One evening in the summer of 1999, I was walking with my father. We were returning home from The Swan, a local pub in the coastal town of Stranraer, Scotland. My brother and I had come with our families to visit my parents. It was the first time we had seen them in the three years since they had returned to Scotland from the United States.
A chill air surrounded us as we walked through the close streets of the town. It was June, but the weather was still cool and damp, and as we made our way past darkened store fronts I told him of my impending divorce and my concerns about moving out of my home and setting up a new household. I was worried about my ability to care for my children on a diminished income and how to provide stability, despite their changing environment? We walked for a few moments in silence and then he uttered the words that haunt me still.
In his thick Scottish brogue he said, “My father died when I was 14. He never gave me anything but the back of his hand! And I was happy to have it.”
In 1969, by the time I was 12 years old, I had watched nearly every episode of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith and My Three Sons. With research conducted via after school re-runs and prime-time family viewing, I considered myself an expert on the structure and function of the American Nuclear Family. Of course the head of the household was always male, a sober white-collared engineer or architect, strong but kind, firm but fair. Mothers, if there were one, for mothers could often be replaced by curmudgeonly old uncles, maids or a trusted man-servant, were always of the beautifully coiffed, perfectly appointed, stay at home, and supper on the table variety. Children, one to three were an acceptable number, were handsome, respectful, and constantly getting into the type of problems that could be resolved within 30 minutes allowing ample time for commercials.
No childhood indiscretion was so calamitous that an appropriate solution could not be found within the bounds of a good firm talking to. There were no spankings, no angry fathers yelling, no children made to feel terrified or inadequate for their ignorance of the far-flung consequences of an un-made bed or a bad report card. No standing stiffly with an outstretched hand in anticipation of the quick snap of a leather belt and the steel resolve not to flinch and suffer the consequence of another.
I cannot remember an incident for which my father apologized. It wasn’t in his nature. And how can we learn to avoid mistakes unless we learn to recognize them for what they are? We are after all, nothing more than the sum of our experience. We learn from what we observe and choose to imitate or ignore the example of those that hold influence over us.
My father mellowed with time, especially in his later years. I had long ago forgiven him for any perceived injustices when on that long walk home he told me of the loss of his father at such an early age and of their broken relationship. But in 1969 without the benefit of foresight and with the dauntless indignation that is the dominion of all 12 year old boys, I thought my father had simply grown up without a T.V.