The AMC Network series Mad Men is my favorite television show. The show had undeniable style. Don Draper was my favorite character. I loved his determination, his drive, his creativity, and his rags-to-riches back history (if you got that deep into the story). Don Draper also reminded me of my father a bit. My dad had a similar haircut, parted on the left with liberal use of hair oil. My dad was an entrepreneur who ran his own computer consulting company before the big box machines. My father was adopted, not by the owner of a brothel but, by a Methodist minister. My father also had secrets.
My father rarely spoke much about his childhood. I knew his adopted parents as the part of the family we went to see once or twice a year, usually around Christmas. It was clear my father loved his parents and his two adopted sisters but he was the black sheep of the family, enlisting in the navy out of high school for a tour in Vietnam before going to computer programming school and meeting my mother. He never spoke about his birth parents and I only found out he was adopted after he mentioned it off hand one day when I was about 12. All he would say was his birth parents were a young couple who got in trouble. That was enough for me. I loved my father and took all he said as gospel.
Pop was a great friend and a good dad. Please note I said he was a good dad. He was the cool dad who all my friends wanted to chaperone high school field trips because he would turn us loose and say “Meet back here at 3pm and don’t burn the place down”. He was the dad who I could tell anything to and be pretty sure it would be ok. He was also the dad who introduced me to (wittingly or unwittingly) several of the vices that I’ve had to work hard to break. In retrospect, I think dad was trying to be the father he needed growing up. Someone who understood what he was going thru as an adopted son of a man of God. I could have used a few more “Come to Jesus” sessions and firm moral guidance.
Once I got married, moved out on my own, and started trying to form a new family I saw, and heard of, another side of my dad. Small, snide comments from my parents each about the other. My mother’s complaints about my father’s lack of honesty took me aback the most. I never considered my father a man who would lie. Exaggerate for purpose of a good story or comedic affect sure, but lie? I knew my parents didn’t argue at all and I’d never seen them have a serious discussion about money, or food, or work, or anything for that matter. I naively chalked that up to my parents being happy and on the same page.
After my father died several years ago I began to see the issues my mother was talking about. Death has a habit of disclosing all the little secrets you thought you could keep hidden. Their lack of arguments or debate wasn’t a sign of a well-oiled relationship but a sign of two different people living in the same house. One evening I was helping my mother sort thru my father’s tools in the basement I found my father’s box.
For fans of Mad Men, and fans of Don Draper, you’ll know what I mean. Don had a box with photos and mementos from his life when he was Dick Whitman. Don Draper wasn’t always Don Draper. In my father’s box I found pictures of my biological grandfather and grandmother, my father, and his sister. Both my father and his sister were much older in these photos with their parents than I expected. It seems the story of “They were a young couple who got in trouble” wasn’t exactly true. One of the pictures of my biological grandfather was of him in his military uniform. The lack of insignia and some particulars of the uniform indicated he was military intelligence. It seemed secrets were a part of my family history.
My wife and I don’t have many secrets. She’s a very open and insightful woman who can smell a lie like a fart in a car (extra credit if you can name that film) but there were issues that we didn’t discuss because it made one, or the other, or both uncomfortable. I decided then to break the cycle of secrets and have the hard discussions that would keep our relationship alive and growing. They say most men live lives of quiet desperation. I could feel that from my father. I didn’t want to live that way and I don’t want my wife to regret the time we’ve spent together once I’m in the ground.
We as men talk a lot about legacy, and tradition, and inheritance. We talk about our family history and what we pass down from father to son. We sometimes even talk about our genetic material and the traits that we get from our ancestors. While these are important it’s even more important to remember that each branch in our family tree isn’t only a new limb, it’s a whole new organism. We have the opportunity to not only learn what we should do from our parents, but also what we shouldn’t. Trauma or bad decisions don’t have to be multi-generational. We need to have the strength to look at ourselves and fix the issues, not put them in a box for our children to find.