Father’s Day Guest Columnist Susan Gordon: Father Knew Least

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Susan J. Gordon and her husband Ken of 47 years have two grown sons, two daughters-in-law, and six sensational grandchildren. She is a freelance writer and the author of two books, including Wedding Days: When & How Great Marriages Began, about the courtships and marriages of famous couples throughout history. Some of her work can be found at WWW.SUSANJGORDON.COM.

Dear Kids,

I’m so glad that our family celebrates Father’s Day with your dad, my terrific husband. I feel this deeply, because when I was a kid, I hated Father’s Day. In the stormy family stew that was my almost-daily diet, “father” meant “Sid,” and that meant trouble.

My mother left Sid when I was two years old, and took my older brother, Jerry, and me from our suburban home to my grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York. Angry battles between my parents erupted with Vesuvian force as they fought about everything including child support which was always late, and court-ordered visits that Jerry and I endured with Sid. We never knew when he might appear at Grandma’s door, pounding furiously or climbing through her first-floor windows if we didn’t let him in “NOW!”  He never forgave my mother for walking out on him, but he aimed his rage at safer targets – Jerry and me.

I was barely four when Sid put us on the outside fenders of his car, and drove down Northern Boulevard. A few months later, he sent us (non-swimmers without lifejackets) off a rowboat that drifted around a bay while he watched from the shore. Another time, he smashed Jerry’s glasses and beat him up in a public park. An uneasy crowd of gaping bystanders stared but didn’t intercede because Sid insisted he was “just disciplining my boy.’ Even so, family court judges reduced but would not eliminate the visits. By the time I was eight, Jerry and I saw Sid only one hour a month, in the presence of a guard hired to watch us.

“Name the Ten Commandments!” Sid demanded. He often complained that we lacked religious educations. Quickly, I rattled off no killing, stealing, or wanting what your neighbor had, but deliberately skipped the Fifth – “honoring” your parents, which I didn’t understand at all. (Did that mean him?) Fortunately, the hour was almost up, and Sid didn’t ask again.

Our visits ceased when I was fifteen. Sid faded from my life, but his specter lurked around the edges of my consciousness. Terrifying memories haunted me and hung like heavy rocks around my neck. Now and then, he sent mildew-stained copies of old court records, but he never apologized for his actions. I wouldn’t respond; Sid’s punishment was never to know anything about me.

Much later, I learned about Amalek – the collective name of the ancient tribe that attacked and harassed the Israelites thousands of years ago during their forty years of wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt.  The Amalekites preyed unmercifully on stragglers at the rear of the caravan – the very young, the old, and the weak. And I realized that Sid was my Amalek – the evil malevolence you never spoke of but could not forget.

Decades passed until, through the flimsy grapevine that endures even in ruptured families, I heard that Sid was in a retirement home in southern California, and I decided it was time to show up. Maybe confronting him half-a-lifetime later would help me overcome my fears, and sort things out. Only after I made flight reservations did I realize I’d be there on Father’s Day.

Seeing him was a shock. In my mind, Sid was still forty-something, with meaty hands and a smile that could turn into a sneer. Minutes passed before the scraggy old man with wobbly dentures, smudged eyeglasses and droopy tennis socks comprehended who I was. “Susan?” he asked. “My Susan?” He lurched and embraced me, crying, drooling and laughing at the same time. I let him hug me, but I couldn’t hug back.

All afternoon, he tried to correct what he called my “misconceptions about the past.” “You were so young,” he said. “I was your father; you had no reason to fear me….”

No reason? I was exasperated. But my nightmarish recollections only produced cockeyed retorts: “You were just a child… your memories are distorted.” “Children often misinterpret their parents’ actions.” “Your mother brainwashed you.” “I didn’t kidnap your brother; he was confused.”

He begged me to call him “Dad,” but “Sid” was the best I could do. “Are you married?” he asked plaintively. “Do you work? Do you have children? What are their names?” He had missed out on everything.

I had grappled with the Fifth Commandment long enough. Even if I couldn’t forgive Sid’s unhinged anger and violence in the past, I could feel pity for this pathetic 87-year old man now. If I couldn’t “honor” him directly, I, myself, could behave honorably.  So I began to tell him about my life and my family, especially you, his grandchildren.

I never saw Sid again, but until his death, sixteen months later, I wrote to him occasionally, and shared more stories. I didn’t write to make Sid feel better, although I’m sure that I did. Mainly, it was good and healthy for me.

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