My father has been dead for more than half a century. Nonetheless, I think of him often and not only during the run-up to Father’s Day. The reasons are many. I regret he didn’t see his three immigrant sons serve in the military and then graduate from college. Then there are his successful grandchildren, excelling in law, technology, media, law enforcement and the military. And there is the growing number of beautiful great-grandchildren. He would be pleased that some are carrying Irish names.
Images of my father reside forever in digital files and in a 5”x 8” photo frame at the far north end of the mantelpiece, opposite my mother, who resides at the other pole. Grandchildren cluster in-between. My mother’s image is a photo based on artwork commissioned by my brother when he was with the Army in Germany. In it my mother looks regal and fully in charge of all within her purview. She dressed to the ideal in that photo for the rest of her life.
My father, in uniform black and white, wears a constable’s hat and looks very trim. This was taken before I was born. I had heard that my father wanted to serve with the Royal Air Force but his flirtation with the Irish Republican Army kept him out. So he became a policeman. My older sister Pat recalls that my father was very active during the London Blitz, putting out fires, driving a London bus out of a bomb crater and shepherding those who had been displaced into underground stations. Though some of this sounds apocryphal, I will take her at her word.
I had tried to understand him in my coming-of-age novel “Limey Down,” but even when I was writing the narrative, his image seemed to reside on the cusp like a promise. He was always here and there; investing in a dog-racing track in the north; serving with the British when Germany was split into zones after the war. Or he was off somewhere making deals, selling pork rinds to kitchens in Newcastle or football pools on the streets of north London. He seemed at home at strategic times to administer punishment.
I recall talking recently to a friend, Bill, who is in a nursing home with his wife. We were chatting about families and the father as wanderer and outlier. He had often spoken of his father as a sailor, a participant in the California gold rush, an original cowboy, and a railroad man laying tracks. His father always seemed to be as big as the Wild West itself.
I met Bill when I entered college and he became my mentor. I always marveled at the way he cared for his aging father. I helped out when Bill was out of town, cooking for his father and bathing him. I don’t think that I had witnessed this kind of love before.
After my last conversation with Bill, I reflected on my father’s last years. Post-war London was as dismal as the familiar black-and-white photos. I grew up in a landscape of bombed-out buildings. The corrugated steel air raid shelters became our playground. My two brothers and I regularly begged for food and thought nothing of it. “Have you any windfalls?” was a common plea to those with backyard fruit trees.
I still have some of the letters my father sent to my mother after he immigrated to the states. When he landed by ship in New York City, he had just enough money to buy a bus ticket to Pittsburgh. He seemed to have lived on water his first five days in America. He got a job as a gate guard, gave up coffee, beer, bacon and other foods he enjoyed so he could save money for the passage of his wife and three sons to America. He either walked or hitchhiked the three miles to work. He sent for us six months later. Within a couple of years, he was dead from throat cancer.
Since his death when I was fifteen, I don’t recall dreaming about my father. After my mother’s death, the dreams continued for years. In 1990 I began studying Jungian or archetypal psychology, where images and dreams are central. Around this time I moved my father’s remains next to my mother’s cemetery plot. I wrestled with their death in my “Dancing with the Dream Family,” which is not yet published. I’ve come to understand that this dance and contemplation never seems to end.
I realize that there are a lot of theories about dream psychology. I am rather simple-minded in my approach, seeing dreams as a kind of compensation for what I have not fully made conscious in my life. According to Jung, dream images can come from both the Personal or Collective Unconscious or both. I have kept a dream journal for two decades and usually end my entry with a series of question marks or the word “tumbleweed,” suggesting that the images are out there, being blown across the Texas Panhandle by a stiff wind, just out of reach.
But at other times dreams are offered up with such clarity and directness that it is as if a prayer has been answered. After talking to my mentor and friend about his father, I had this dream of my father. Here is what I wrote in my journal, with minor corrections for grammar.
“I am sitting on the couch in my living room, waiting for my father. This is the position from which I can see his photograph. He seems to be in the bathroom nearby. I get up and go to my office a few feet away. I return a book of psychology that I am holding in my hand to the office. It looks like one of Jung’s “Collected Works” which are strewn about. I hear my father say something and I respond, ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’
“I recall dropping the psychology book on my desk. I also took off my glasses. And I take off a captain’s embroidered cap bearing the logo of the USS Harry S. Truman, CVN 75, an aircraft carrier. (I was in the Navy as an enlisted man. The hat is a gift from my son).
“I come out of my office and in the half-dark see my father dressed in the silk dressing gown he wore in a final photo of him playing chess with my younger brother. I said, “Dad” and I embrace him. I am whimpering and sobbing, as I am now, falling into him, feeling his bony frame. My father is touching my face, whispering and blowing in my ear.”
I will let the reader reflect on what I left in the office and why. Suffice it to say, I felt unburdened when I met my father. I felt something spiritual happened during our embrace.
Jung suggested that when we relive a dream we should do so literally, but when we reflect on the dream we should do so symbolically. I am happy to follow that advice and gladly embrace images of my long-dead father as well as the other Father, who I hope will continue to instruct me in the ways of the heart.