Down South: Life Without Fathers

By Tom Poland

There’s something about being a writer that makes people confide in you. Why tell a writer, who uses life as raw material, your deepest secrets. But tell me they do, and sometimes their secrets break my heart.

I’ve known women who confided how much they hated their father. They had reason, they say. Several told me how hard life was with an alcoholic father. Others talked about how abusive their dads were, and some felt their father never gave them all they expected.

The extent to which these women vilified their dad shocked me. One woman changed her name legally so fervent was her hatred. She made up her mind to never speak to him again and never did. She didn’t even attend his funeral.

A brunette with brilliant blue eyes told me she faked love for her dad her entire life. Another woman never missed a chance to put her dad down. No matter what you discussed, she would work the conversation to a place where she could insult him. That stopped when he died. Only then did she consider that life had been tough on him. After all, life shapes us as surely as winds shape dunes. Only after he died did she realize he had had a hard life. For the first time, I saw tears in her eyes when she brought her dad up. It was too late to say, “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” The train had run.

Today, none of the sad women have fathers. They’ve all passed on. I write about these unfortunate women and their fathers because I think about my dad all the time. He passed away November 15, 2003. Unlike the women who heaped scorn on their dads, I realize, more than ever, that Dad gave me a wonderful life. I look across the years with the knowledge that I was loved and that I loved and respected my father. And I still do.

But some people hate their fathers. No one ever said life is supposed to be easy, and one way or another life dishes out pain. There’s the pain of living with a dad you don’t care for and there’s the pain of watching a dad you love die.

When Earth’s travels around the sun bring me to November, I can’t help but recall Dad’s final days. As Harry Crews wrote about his childhood, it was “just like a nightmare.” Dad’s death was a thing we could do little about. We tried mightily but all the love in the world could not stem the tide that drowned the life out of my father, and the long nights past midnight were the worst.

The horrors of cancer make you long for a case of selective amnesia. There’s only one thing you can do. Remember the good times. Not a day passes that I don’t see Dad working in the yard, in the kitchen with Mom, sitting at the table, or driving my family through the mountains.

Among our blessings are parents and the memories they leave. And so I wonder how these women deal with their father’s death when the anniversary rolls around. What do they think about? Do they wish they could see their father one more time?

There’s not a day goes by I don’t remember Dad and all he did for me and I would give anything to see him again. In the great heap of days that make up a year, four days jump off my calendar: Dad’s birthday, Father’s Day, November 15, and November 18, the day we laid him to rest. These days punch holes in my calendar.

Gregg Allman recorded “These Days,” a song Jackson Browne wrote about a man who knows a special relationship has died, one he could have done more for. “These days I seem to think a lot /About the things that I forgot to do / For you /And all the times I had the chance to.”

I would love for the women to hear this song, realizing it’s written for them. I’d like for them to let the lyrics soak in and think about the man who brought them into this world.
Perhaps the women will recall that to err is human as they listen to the song’s conclusion. “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I’m aware of them.” Maybe their dads would have discussed their failures if they’d just had a chance. Perhaps all could have come to an understanding.

Life without fathers is hard, but so is a life rife with guilt and things left unsaid. If you still have your dad but things aren’t right, do something about it. And if you’re a dad who has a child that’s drifted away, you need to act too. Don’t put it off. Once that midnight train runs and you hear its mournful whistle trailing away, it’s too late.

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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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