The Word Among Us

Easter 2008 Issue

Stranger in the House

“The more I tried to please Dad, the less 
I felt he loved me.”

By: Bertie Shrader

Stranger in the House: “The more I tried to please Dad, the less 
I felt he loved me.” by Bertie Shrader

My parents married in 1942, while my father was going through Army Basic Training. I was born shortly before Dad was shipped off to serve in World War II, and he met me for the first time during a short leave. I’m told I cried night and day while he was home—not a good first impression!

When the war ended and Dad returned, my life changed dramatically. I didn’t know this man who moved in with us, and stayed. And soon, I had to share my mom not only with the stranger but with little brothers and sisters as well.

I was really close to Mom, but Dad was another story. The more I tried to please him, the less loved and accepted I felt. The younger kids were Dad’s favorites, it seemed to me, because he was around when they were born and growing up.

Over the years, I came to realize that this returning soldier was probably a bit of a stranger to Mom also. Dad seldom spoke of the horrors he experienced on the battlefields of Europe, but I learned later that he had served in the medical corps—racing into combat areas, trying to get help to the wounded, seeing many young men who were beyond help. The scars he came home with were very real, just not visible on the outside. Like many veterans at that time, he said little and spent years trying to forget what he had seen.

Dutiful Daughter. Mom died in 1984. By then, I had been married more than twenty years and lived two hours away. I still had not developed a relationship with Dad, even though I was the oldest of the kids and the caregiver of the bunch. Not one to shirk what I thought were my responsibilities, I resolved to visit him every week.

And so every Wednesday, I would leave work at noon, drive the hundred miles to my father’s, and start supper for him. We’d eat together, I’d clean up the kitchen, and then we’d visit some of the nearby relatives. The next morning after Dad went to work, I’d clean the house and put dinner in the crock-pot before starting the long drive back.

After over a year of this routine, I felt no closer to Dad. And I was getting exhausted. With five teen-agers at home, life was plenty busy.

“Just Stay Away!” One Thursday morning, I made it my mission to clean out Dad’s kitchen cabinets. I worked hard and left feeling happy that I had accomplished so much. Imagine my reaction when I returned the following week and discovered that Dad was absolutely furious.

“What on earth have you done? I can’t find anything! If you’re going to rearrange my cabinets, you can just stay away!”

I was devastated. Here I was, pouring out my time and energy, and my father was obviously not appreciating me any more than he ever had. I drove home the next morning, crying most of the way, determined never to go back. I didn’t tell Dad that he had hurt my feelings. I just hugged my hurt to myself.

Several weeks later, one of my sisters said that Dad was wondering why I hadn’t been to see him. Of course, I couldn’t explain. I had no intention of revealing—or confronting—my deep-rooted feelings of rejection. I would just have to resume my visits and at least try to act like everything was normal.

Break Times. God heals us in many ways, even when we don’t realize how needy we are. It was his inspiration, I’m sure, that made me decide not to do any cleaning during my next stay with Dad. I took a bag of needlework instead.

That evening, Dad and I stayed home after dinner. He put the TV on, then dealt out his solitaire game on the table in front of him. He and Mom both loved to play cards, and it struck me that that this was his way of remembering her and feeling her presence. I turned on the light by my chair and started in on my cross-stitch.

A commercial came on. Dad put down his cards, looked my way, and asked what I was doing, how the kids were, how my husband’s work was going. When the program came back on, he turned his attention back to it and to his cards. But all evening, commercial after commercial, we continued to visit.

This pattern continued for several weeks, and I began to sense a change in my attitude toward Dad. With each commercial, we were actually getting to know one another. We had never done this before.

Dad shared things that were important to him. He talked about how much he missed Mom. He shared stories about when he was a kid, the youngest in a family of five, and how he thought his name was “Jackie Don’t” because his Mom said that so often. I discovered that he had a great sense of humor, and that I probably got my “ornery side” from him. I loved listening to him talk. Very slowly, I learned that the time I spent sitting in the living room with Dad meant more to him than any amount of time I could ever spend cleaning his house and cupboards.

Mary before Martha. Dad and I still had our ups and downs. But by the time he died—alone and very suddenly one evening—I could say that I knew him as my father. God had given me the opportunity to get acquainted with Dad as a person, and I could grieve him as someone I had truly come to love.

I count our “commercial visits” as my special legacy from my father. They taught me so much, especially about the healing power of listening and sharing.

The Martha and Mary story still goes on inside me, with Martha seeing all the “busy” things that people need help with. But now when I go to the hospital or someone’s home as a Eucharistic minister, or even when I meet a friend or family member, Martha has learned to sit down at their side and let Mary minister before going on.

Everyone has a story to tell. And one of life’s greatest joys is the privilege of listening.

Bertie Shrader lives in Decatur, Indiana.