Reconciling My Father’s Past With Today

I’m writing this around the third anniversary of my father’s passing. It’s fairly normal to wonder something like “What would he think of X” or “Would my dad approve of Y?” I know my mother’s done it for years – not as much with respect to her late husband, but her own father. For most of us, our parents raised us and instilled our values in us growing up. They set us on our paths with a sense of what’s right and core values. It’s also pretty normal for kids to rebel when they’re teens, ask for advice as they mature and have their own children, and to grow their own identity over time. It was like that for me. In my case, my dad was political and I can’t keep from revisiting that aspect of him and thinking about how he’d be today.

I’ve seen a couple people post a link to an Ask Andrew WK piece titled My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole from 2014 and it’s spurred some thoughts. First, I don’t really know who he is, but based on a bit of research, he’s on his own journey. I really liked his How Do I Become a Good Person? post, but he’s not on my Spotify history. I digress… In MDIARWA, the person who writes in calls his father a monster who’s intent on destroying their relationship and the planet. The question comes off as whiney and the response an egalitarian smack in the face stressing the need for balance and seeing people as people. The thing is, my dad went from being a grounded and opinionated conservative to a right-wing asshole. A big – no, huge – part of that was dementia, but it’s tough to separate the man from the disease.

Some background first. He was a military history buff and quite good at applying lessons from WWII to modern times. He’d get Ken Stein, an Israeli studies expert at Emory, to speak to a men’s group he founded at their synagogue. If you grew up in Atlanta and remember an annual toy sale at Perimeter Mall, that was him. He was in sales for Mattel and convinced his peers to sell their samples to benefit a children’s hospital. The Mattel Hot Wheels race cars were also his doing – Jack Baldwin’s Trans AM and Kyle Petty’s NASCAR sponsorship came from his love of racing. He didn’t let anything stand in his way and was a strong member of his community. My dad was charismatic and had a great sense of humor. He had strong values, covered for me, held me accountable, pushed us to do our best, led by example, and was the person who really set me on my own path.

Marty Corvette Hot Wheels Mattel
The definition of success. He never raced cars but with dementia, his stories became reality.

He was also a bit of a headstrong macho dude. My wife remembers coming to visit when we were dating and noting how he’d dominate conversations. He drove a Corvette and wore a gold Rolex. He worked out regularly and was a big and imposing figure. When he talked politics, you listened. Partially because, as I noted, he was highly informed and a strong thinker. Partially because he was that imposing figure. Disagreeing with him was not an easy thing and I don’t recall anyone in the family winning a discussion or argument with him. (Other than the time he bought my mom a microwave for her birthday. Believe me, he lost that one.)

I’ve chronicled how he swung from that first set of virtuous traits to the tell-rather-than-talk person during his last years. He cost my parents friends. Family trips with my in-laws were awkward at best. That’s in part because my mother-in-law is fairly headstrong on the left side and in part because my dad would have different people to talk at. Over the course of years, it went from spirited debates with depth to shallow and heated instructions on how it is. Some of it after 9/11 was pretty bigoted and shortsighted. He’d follow you around the house or get you stuck in a corner and talk your ear off at close range. The good parts of him shriveled and we don’t know how much was the early onset of dementia or him just becoming a right-wing asshole who couldn’t be spoken with. This isn’t me being a snowflake, I was tuned to the problems and saw the powder keg as it formed.

Brain Scan FTD Dementia
The source of the trouble

Well after the fact, it’s tough for me to think about how he’d be today. Not in his late 70’s with disease eating his brain, but around my age and for the next 20 or so years when he was at his peak. When he was a patriarch who’d joke around with his grandkids, prank us, travel, and be fun to hang out with. Would the WWII scholar see parallels between Nazi propaganda and campaigns based on fear and xenophobia? Would the guy who worked out to Rocky soundtracks and reveled in Rocky taking down Ivan Drago give a pass to Russian election interference? What would a man who read Churchill think about putting love letters from Kim Jong Un over NATO… while North Korea builds nukes and tests missiles over our allies? How would someone who treasured the truth and facts deal with lies and fictions? Would the dude who liked fast cars and expensive watches be good with a tax cut and leave it at that? Would the man who taught me values have a discussion with me about how I see the world or tell me how it should be?

My father working out in the garage.
My father working out in the garage.

The truth is, I simply don’t know. I hate to say it, but I’m almost glad I don’t have to deal with it and I feel badly for anyone whose family has been torn apart. When I see something like My Dad is a Right Wing Asshole, I can’t help but put it in my own life’s framework. The crux of it is not simply that it’s right-wing assholes. A right-left debate would be wonderful and in the past I’d be on alternating sides of one. All those questions above preclude a political debate. I could easily see him getting pissed off at what the current administration does regardless of whether it were right or left-wing. I *think* he’d set politics behind the core values he’d taught me. But… I just don’t know because there’s two versions of him I can see in my mind’s eye.

This is a strange place to leave things. Consider that it may not be political opinions which are the source of the problem. What many-to-most people not on the right can’t get past is unilateral support of someone who has none of the traits we’d look for in friends. Certainly not the traits my father exhibited and taught me.

Some of my dad's several dimensions.
Some of my dad’s several dimensions.

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