for over forty years. It was a subject I always enjoyed discussing with my dad. Even today, when I am playing or studying, I often imagine him at my side as we discuss the marvelous ideas that emerge from even the simplest positions.

My relationship with my father was quite problematic, actually. Until I got sober in 1985 we never really got along. We got on each other’s nerves, probably because I took after him in so many ways. Friends and family have often commented that he and I were so much alike, and I remember cringing every time he described me as “almost like a clone.” Because it wasn’t really true. I have just as much in common with my mother, but it is different things. I think those parts were invisible to him. He was a bit narcissistic, for one. And also he didn’t like thinking about my mother (they divorced when I was nine), so he wouldn’t be disposed toward seeing her in me. When my siblings, all of whom had major issues with my dad, say that I take after him it never feels like a compliment. I end up feeling a bit sheepish about it, and make an effort to show them that I am different.

When I needed to get sober I reached out to my dad, who at the time had twenty-one years of sobriety. All of a sudden he had a role to play, and he and I went to meetings together and had long discussions about the program of recovery. My world at that time was a terrifying place, and I could visit him as a refuge. It was good to finally experience something like a healthy father-son relationship. I remain grateful for all of that. I was thirteen years sober when he died, and was the only one of his six children to have anything like a positive relationship with him at that point. In my next post I will give more details, because what I am experiencing now reminds me of what his final years were like, even while utterly different.