Commentary: Making Peace With My Father

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Commentator Cathy Wolff, right, sits with her father Thomas years ago. (Courtesy photo)
Commentator Cathy Wolff, right, sits with her father Thomas years ago. (Courtesy photo)

Ahead of Father's Day, Cathy Wolff, a freelance writer living in Cambridge and Maine, has this essay on trying to make peace with her long-deceased father.

My father died 21 years ago. But he is still with me. His broad Missouri voice. The musty smell of his slicked-back hair. The brown wingtips he wore even on the beach, with socks.

Also still with me is our failure to mend the fracture between us before he died suddenly, while watching "Good Morning America."

When I was little, we were close. He taught me to write, to somersault, to question. He told me my cheeks glowed like Queen Elizabeth's. And when he tucked me into bed, he always promised to see me "in the morning light."

Fast forward to 1968. I was home for Christmas during my third year of college. My father loved that I was studying journalism at the University of Missouri. That's what he had done.

But I was thinking of changing majors. Journalism had too many rules, no poetry. Irritated, my father cut me off, demanding to know what I wanted. "I just want to be me!" I blurted.

He fired back: "And who the hell do you think made you, you?"

From then on it was undeclared war. We'd go at each other, usually over drinks after the dishes were done. We'd argue about the American Dream, marijuana, religion. But Vietnam drew the most passion. By midnight he would be calling me a "fool." And once, not quite under my breath, I called him a "fascist."

Over the years there were moments of détente. When I learned that my father could not bring himself to vote for Ronald Reagan, I raised a white flag in my heart for a few days. But these truces were fleeting.

Three months before he died, I suggested we talk about the distance between us. He said, "Why bother?" After all, he was shaped by the suck-it-up '30s, survive-it '40s and repress-it '50s.

And if we had talked? What I really wanted — I admit — was for him to say I was right, at least about Vietnam. And Nixon. And maybe even my life.


I have friends who bridged the fractures with their parents. Maybe I would have too if my father had lived longer.

If he were here today, I'd tell him that I was sorry we wasted so much time in "win-at-any-cost" arguments. I would thank him for always reminding a little girl who was scared of the dark that morning would bring light. Then I'd pour us a glass of bourbon and ask him what he thought about Iraq.

We'd probably argue. But then, I hope, we'd laugh.

This program aired on June 17, 2011.


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