With Father’s Day around the bend, we’ll be celebrating dads here on the blog for the rest of this week, and today I’m inviting my own dad to share.
My brother called me early this week, after spending the weekend with my dad up north, and told me how much they enjoyed their time together. It launched into a conversation about how all of us have changed the past several years–further away from young people who analyze, complain and pick apart the people we love and closer to the people we really want to be–accepting and loving children and spouses and siblings and friends, understanding that those whom we love are not perfect. That the things that drive us crazy about our loved ones are often manifestations of their own pain and past. We all have those. And maybe our acceptance of those around us for everything they are mirrors the journey of our acceptance of our own weaknesses, our own pain and past, our own paths. And maybe when we accept both–ourselves and those we love for exactly what they are–flawed, coming up short now and then–we create the perfect environment for growth and improvement and the greatest love stories.
The older I get, the more I love my parents. The more I experience in life, the more I understand everything they’ve been through. The more I struggle and try and break from the pain of loving people, the more I feel how much my parents ever loved and continue to love me.
I asked my dad a while ago if he’d ever be interested in doing a guest post. I reminded him a few weeks ago and asked if he’d like to write something for Father’s Day.
This is an imperfect love story between a father and son.
The Ties That Bind Us
By: Rik Cryderman
When I was young, we lived in a tri-level home, which in real terms simply meant, wherever you were going, there were steps to get there. His bedroom was up the five or six steps, kitty-corner to the right, off the landing. It smelled of Old Spice cologne and my mother’s moisturizing lotions. Our home had old-fashioned rules. We never went into their room without permission. Sometimes we were sent there for school lunch money. “There is a five dollar bill on my dresser,” my dad would say as I was sent to get it. Sometimes I would knock, if he were in there, and be invited in, like when my mom would say “Go ask your father.” I would knock quite often for another reason—for his help with something he would always tell me I needed to do for myself.
I would go to his room on Sunday mornings, school picture days and later days when I had to give a speech, go to a job interview or maybe a formal banquet. I knocked on the door, stepped into the room and asked him to tie my necktie. He’d always sputter, “It’s time you learned to do this yourself!” He once even cut out an article from the Detroit Free Press that provided instructions complete with illustrations on how to tie the perfect windsor knot. I took the article and tossed it away. He didn’t know. I already knew how to tie a necktie. I sometimes retied his because I could do it better. But still, I knocked, stepped into that sacred room and stood in front of him, tie in hands. I endured the sputtering. It was what he did next that made me keep coming. It was how he tied my tie. He couldn’t do it facing me—standing in front, flipping and looping the long tails of the tie over and around like some wardrobe wizard. It was backwards from the task he did himself each day when he tied his own. He’d have me turn around, facing the same direction, looking at the same world he did, and he’d put his arms around me, more like a warm embrace than he realized, and with a quick flip, slip and slide—my tie was neatly pulled into a knot.
But he was tying something else in those moments before I went off to the job interview or stood at the podium for a high school debate. He was tying me to him—the bigger-than-life man whose feet I once stood on, clinging to his legs while he “walked” me around, or who, with his hand on my back, ran beside me as he launched me on my two-wheeled bike, or who, when I returned from Orville’s Barber Shop, ran his large weathered fingers over my fresh Princeton haircut and announced, “Nice haircut, Ricky!” I wasn’t done with that empowering embrace, even when this toddler became a teen and hugs were replaced with handshakes. He tied my ties until I married and left the house.
I always looked up to him. When I was very young, I was nervous to be just with him. I was afraid I would make a mistake, mess something up, make him disappointed with me. I was afraid I wouldn’t know the answer, understand his instructions or find what he sent me to get. I think it was more than fearing disappointing him—I think I feared that if he really knew me, saw me, realized what I wasn’t, he might hold from me what I needed most—his love. I know now, that fear was something within me, not him. He was always quick to forgive, sure to understand, ready to stand behind me. It was me. And it didn’t go away.
As time went on, I would build my confidence and find my voice. I would tell him things—things I thought important. And I would often, in those cathartic, crucial conversations, realize that while I was talking, he wasn’t really listening to me, he was just preparing what he was going to say next. I know that now, because I find myself sometimes doing the same and realize, “I’m becoming my father.” But in his defense, I think he did that because he felt he had to have the answers, he had to produce a profound response, he had to fix everything in his boys’ lives. Sometimes we have no answers and are lost for a response. Sometimes a quick solution diminishes the telling. Still, we listen. Sometimes, just listening is the very best fixing.
He was a wise man. He taught me how to remember my first telephone number: State-22228. “Ricky,” he explained, “2 plus 2 plus 2 plus 2 is 8.” Amazed, impressed, I remembered. He was calm in a crisis. When my older brother, a star football player on our high school team, was injured on the field, he turned to my mother and said strongly, “Stay,” (she did) as he ran onto the field and assured my brother all was well.
Sports, with me, was safer. I never liked it and only tried to please my father. “With that height,” others would say of my gangly pre-teen body, “he’ll be a natural on the basketball court.” So I found myself on the team in junior high school. I hoped the coach wouldn’t put me in. When he did, I prayed no one would pass the ball to me. In fact, I learned the strategy of never making eye contact with the one who had the ball. I would pretend to be guarding someone and simply stare at him and sort of jump up and down around him, looking semi-official, hoping I would soon be on the bench. The locker room smelled bad. I had a nice duffel bag. The stripes on my white socks matched my basketball shorts. Perfectly.
I ran cross country in high school. I ran to earn a letter. My brother won medals and his name was on lists in papers. I threw up a lot. We were often in the same races, he was one year ahead of me. My parents would come to our cross country meets. I didn’t see their response when he crossed the finish line. That was long before I made it there. When I arrived, they were usually folding up tables and some were already in the bus. But my mom and dad were there. And they would cheer. I knew I wasn’t a winner. I knew they knew I wasn’t a winner. But the fact they tried to make me feel one meant the world to me. I finished the year. I got my letter. I wore my jacket proudly. I wore my running shoes to mow Eva Rensberry’s lawn. They became really, really green. I was quite happy to have left the team.
In high school I was also in theatre. I was confident there. I had the male lead in Jane Eyre, was Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer and once, when given a small part, enlisted Jann Wilson, a good friend, who was also robbed of the glory we deserved, and we embellished our little parts, stole the show and angered the director. My dad didn’t come to my theatre productions. He didn’t tell me he wasn’t coming. My mom did. She would remind me how busy he was and that she wasn’t sure if he would be able to attend. I can remember slipping my fingers through the heavy velvet curtains and looking through the rows of folding chairs in the high school auditorium, which also served as our cafeteria and the setting for dances after games. I would look to see if he had come, and I would see my mother, often with a lady friend who sat in the chair I had hoped to hold my dad. I never knew he wasn’t coming until I saw he wasn’t there. Later, he would tell me that my mother said I did a wonderful job. When he’d say that he was sorry he had missed it, I would always say that it was fine. Once I even said, “I think you would have found the chairs really uncomfortable.”
A minister, prominent leader in church and community, ultimately a national profile in our denomination, my dad never said “Remember whose son you are—don’t tarnish your family name.” He let four sons be four distinctly different individuals, each with his own strengths and struggles, gifts and guarded weaknesses. In my senior year of high school, I wrote and produced an underground newspaper—after all, it was the hippy, rile-against-the-system-in-power generation. I was suspended from school for two weeks. I received a lecture from my dad on the respect for rules and the importance of finding expression within the accepted structure. And later that evening, I overheard him on the telephone—he didn’t know I was listening—as he spoke with a school board member on my behalf and in my defense. “You have to admit, Ken,” I heard my father say from his office, “His writing is very good.” Strangely, I felt his strong embrace.
He was generous beyond measure. But responsible. I remember their visit, when I was in seminary, and my wife and I were struggling to even keep kitchen cupboards supplied and food on the table—we were expecting our first baby soon. After they left, for days, we would open the medicine cabinet, pull out a dresser drawer, flip up the little door of the butter compartment in the refrigerator and find money he had helped my mother put there to surprise us. Loans were arranged and later forgiven. Care packages of groceries and goodies were given as we left their home. He never let others pay at a restaurant.
A strong and respected leader, he was of the management style that believed, and he actually said: “If you make a wrong choice and lead those who follow you the wrong way—you work all the harder and you make it right.” I remember wondering if I was adopted. I wasn’t wired like that. It seemed clear to me to simply stop, say “Oops,” turn around and head another direction. Maybe that was why, when I finally met myself, accepted what I had for too long tried to hide from me and everyone, I worried he would think I was just to “work harder and make it right.” I was afraid he would see me and my life as a mistake. I was afraid he wouldn’t love me like every child longs for his father to do.
My father was a man of principles, living them and lauding them…loudly. I can remember when the lotto came to Michigan, I would attempt to warn the cashier at Meijer’s to skip the customary “Would you like to buy a lotto ticket today?” when my father stood behind us. If she didn’t understand and asked, my father would launch his ever ready sermon, delivered in the evangelist voice, citing the evils of gambling and the impropriety of the state’s partnering with a corrupt system to fund the education of children. By his rousing conclusion, my mom and I had loaded the groceries into the cart and were ready to make an exit to the waiting Buick getaway car. The cashier often used the time to sort coupons and look befuddled. But he lived by the principles he had proven. And somewhere deep within, I had a profound respect for those principles and even more for the man who lived them.
That may explain the lack of conversation about the issue of being gay. I didn’t want it. I didn’t need it. I certainly loved my father too much and cherished his role in my life to force him to make a choice between his faith and his family, his belief and our belonging to each other. For that generation, it was either/or. I didn’t want him to change his views or adjust his values. I had no desire for him to join PFLAG or march in a pride parade. I didn’t need him to embrace gayness. I just needed him to embrace…me. And he did. So, we didn’t need to speak about it. Not at all. I know he knew about Gary, my partner for over 25 years. He actually met Gary after my mother died. I introduced him saying, “Dad, this is my friend, Gary.” He knew we arrived together. Because each of the sons shared tributes, we brothers sat together on the platform with my father. I was glad for that. I wasn’t going to, nor was Gary going to, ask that the two of us sit together with the family. Gary sat with a close friend, but sat with me for the luncheon that followed. The cousins included him. My brothers spoke to him. I needed him near.
It was soon after the funeral that my dad called me. He wanted to do something to show his appreciation to the Care Center and their staff for loving my mom and making her last days a treasure. “Do you think your friend Gary could get us a nice tree to plant at the Care Center?” he asked me. He knew Gary was a horticulturist and a manager at a large nursery. I said, “He’d love to.” Gary picked a beautiful tree, wrapped it well for the trip from our house to Spring Arbor. Gary was there with all the family when we shared some words, prayers, tears and hugs and planted the tree in the yard of my mom’s final home. My dad was pleased. He hugged me and…he kissed my cheek. He had been doing that lately, especially when saying goodbye. Then, he thanked Gary for the tree…and hugged him.
It felt like I was home again and remembered, wherever you are going, there are steps to get there. It is strange, the older we get and the more we know and accept who we are, the more we understand and appreciate our parents. And about the time we do, they leave us. My dad left us six weeks later. He left me more than he knew. We would plant a second tree, because sometimes a family tree needs company.
I love you, Dad. Those ties still bind us.
Dad, I love you. Happy Father’s Day.
More Father’s Day love to come later this week….