I’ve gotten hooked on a network TV show which almost never happens.
You might have guessed by the title of this piece – ‘This is Us.’
I usually don’t watch this kind of schmaltz but I got hooked. Maybe it’s because it’s based in Pittsburgh (a little) but maybe it’s also because the storylines are causing me to do a lot of reflection on my own life and family – where we came from and how that makes us what we are.
My father was the anti-Jack.
Well, when my sister and I were very little he was more like Jack but something happened as we both approached the age of 10.
There is a particular family movie that shows the three of us at a nearby pay lake and dad is teaching us to fish. I think I must have been six or seven. What strikes me about the movie is how much my dad was smiling and how happy he was.
And then one day, he wasn’t.
Speaking for myself, I think know what happened – I didn’t turn out to be the son he wanted. You see my dad’s father used to beat him mercilessly. My mother told me long after my father died how bad it was in my dad’s house. I never would have thought my paternal grandfather would have been like that but there were many family secrets I didn’t know – and were deliberately kept from me.
Anyway, my dad actually looked forward to his stint in the Marines and time in Korea in 1953 – to escape his family life.
The only solace he found was in the woods, being an outdoorsman. He loved to camp, hunt, fish – all of that.
And he wanted desperately for me to share that with him. And I didn’t. I found it all boring and pointless – after all we had grocery stores and didn’t need to shoot our food. I was a bookworm who lived for libraries and reading. I would literally spend summers shuttling books between the local library and my bedroom; reading them all and then returning them for another stack.
When my father figured out he wasn’t going to make an outdoorsman out of me, he pretty much emotionally abandoned me. And my sister, who he called his ‘peaches and cream,’ turned out to remind him too much of his own sister, who was a free spirit to say the least. She died young of drinking and drugs.
So by the time I turned 11 or so, my father turned into the surly, explosively violent person I most remember; not the grinning, ecstatic father of those long ago home movies.
My dad also hated his sales job at Sears. He had trained to be an artist but he wasn’t good enough to make a living at it, so to support his new wife he took a sales job.
Life didn’t really get better for my dad. And he took it out on all of us, my mother included.
It took me a long time to understand why he became the person he did, but in my mind, that did not excuse some of the things he did to me. No, I wasn’t beaten mercilessly; I was only smacked around a few times and then all he had to do was raise his voice and that was enough to make me cringe. Between his and my mother’s general dissatisfaction with their lives, it’s not an exaggeration to say I spent my family years walking on eggshells.
He died when I was 20.
I didn’t cry at his funeral.
This, of course, is too short a treatment of my father and my family dynamic. But it always made me envious of what I perceived to be the ‘perfect’ families of many of the kids I went to grade school and high school with – and see on Facebook today.
I know there’s grief and trouble in every family that is generally kept hidden from outsiders. Facebook is the shop window most people dress their best for.
But I know there were many families where the father did his best to be close emotionally to his children and the mother took as much interest in her children at 18 as she did at eight.
That’s what makes ‘This is Us’ so hard for me to watch even though I can’t turn away. There were families out there that were like that. Mine just wasn’t. And I feel that I missed something very special in my life that the children who had that kind of family experienced.
I mourn that to this day and wonder how that experience shaped me and contributed to my emotional issues? There’s not ‘blame’ per se here – it was what it was. It’s just . . . why couldn’t it have been just a little closer to the Pearsons?