Dreams of Kindness, Love and Grace by Carolyn Berry
"Through my first ten years of life, I dreamt of this roguishly handsome fellow returning to rescue me from my Mom’s sudden mood swings and erratic outbursts."
He was little more than a phantom. A smiling, boyish face beaming at me from a black-and-white wedding picture. My father left my mother, brother and I in 1956, shortly after arriving back in the States from Korea. I was far too young to remember the day he left for his job in the appliance department at Sears, and kept driving south without looking back.
It was painful to be a fatherless child in Idaho during the 1950s and 60s. I remember arriving home from school one afternoon in first grade. My mother nervously told me that the following day each student would have to stand and share with the entire class what their father did for a living. My sensitive teacher foresaw my agonizing embarrassment was I not fore-warned. So Mom coached me through my very first acting gig. I was to stand and utter these words: “My father is an insurance salesman in Utah.” For just a moment, I was elated. “Where’s Utah? Can we call him?” Confusion and shame returned as I discovered this sentence was merely a story to tell, a shield to protect me from public humiliation if others knew that my Daddy had deserted me. The next day in class I fidgeted and stared at my shoes, but delivered my line right on cue.
Through my first ten years of life, I dreamt of this roguishly handsome fellow returning to rescue me from my Mom’s sudden mood swings and erratic outbursts. As the years passed, my image of him took ever grander form. The boyish grin in the wedding photo blossomed to a character with John Wayne likeness—tall, strong, commanding, gentle, loving, protective.
I was in 4th grade when I went to a friend’s for my first sleep-over. We played dress-up and experimented with her mom’s make-up. Early in the evening, my Mom called. Her saccharine tone frightened me, as she purred that I was to come home for just a moment to meet someone. My heart raced. I didn’t want to go. I was dressed in layers of crinolin slips, a strapless taffeta prom dress and high heels—and my face was painted like a hussy. I also knew that disobedience would reap a worse fate than trudging across the street in this get-up, looking like a hell-bound heathen rather than a decent, upstanding Baptist.
On the couch sat a man. Immediately I recognized the lines of his face and his eyes from the wedding picture, although both his smile and youth had vanished. The pompadore had given way to baldness and a goatee. I gazed in disbelief … and dreadful disappointment. John Wayne he was NOT. At 5 foot 7 and 135 pounds, he was nearly a spitting image of Barney [Don Knotts] on “Andy of Mayberry.” Loud, crude and bigoted, he brandished faux-karate moves he claimed to have learned in the Korean Conflict. He was rough and brassy. He smoked. I was speechless. My face revealed my disdain.
The years since 1964 have been intense with learning. In recent years, I have at long last learned to forgive. My father taught me to hate, to fear, to live in a violent world. Yet over time I have forged my own beliefs about the world. I have learned to love my Dad for who he is rather than who I had dreamt him to be, to lovingly sift away the chaff of his life and focus on his seed of goodness—to accept the fact that, given the challenges in his personal life, this man did the very best he could to be a decent father. And as I look back on the resilience that has characterized my life, I realize that many of my own strengths have developed as a result of my Dad’s presence … or lack of presence … during my childhood.
Each of us has experienced some emotional, mental or physical pain. Refusing to forgive doesn’t make the pain go away. It keeps the pain alive in us, and we continue to hurt ourselves. Forgiveness does not condone the harmful behavior. Forgiveness takes courage—courage to release our pain, our anger and our fear. Forgiveness creates space inside us—space to heal, to love, to connect, to renew. As we walk through life, we must learn to soften our hearts, unfold them, forgive. It is the ultimate act of the spark of the Divine in each of us.
Carolyn Berry is a speaker and writer about authenticating and simplifying our lives. She welcomes readers’ comments by mail at PO Box 612, Salem, OR 97208-0612, or via email.