The Second Interview With My Dad
In our first interview, my dad shared that he left his family at a young age (7 years old) to get an education through the seminary. To pay for room and board, his job was to tend to the goats. If you haven’t read it yet, you can access the story here.
As we got ready for the next session, I sat across from him just observing how different he is today versus 20 to 30 years ago. Every moment with him reminds me of how fleeting time is. The salt and pepper hair frames his round head. His rough skin has deep grooves which has been weathered by years of the below zero temperatures to the extreme heat of 90+ degrees. Each freckle on his face represents the endless stories this guy has to tell. His face is a bit more sunken, partly because he’s in his 70’s and partly because he’s lost a lot of weight due to his daily workout routine. His eyes sort of stare off in the distance. Sometimes I wonder what he’s thinking.
The first question was going to be hard to ask. I already knew the answer would be hard to hear. I didn’t know what he would say, but I knew that anything my parents had to suffer through, I would also relive it as they told their stories.
Me: What was one of the most difficult times in your life that you haven’t already shared with me?
Dad: My relationship with my own father. That was one of the most difficult struggles in my life. I’d say I never got along well with my own father…I cannot say he had any deep or real relationship with any of the kids.
My grandfather, like many of the men in that time, was a fisherman. Fisherman were known to get rowdy and have a love affair with their alcohol. These days we call it alcoholism, but my dad phrased it “He liked to drink a lot. Sometimes a little too much.”
While he never says it outright, my dad regrets never having a relationship with my grandfather. None of us knew or met our grandparents (except me at 18 when I went to Vietnam), so we never had any idea what they were like. Our parents rarely talked about them. We just had some scary black and white pictures of them on our prayer alter.
Me: What was your father like?
Dad: He was for me a figure of discipline. Not a figure of a loving father … probably because of his character. I know he was a fisherman, and although you couldn’t classify him as an alcoholic, he drank a lot, especially when he had too much to drink he could be abusive to his wife and children.
Me: What were his interactions with you like? Did you ever have conversations?
Dad: I remember a few times when [it felt like] we had a close relationship – kind of talk.
When I asked him what they talked about, he couldn’t recall. He does remember one time my grandfather would tease him. For instance, my dad took an afternoon nap and when he woke up, my grandfather said “Oh, too bad. Someone came by with treats and because you were napping, you missed it.” But no one really came over. He was just joking with my dad. I wouldn’t call this a tender moment, but for whatever reason, my dad has this memory etched in his mind.
Me: What was it like living with him?
Dad: You have to be watchful, so that you didn’t do anything wrong to make him angry. I enjoyed my time alone with my mom, without him.
Me: What sort of things would make him angry?
Dad: Even when we fought among each other between brothers, that would make him angry to the point where he would become abusive. He was the guy who believed in the rod, and his rod was used with all his might.
Here I wasn’t sure where to transition. Maybe I need to improve my interviewing skills. I have to say, it was an uncomfortable moment for me. So, I decided to ask about my grandmother.
Me: What was grandma like?
Dad: My mom was a saint. She was simple, loving and never did anything to hurt us. She would always try to jump in and protect us when my father got out of control with the rod or before he could strike any of us.
Me: What’s your favorite memory of grandmother?
Dad: I enjoyed her che a lot – Che troi nuoc. (Che is a Vietnamese dessert). I also remember a time I did something terrible. My dad kicked me out of the house and my mom went with me. I was 9 years old.
Me: What happened?? What did you do that was so bad?
Dad: I was sent to stay with a parish house (for school) with a priest and one day I ventured into the cook’s room and stole her earrings. Instead of returning it, I threw it in the stream. I don’t know why I did it. I was just stupid. When I finally admitted to taking it, and my dad found out, he gave me a storm of rod and my father had to pay her rice for the amount equal to the earrings she lost. That’s when he kicked me out and my mom went with me.
Me: If he were still alive what you want to tell him?
Dad: If I had a chance to tell him something I would tell him that the way he disciplined was very hurtful and that I was very angry with him and I um … I think I wished that we had a different kind of relationship.
Me: Do you forgive him?
Dad: I do – think he acted the way he acted because of his character and sometimes bc he was under the control of alcohol. (End of interview)
As children, we never asked our parents questions. We were just told to follow directions. Asking “Why” or anything that even hinted rebellion was a guaranteed punishment. So it was better just to shut our big mouths than to be inquisitive. Even car rides were silent – except for when we were praying, which was ALL THE TIME. ALL. THE. TIME. We never asked much about our parents’ past or our grandparents. When we did, they didn’t divulge much. Even now, I find myself digging deeper to get more answers, more clarity, more stories. I am sure it’s hard for him to think back 60+ years ago of memories that are now long forgotten.
No matter what I learn through these interviews, I know I could only love my parents more. Is that even possible? If you knew him, you’d fall in love. He greets every woman with “Oh hello beautiful” and always has a compliment for every person he talks to. His smile makes you smile and his heart is full of LOVE.
I was shocked to learn about my grandfather and his alcoholism. I knew he was stern and I want to assume it was pretty normal for that time, but despite whether or not it’s common, what’s important here is to recognize that as humans, we all speak the same love language. The good kind: hugs, kisses, caresses, smiles, laughter. All of us have an intense need and desire to be loved and nurtured.
Sometimes I wonder had my dad not lived with the priests, whether or not he’d turn out like his own dad. I truly believe we are not our circumstances but what path would he have chosen had he not lived with these other men who showed him love, kindness and compassion?
I’m sorry you never experienced that from grandfather, dad. But you have blessed us and thousands of people in this lifetime. Sure, your jokes might still be kind of corny, but you are our hero – always and forever.