“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”
— Anne Sexton
I came across the above quote by a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and poet, and I beg to differ, with all due respect, if I may, as a non-Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.
It does matter who my father was. I’ve spent many years wondering who he was. Since my dad didn’t live to see my 11th birthday, my memories of him are limited. I didn’t know who he was as a person, as most people typically get to know their parents from an adult perspective. Not many ten year old girls see their father as anything other than a superhero. I remember my dad as cheerleader, back-scratcher, breakfast cooker, bug squisher. He was bedtime story-reading, tune-whistling, bow-tie wearing, cartoon-watching dad. He was surprise-puppy-hiding, firefly-catching, funny-voice-talking goofy dad. Riddle-telling, cartoon-watching, church-going, Hungarian-speaking, clock-collecting, silly song-singing dad.
That’s about the extent of my memories of my Dad. And for many years I was content to remember him that way, through the eyes of a very young girl. But as I grew older, I longed to know more about him as a person, especially because so many people have told me over the years what a good man he was. Usually described as the “life of the party”, his sense of humor is often recalled as people talk about him, as well as his genuine kindness and caring for other people, and his steadfast Catholic faith. Older family members often tell me about his love for me, that I was the apple of his eye, the youngest of his four kids.
I don’t know how true the things are that people have told me over the years about my father. But I hope that they are mostly the truth, because it is comforting to hear that the man I naturally idolized and viewed as one of the greatest people in the world, was also special to other people in his life, such as friends, colleagues, and fellow parishioners.
Hopefully people haven’t just said nice things to me about my dad out of pity or sympathy. I’d like to think that their sentiments are sincere, and their memories are real. Unfortunately, because he’s been gone for so long, it’s not very often I’m around people who knew my dad at all. But, occasionally when I run into an old neighbor, or someone from our church, they’ll share a memory about my dad and how he touched their lives in some way. And I can’t even describe in words how much I appreciate it. Not because it’s a compliment, but because it’s a glimpse into an important part of me that was abruptly taken away and has been missing for almost 30 years.
If you lose a parent when you are still a child, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions about not only who your parent was, but also who you are and where you came from. When people can help fill in some of those blank spaces, it really helps you to feel closer to your parent even if many years have passed.
So I would have to add one more caveat to Ms. Sexton’s statement, that especially applies to those of us who lost a parent when we were children:
“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was…and who others remember he was.” — A.S.