About My Father

As soon as I saw the subject line, I knew you were writing about Smoke Signals, and I knew I had to respond! Thomas' narration about our fathers over river images at the end of the movie is poetic, beautiful, and long lasting.

To my left over my bed is my Smoke Signals poster, signed by screenwriter/poet Sherman Alexie and by director Chris Eyre. There are so many human moments in the film...so many images and sounds, yet everytime I look at this poster I recall Thomas' narration as the camera pans over the river.

How do we forgive our fathers?

A co-worker and I somewhat jokingly say that there's nothing about a dysfunctional family that a few years of therapy cannot cure--our fathers were very similar.

While he provided for us materially, he wasn't able to share much emotionally. He expected achievement, but provided only the materials. He wanted us to do well in school, yet made it clear that we were "stupid" if we didn't agree with him--and his views were strictly conservative Republican ones.

I had decided in 9th grade that I was going to be a teacher, so what kind of support did I get from my father. A countless number of stories about "teachers as fools and losers" and numerous references to the cliche of "those who can, DO, and those who can't, TEACH!" All accompanied by my father's laughter.

Later, he threatened to ban me from his house after I converted to the Baha'i Faith...and briefly threatened to cut my brother and I off financially forever after we supported the student strike after Kent State.

There's more but much is in a dim past that I have put aside. It didn't take years of therapy. But a few months of professional counselling allowed me to forgive my father.

That didn't happen until the age of 40.

Up until that time I figuratively ran away and hid from my father. In a literal sense I made sure that I didn't go to the unversity close to home that he wanted me to attend. Then I lit out to live in different states after graduation because I had no desire to live near "home". Quincy, Illinois had become a foreign country to me--a place I could never be myself, so when visiting I hid my true self, so my father would never really know who I was. The sense of humor was the first to go, and obviously any political or religious views were banished--we could talk only of the mundane or about Cardinal baseball.

Then at the age of 40 I forgave my father.

Through the help of a counselor, I was able to set up protective limits that would allow me to visit "home".

I decided that I would just be myself at "home", and that it would be my father's loss if he didn't know me.

I also came to realize that my father was not perfect, that he had numerous flaws, and that he really had tried his best to be a good dad. He just had his own issues and limitations.

I don't know for sure how much my forgiveness has helped my father--he still didn't "get it" recently when I attempted to give them a WebTV to keep in touch more closely. But I do know that forgiving my father helped me a great deal.

My sister remarked the next time I came home about how much more at ease and relaxed I seemed, and I was able to demonstrate some humor. A few years later, at a family celebration of my parent's 50th anniversary, I was able to talk from the heart and actually tell my father that I loved him. The words burst through moments of choked silence and tears, but I found the courage to say them. That was the first time I'd ever done that. Mom and Dad both stoicly accepted the emotional outpouring, but susequent phone calls confirmed that they had appreciated it.

Part of who I am is due to my father: the idea of being independent, of reading and researching for information, of being competitive and striving to win, and ideas of integrity, honesty, and keeping your word. The time I felt like dropping out of college my sophomore year, thoughts of my dad stopped me, for he had instilled the idea of that it's not ever ok to just quit.

I decided to forgive my father when I was 40. Fortunately, he was still around.

I still get flooded with emotion when I see movies that deal with father-son issues. Field of Dreams and the new release, October Sky do this to me. But over my bed is that signed poster of Smoke Signals, and Thomas continues to speak in that pan shot over the river...

"How do we forgive our fathers."

© copyright, 1999, John Nesbit
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