Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Didn't I Ask Him That?

I always wondered why my father lost his temper so easily. When I was a boy, I thought the question was not one I could ask without risking a volcanic demonstration of the subject matter. Dad’s emotional volatility was better avoided than studied. Still, I wonder what caused the big bang. I wonder what causes cancer. And I wonder why Dad got so mad so easily.

The Prime Movers
I know the possible psychological and physiological explanations: temperamental genius, rage disorder (or worse). But they don’t interest me. What interests me is why he got mad at me. What did I do that was right, and what did I do that was wrong? Could I have done better? Could I have made him angry less often? Could I have made him love me more?

Dad has been dead almost forty years, and still I think about his exhausting lectures, about the way he stood over me with wagging finger and immobilizing stare and talked to me as though I were incapable of understanding what he had to say unless he repeated it over and over and over. Repeated not until I showed signs of comprehension or contrition, but until the fire of his passion of that moment, for that transgression, burned out.

Even now, knowing what I know about various kinds of behavior, what they are called and what they mean, I cannot disassociate those lectures from me. I cannot make them more about Dad than me. After all, it was me he was lecturing.

My mother died three years ago. Not a month goes by that I do not think of something I wish I had asked her. Frequently my questions are about events in her past that she was the last to know, but sometimes, as with my father, they are about events in my past, our past. And I ask myself, Why didn’t I ask her that when she was alive? We had plenty of time together during her last years. Her mind was still sharp. She knew everything I now wish I knew. She probably even knew I wanted to know it. But I never asked. And she never volunteered.

We learn to live with ourselves. Part of that is some alchemy of rationalization and repression that leaves us comfortable with both who we are and how we got there. How we were treated by our parents. What that meant about them, and what it meant about us. Asking too many questions can be dangerous. Self-image is a house of cards. Pulling out one can collapse the whole structure.

I don’t think Dad would have gotten mad at me if I had asked about his bouts of rage. That wasn’t the kind of thing that made him mad. A challenge when he didn’t want to be challenged would cause him to turn up the heat until the opposing force was incinerated, but a sincere question, asked in a calm moment, even about something so personal, was more likely to elicit a thoughtful response. At worst, he might have waved me off with some bit of his charm, the flip-side of his coin of darkness and light.

No, I think the reason I never asked was the reason so many of our questions go unasked while our parents are still alive, only to haunt us after their deaths. I think I didn’t ask because I was afraid I wouldn’t want to hear the answer.


  1. Such an honest piece. Our place in our family is so entrenched that even as adults, even when our parents are no longer alive, it is hard to alter that position. Hard to alter the way our parents, our family, makes us feel.


  2. >I think I didn’t ask because I was afraid I wouldn’t want to hear the answer.

    I sometimes think this, and I sometimes think it's that we don't want to cause our parents pain by asking.

  3. Wow, Mac, what an honest and thought-provoking piece! I really wonder about this kind of thing myself. All those questions, unasked. Yet I think there's often such a powerful taboo about asking honest questions of those in one's family. I can think right now of questions I have for my siblings, and they're (thank heavens) all still alive!! Will I ask them? I doubt it. I really do. Why not? Because to ask them is to break the calm surface we've managed to create together. Sometimes I think one of the primary goals of family life is simply peace!!! and a resistance to opening any doors that can cause quarreling (more quarreling) and anguish.

  4. Dad was a complicated man. Isn't that what we say about moody people? Frankly, while Dad was a very bright man, I don't think he would have had an answer to your question.
    I too marveled at his ability to say the same thing eighteen different ways......"Look at me whie I'm talking to you!"
    Nice piece, David