My father loved me. I’m sure of it. He never really expressed it in words. It was more in the way he looked at me across the dinner table or stayed with me until I fell asleep on those nights that something troubled me. It was in the tenderness of his hand atop my head.
But he was a hard man to please. He wanted a son so badly that he wouldn’t let Mom even consider a girl’s name for the baby growing inside her. When she became pregnant with my sister, he did the same thing. When she turned out to be a girl as well, he made do with me as best he could.
When, years ago, I saw the first trailers for the movie, “Tree of Life,” I knew that it was one that I would not go see. I am a child of the Fifties. My dad was born in 1920 and knew beyond doubt that life was hard and that you had to be hard and perfect and committed to get anywhere in it.
He entered the Army with only a high school education and a year or so at college. He had enough intelligence (although intelligence in this case is debatable) and skill to get a position as a reconnaissance photographer in the Army Air Corp. He and his team mates (and the couple other crews) were some of the first Americans into much of the Pacific Theater. I still have some of the maps (printed on silk with waterproof dies) that were made from his photographs.
He taught himself calculus and even taught courses at our local community college in how calculus related to quality control. Quality control was the field he eventually settled into. He worked for the government, overseeing private sector contracts for the production of missiles and missile delivery systems. That was all I was ever allowed to know about it.
He was strong willed. He had always to be right. He couldn’t admit when he’d gotten something wrong. And he did his best to raise me to be just like him. But I never quite measured up to his standards. On the one hand, he would tell me that I could do anything I set my mind to. And on the other, he criticized every single thing I did. He never could accept that perfection is unobtainable. I will say this though, the striving for perfection that he insisted on had at least shown me that it’s never a bad thing to always do the best that you are able.
Dad died four days before my 17th birthday. I thought my world had ended. As tough as he was on me, he was my touchstone. His life informed mine about how to perceive the world and what my place was in it. Enter my science teacher senior year in high school.
In many ways he was the antithesis of my dad and yet also like him in so many ways. He was sure of himself, intelligent and caring, but emotionally undemonstrative. In one major way he was different … he believed in me and had faith in me.
At a time when I was desperate for a father figure in my life, my science teacher willingly took that place. When I would express doubts about an upcoming practicum, he’d make a bet with me about the minimum grade he thought I would get (I always lost the bet, usually a six pack of his favorite soft drink). His certainty gave me confidence and a feeling of pride that my father had never allowed me. He was just what I had always needed and hadn’t known it.
While I value both of their contributions to my life, I won’t say that they have made the biggest difference in it. Both of them regarded me based on performance. The one man who has made the largest and most lasting impression on my life is my husband. He has taught me more about myself than I thought I would ever know. His undying love, lack of judgment, confidence, and faith in me has meant more to me than words can ever express. He sees me as a “being” and not as a “doing.” He loves me despite my flaws and mistakes. He has allowed me the space to discover who I really am and to be that person.
My father and my science teacher set the stage, but Bernd, my husband, has helped me to fulfill the dream.