My father grew up in the age of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. He was the 3rd generation descendant of Russian immigrants growing up in Cold War America. And most of all, he is a man. Communication was never his strong suit.
Which is why my dad never had the easiest time communicating with us kids, especially me- the girl. We developed a routine rather early on in my life where his primary method of displaying his affection for me was to tease me. Mercilessly. Over time I developed the ability to tease him back and the two of us spent the bulk of our interactions teasing each other, my father’s unequivocally weird sense of humor dominating the logic of these conversations.
He struggled when “real” issues were brought up and despaired when I cried. It wasn’t something he was able to fix for me and I think he kind-of felt like a failure for that. He’d tried to make me laugh, he’d try to cheer me up. He’d he ask me who Fat Burns was and tell me, if I didn’t guess it immediately, that he was the son of Skinny Burns. Sometimes it’d actually get a laugh out of me. But of course that wasn’t what I wanted and it wasn’t long before all crying spells were automatically referred to my mother because he just didn’t know what to do for me.
During my adolescence, at the height of my teen angst and rebellion, I gravitated toward him because his quiet nature was less imposing than my mother’s and he’d suffered more hardships over his life that I could relate to. He’d had his heart broken (before my mom). He’d struggled to make friends. He’d felt alone- unlike my mother whose gregarious nature awarded her with an active social life for as long as she could remember. It was the first time that we were able to converse about “real” issues and I secretly treasured them as something that made our relationship special.
Then I went to college and fell into the trap that many people do: every time I called home my mom would pick up and in many calls my only communication with him was through her. Sometimes I would call specifically when my mother wasn’t home to talk to him about something from school- he was always a huge history buff (still is) and had a love and respect for literature that served to establish common ground. But over the years it became more and more common for us to converse primarily through my mother and in all honesty I didn’t work hard enough to keep our relationship separate.
So last night when I called home, I asked if I could talk to just dad for a while after getting the regular weekly update from my mom. My mom hung up and I broached the subject I thought would be fruitful: the book I just finished, which he had said he’d read when I mentioned it earlier. I can’t tell you how much joy it brought me to have a real conversation with my dad about both that particular book, and the work of Charles Dickens in general.
He had his own opinions about the humorous tone of the book, where Dickens got his inspiration and which of his works executed certain literary tasks better. He knew about the historical impact of many of his works; specifically about the impact this book had on the Yorkshire school systems. (He always knows those historical factoids and I love that about him.) I learned that his favorite book of Dickens is A Tale of Two Cities and he has a very different perspective of Sydney Carlton than I’ve always had. We argued about it. It was wonderful. And after my endorsement of David Copperfield, he promised to go get a copy from the library so we could talk about that, too.
I know my dad loves me. And I wish that we could find a way to honestly talk about life, without my mother and without the awkward trips and falls that often get in the way. But literature and history come so much more naturally. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my dad have been over Shakespeare’s history plays, The Lord of The Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter series or about something I was just watching on the history channel. It’s our common ground, it’s where we meet.