Facing my family anger gene
by Tim Campen
My father was a man who lived a difficult life, and he passed along genetic characteristics to me that I wish he’d kept to himself. He was born in 1919, and at the age of eight suffered a sewing needle puncture to his left knee that became infected and quite complicated to treat.
His subsequent hospitalization and year out of school, combined with the permanent damage to his leg, changed his life in a way he never dreamed. He was partially disabled, walking with a limp, and developed a viscous temper. After World War II, in which he could not serve because of his leg, he became a salesman, went through a couple of marriages, and then met my mother sometime in the late 1950’s.
While I was growing up, my father showed the emotion of anger and left the nurturing aspect of child rearing untouched. He exemplified the stoicism of his German ancestry, which combined with the machismo attitude in postwar and cold war America to “suck it up” and drive forward through the difficulty.
He apparently wasn’t getting what he needed from our family, for he began an affair with a woman he’d dated prior to marrying my mother. Once this news reached my mother, she included me in her grief. She was terribly hurt, and being of Polish and Gypsy heritage, swore revenge.
I was eight or nine years old. I struggled with the tumultuous emotions I felt in our family hierarchy. I didn’t understand what words to put to my feelings. The two people in my life that I loved and admired the most were in a constant war of words.
A chasm developed between my father and I, which deepened with each of our frequent confrontations. Not long afterward, he moved into his own apartment. My mother filed numerous legal actions against my father. Then he moved to Texas, a known debtor’s state, with his pregnant mistress. After a protracted legal battle, my parents’ divorce was finalized.
I remember the frustrations I felt when visiting my father before he moved to Texas. His space was unfamiliar, cold, sparsely decorated, and full of pictures of his new lady. I don’t remember any pictures of me. I tried to connect with my father by giving him my favorite animal statue, a llama, which was a gift from my parents. Up it went on a shelf, the silver statue mounted on a block of wood. Once he moved to Texas, I never saw it again.
My mother re-married. In the summer of 1973, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, from Cleveland, Ohio. During several visits to Texas, I believed my father’s new woman resented me as my mother’s child. My mother had caused them considerable grief during the divorce by exposing their relationship, involving private investigators, and attempting to publicly embarrass both of them personally and professionally.
I soon felt the same exclusionary behavior from my father. He was always just out of reach. I wanted my Daddy to love me, hold me, assure me that everything was alright. that there would always be a place for me in his life.
After a year or two of the semi-annual visits, with no perceptible change in the coldness I felt in their household, I announced to my father that I was ending our relationship. I was 14 years old at the time. I felt justified, yet I see now that my choice partially was a cry for attention. My “coming of age ritual” was designed to punish him for withholding the love and attention I surely deserved.
I stayed angry at my father. I didn’t recognize he had passed that angry gene to me as if I were his twin. I felt betrayed, abandoned, and unwanted. Those emotions burned in my soul. Every time I thought about my father, I cursed his life and vowed never to speak with him again.
It didn’t take long for my life to deteriorate into a complete mess. I dropped out of school and moved to Florida. I felt completely disconnected from life, as though someone had pulled the plug on my path to normalcy. I lived the phrase carpe diem and thought the rest of the world didn’t know how to have fun. I spent my days working on construction projects, and my nights eating fish, socializing with the Florida panhandle people, and shucking oysters. I always had the gnawing feeling that part of my life was missing.
Four years passed before I contacted my father again. We agreed to meet, and he came to visit me. The cancer he had in his early forties had returned, and the big, strong man I remembered now appeared gaunt, fleshy and worn out. I was 17 years old. We had an unremarkable time together. I struggle now even to remember the conversation. I recall feeling that if I didn’t rekindle the relationship, he would soon die, and all the questions he promised to answer to me when I became “old enough” would never be discussed.
My excitement was uncontainable when I learned that he moved to Georgia, an hour north of where I lived. This could be my opportunity to develop a relationship with my father. After being unable to contact him for some time, the emptiest moment in my life came when I drove up to visit him and found a stranger painting the house. He told me the fellow who had lived there sold out and moved back to Florida. My rage returned.
His illness had progressed, I later learned, and he’d decided to move back to Florida where he had friends. He felt they would take care of his family once he died. He lived about two more years. I did make a few pilgrimages to Boca Raton, and his physical condition was on a steep decline. The last time I saw him, he was skin and bones. He stayed conscious for my arrival, but the next morning he didn’t know who I was. He died the following day.
I never received any of those long awaited answers to the many questions I had about his life. I never felt the gracious display of fatherly love that I so desperately wanted. Ours was a doomed relationship from the beginning, something set in place by the yin and yang of the world that I’ll never understand.
Today, as I move through my daily routine, I often find myself seduced by the familial familiarity of defaulting to rage. Denying that angry gene any influence in my life is now the most important focus for me as a father and husband.