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A Father's Regrets
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-06-15 12:19:53
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Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

Father’s day is fast approaching and will be celebrated this coming Sunday. It is indeed proper and fitting that all fathers be honored on such a day, even the bad ones I dare say, for after all, at the very least they have transmitted life to us and have materially provided for us in some way for the first eighteen years of our life. I for one, as a father and grandfather, will try to be appreciative of the celebrations that my three daughters will be bestowing upon me as well as upon the other fathers and grandfathers in their families on that day. Two of them have now children of their own. Those grandchildren, when they come and visit, inevitably bring one back in time (some thirty years or so ago) when my daughters were their children’s age now, attending elementary schools in Puerto Rico, New Haven, Ct. and Florida. That in turns brings back reminiscences of one’s own relationship with one’s father and grandfather. As Nietzsche pointed out, we are selective in our memories, we tend to remember the good one, and simply repress the bad ones into the subconscious.

Perhaps writing down those reminiscences will help one’s objectivity and transparency. It works for me all the times. Whenever I write facts, events and experiences down in an attempt to interpret and assess them, they invariably become more clear and more objective. The downside of that operation, as Socrates, who never wrote anything, made us aware of, is the loss of the vitality, malleability and spontaneity that the oral dialogue invariably provides. The vitality of the face to face presence seems to fizzle when things are written down, on paper in stone, so to speak. But of course one cannot dialogue orally with the whole world, it is physically impossible still, while one can do so in writing via the magic of the internet or the publication of books. We do exactly that at Ovi via the so called Symposium. So, let me share some written musings on this father’s day.

I suppose the crucial question which few parents care to ask and explore thoroughly is the question of regrets. Were one to do it over, would one do it exactly the same way, and would one go around proudly proclaiming that one has no regrets since one did the best one could with the hand one was dealt and no more should have been expected? To be brutally frank about it, on father’s day, at a minimum, one ought to explore those questions: do I regret anything of the relationship with my children, and do my children, who did not choose their father, have any regrets for having been dealt a father such as myself?

To be sure those are not easy questions to answer on the part of the father or on the part of the children. It is much easier to go around proclaiming “I have no regrets.” But the ineluctable fact is that most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, do have regrets. Of course one can shift the blame and say that one became the father one became because of the father and grandfather one was dealt, one could go back all the way to Adam’s original sin, but ultimately that would be a cup out, an avoiding of individual responsibility, a la Charles Manson: the society made me do it, or the devil made me do syndrome.

In Fellini’s wonderfully autobiographical movie “Eight and a Half” there is a poignant surrealistic scene of Fellini (played by Marcello Mastroiani) who goes to the cemetery to unearth his father so that he can have a real one-on-one intimate conversation with him, something he never did while he was alive, a fact that he now deeply regrets.

Before I hazard an answer to the above questions, let me nevertheless take a quick look at my relationship with my own father and grandfathers without in any way blaming them for my own inadequacies and failings. I never knew by grandfather on my mother’s side. I did however know the one on my father’s side, Emmanuele, who had seven children of whom my father Francesco was the elder. My grandfather Emmanuele died at the age of 93 in 1969. I have vague memories of him for the first twelve years or so of my life. We did not live in the same town but in another town some forty miles away, so I could not visit him as often as I would have liked; however, we would visit him punctually as a family for a few days every Christmas and Easter. He would come home on Easter Sunday with an olive branch and some holy water and bless the whole extended family at his big dining table. Remnants of a Jewish descent? Probably.

In any case, he and three of his children, my uncles, resided in a sumptuous 19th century villa that he had acquired upon his return from America where five of his children were born. His wife Maria, my grandmother, died two years before I was born and so I never knew her. Undoubtedly my grandfather was an honest hard working man and a good provider for his family. But he went beyond the role of good provider. Even though he himself, a farmer as a young man, was barely educated, he never went beyond third year of elementary school,  he had an abiding appreciation for the value of an education. Four of his seven children earned degrees of higher learning and became professionals. My own father, his oldest son, was a doctor in agronomy; a degree earned at the University of Bari.

These traits, hard work, sobriety, an enterprising and adventurous spirit, appreciation for education in general, were transmitted to my own father who in turn transmitted them to me and my siblings. I remain grateful for those traits which proved tremendously useful in my own life and in my relationship with my own children.

All well and good, but you may ask: what about the regrets? One of those is that the interpersonal relationship with my own father was never ideal, that is to say, it was never what I wish it had been.  He died before his own father at the premature age of 55, when I was only 26. Six of those years were lived far away from my family, and so there was no time left for a more mellow, mature relationship later on in the sunset of our lives. Of course I misguidedly blamed him for the difficulties in our relationship: I blamed his excessive gravitas as a pater familiae, his stern disciplinarian traits, his authoritarianism; traits which he inherited from his father Emmanuele.

At the same time I overlooked the fact that he must have gone through incredible difficulties when at the age of 43, born in America but having grown up in Italy since he was ten, returned to his native city of New York, to embark, like his father, on the life of an immigrant, and there raise his own family of five children (one born in America). I only began to imagine those difficulties after he died and began to have regrets for not having done more to create a more harmonious interpersonal relationship and perhaps make his life as an immigrant a bit easier to bear. Indeed it always takes two in any relationship, even that between father and son.

As mentioned above, it would be easy to blame any flaws in the relationship with my own daughters on the rocky relationship with my father, but that would be unfair. If regrets there are, they are mine and mine alone who is ultimately responsible for them. Which brings us to the regrets of my own relationship with my own children. While I trust that the above mentioned positive traits have been successfully been transmitted, yet there are persistent regrets. Which are they? I suspect that ultimately they may be the regrets that sensitive fathers reflect upon on father’s day.

The first regret, I suppose, is that of not having spent more time to play and interact with one’s children in their infancy due to the preoccupation with one’s academic work and career, making a living and providing an adequate “life style” as we say nowadays. Yet, as Aristotle well taught us, health (physical and mental), career and life occupation, and family (which includes friendship) ought to be kept in harmony and balance at all time in order to develop fully one’s human potential. When books and ideas become more important than one’s family, there is a problem. That is to say, when the children feel that their father is not fully present and may in fact be absent, not so much physically, but emotionally and spiritually.

The second regret is that of not passing on effectively enough my life-long passion for the humanities and liberal arts and all things intellectual pertaining to them. Perhaps it has been passed on in some way by osmosis, but somehow the passion is not shared as much as one would have wished, perhaps because of the above mentioned emotional “absence.” This is the question Plato also asks: why are father not able to pass on excellence to their own children? This is not to say that the appreciation of education in general has not been passed on in some shape and form. I trust it has, as my daughter graduating lately from college summa cum laude, and my granddaughter receiving an award for reading 100 books on her own by the age of six, amply testify to.

The third regret is that perhaps I have not provided a clear enough example of the kind of father who loves and forgives unconditionally, the way Christ portrays God the Father whom he calls “Abba” (daddy), as exemplified in his parable of the Prodigal Son so masterfully rendered by Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son painting. Be that as it may, on father day, that painting ought to give every father some confidence that, despite acknowledged regrets, he may yet attain to that perfectible ideal, as difficult as its attainment may prove to be, of becoming a loving father, for indeed our God too, far from being a vengeful God, is a compassionate father who loves unconditionally as fully exemplified in the life of his Son.    

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Gerard Farley2014-06-16 22:55:10
A very moving, a very honest statement.

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