My father died 25 years ago this week. If I could see him again, my first question would be, “Am I still grounded?”
He’d probably say, “Yes.”
We had a contentious relationship, mainly because I challenged authority and he was determined to break my strong spirit by imposing a limited variety of parenting techniques: grounding or spanking with a wooden board. After my last spanking at age 12, I turned to him and said, “Well, this method of punishment isn’t working for me.” So he grounded me. Forever.
Being banished to my room was a welcome diversion from the family drama. I would retrieve my Big Chief tablet and #2 pencils and write wretched poems in iambic tetrameter about being trapped in a dungeon or create sassy short stories about a runaway girl who learned how to fly. Looking back, my personal angst was rather pathetic and could have been avoided with a little extra charm and maturity on my part. Wisdom came too late, now I’m older than he was when he died and I can’t remember the sound of his voice.
It wasn’t until I had children that I learned the realities of parenthood were far from the cheerful and tidy fantasies of life as portrayed in the television show Father Knows Best. My childhood family life resembled the show All in the Family with my dad in the Archie Bunker role. My mother was the perfect Edith even though she secretly longed to be the elegant Norma Zimmer on The Lawrence Welk Show. My brothers started out as Wally and Theodore (Beaver) from Leave It to Beaver but radically changed into cartoon characters modeled after the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. I preferred to run away from all of them and join the cast of M*A*S*H. Now THAT would have been a fun family.
Time has softened my rebellious attitude, and I’m envious of daughters and fathers who are close. My cousins and friends laughed with their fathers, eagerly attended the annual father-daughter Christmas pageant during high school, and the dads cried at their weddings. My father didn’t attend my high school graduation or my wedding. As for the parties, I always played Santa because it was too awkward to go with my dad. I knew it was easier to make others laugh.
In his defense, my father was a brilliant businessman who used his intelligence, determination, and opportunities to build an interstate trucking company called Montana Express and a successful agri-business operation appropriately named Ambrose Farms. When he died, his estate owned 60 18-wheel trucks and 30,000 acres of land in southern Idaho in addition to thousands of cattle and hogs. The estate is all gone now (thanks to Bullwinkle), and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t learn more from him about how he did it. We were too entrenched in our stubborn independence to appreciate the talents we each possessed. I didn’t feel close to him until June 1989 when I delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
So, a quarter of a century after my father’s death, I want to say “Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I’m sorry I never called you Daddy.” Then, because I can’t help myself from having the last word, I would add, “I turned out better than you expected.”
To conclude, here’s a touching excerpt from the parents of Leave It to Beaver.
June Cleaver: “Ward, dear, do you think all parents have this much trouble?”
Ward Cleaver: “No, just parents with children.”
Insert laugh track.
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