If a picture paints a thousand words, do a thousand pictures tell the entire story? My father’s picture told me more than his words ever could.
If you are like me you probably have so many photos on your phone that you’ve run out of online storage. Photos of birds and babies, flowers and friends, vacation shots and the mundane like the chocolate chip cookies you baked the other night.
I have one – just one – photo of my father as a child. Then there is nothing until my parents started dating. I doubt that any other photos exist and I marvel that this one survived. I understand that even in the 30’s and 40’s photographs were not an everyday norm, but for my father having his picture taken was even rarer than average.
My father was an orphan, well not really an orphan – both his parents were alive, but he was raised in orphanages and foster homes which ranged from cold to utterly abusive.
My father was a hard man. I had a hard time getting to know him, he had a hard time showing love. I knew little about him growing up except that he was rarely home and when he was he was – to my little mind and heart – he was mean.
I know now that he loved me and his ways were not a reflection of his lack of affection for me. His ways were a little boy trapped in a grown man’s body trying to deal with the pain of loss, rejection, shame, and abuse. I know all that now. That one picture of my father helped me understand.
You see it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s and had children of my own that I learned about my father’s childhood.
One New Year’s Day, after dinner and dessert, he promptly began to discuss this part of his life with us. To this day I don’t remember what prompted him to open up – maybe seeing the babies and feeling like he had kept it all in too long or maybe he just reached a mindset of wanting his children to know.
My father began to tell us how when he was 3 years old, his mother left his father, took him and his two older sisters to an orphanage. He recalled standing on the doorstep of the orphanage huddled with his sisters, crying, and waving goodbye to his mother as she called out “I’ll be back for you.”
She did come back. When I was 16 when my father was in his 50’s. As a new mother hearing this story my thoughts were of anger – rage almost – thinking how this woman abandoned her children, how my broken father was a victim of her selfishness.
How my life could have been different if she had not left him alone in a cruel world, unprotected.
A Stolen Childhood
Then he proceeded to tell us how his sisters were the lucky ones, they were taken in by relatives. But there was nobody to care for my father so he went to his first foster home.
Oh, where was his dad, you ask? An interesting historical fact is that fathers were not allowed to raise their children alone. They would only be granted custody again when they were remarried.
Perhaps there was some evidence of abuse on my grandfather’s part, perhaps that is why my grandmother left him, this I do not know but my father never spoke to any abuse from his father. In fact, the entire time he was in foster care, he wanted desperately to be with his father.
My grandfather visited him every Sunday, as was allowed by law, and my father, desperate to get away from the sexual predator that lived upstairs would sneak out and crawl under my grandfather’s car. He would hoist himself up, Indiana Jones style, by holding onto the exhaust pipes, in hopes that my grandfather would drive away with him.
This actually worked a few times and he suffered burns on his hands that my grandfather patched up. But his father had to leave him in the foster home so he resorted to tying my father to a chair to restrain him to prevent my dad from trying to follow.
I can’t imagine the anguish of a father binding his own child to a chair and leaving him in an environment that was obviously so void of love a child would do anything to get out.
Eventually, my father was moved to a foster home on a farm in rural northwest Ohio. He thought his life would improve and, he was a little older, so he initially enjoyed the farm.
But this illusion of a turn for the better quickly disintegrated when the foster family made it clear he was not part of the family. In essence, he was a slave. He lived and slept in the barn and was given threadbare clothes to wear.
His life was farm work and when the social worker visited they clothed him in nice attire and set him in the living room for display. All looked so much better when the foster family sent him the Catholic church to be an altar boy and a good Catholic. Here he was systematically raped by one or more priests. Who to tell? It wouldn’t matter anyway, he was a throw-away foster kid.
The Broken Man
The anger and fear mounted until my father was a rebellious, riotous teenager.
Eventually, his father remarried and came for him. My dad was 16 and the rules were he had to quit school and work full time. He did so, anxious to be reunited with his family.
I wonder – he never spoke of it – but did he know what had become of his mother and did he wonder why she never returned for him as she had promised?
His mother had moved to neighboring Indiana and remarried. She went on to have a new life, new children, new memories, while my father was bruised and broken from the inside out in ways that no therapists were equipped to deal with in the 50’s and 60’s.
His brokenness led to selfishness and a detachment from his own family. He worked hard and provided well for his family, but spent almost every waking moment away from us. I grew up believing that my father loved racehorses, gambling, and loan sharks more than he loved me.
My perspective shifted seismically the day he told us these stories. I sobbed for days, grieving the father I should have had and grieving for the little boy that was robbed his innocence and childhood.
I called my mother, angry that she never told me these things: “Did you know all this?” I demanded. Yes, but she never believed it was her story to tell.
“What kind of a mother abandons her children like that?” I judged my grandmother. “Times were different, women didn’t have as many choices or means to provide. You can’t judge her.” My mother replied. I still did, and I think I still do.
Weeks later, while still struggling to digest all this, I picked up the only photograph of my father as a child that we had. I held it in my hand and I prayed.
As I prayed I saw the broken little boy who had never grown up on the inside and the man who had never healed. I saw the sadness and fear in his little eyes and I wept. I forgave. I thanked God that I had the means to protect my little boys from these horrors of abuse and neglect.
And I saw my father for the first time in those sad eyes.
Oh, I could have had a thousand pictures of my father but I only needed that one. That one that spoke a thousand words.
Because we don’t see everything with our eyes, we see mostly with our hearts, and when we learn to see with our hearts more than our eyes we will develop compassion, embrace forgiveness, and restrain from judgment.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I know you found your peace as have I.