Good Morning on an early Thursday morning,
It is about 4:30 a.m. and I am at the computer working. I went to bed around 9:30 last evening and woke up around 3:00. I realized I had not finished up some thing in the kitchen last night and decided it is time to get up and manage those issues. Then after 15 minutes, being wide awake, it seemed more productive to stay up. Now after some work in BOLT (our University CMS) on a couple classes, it seemed that writing about my adopted father on the occasion of his birthday might be a reasonable tribute to the one man who has been a father to me. There are times, particularly as I continue to age, I am astounded that Harry and Bernice Martin, my adoptive parents decided to take on a 3 and 4 year old at the time they were almost old enough to be grandparents. My father was 45 as he started parenting that almost 5 year old boy (yes, that was me). I did not realize the age difference, and I did not think about the fact that when they might have gone to parent/teacher conferences they would have been older than most. Most times it did not occur to me that my cousins were what would have been my biological parents’ ages or that those I called cousins were actually second cousins. I merely saw them as cousins (and in my recent reconnecting with them, I still do).
What I am compelled to see is the Martins somehow decided to bring two preschoolers into their homes and be parents when they should have been preparing to allow their children to be adults. That is a pretty incredible task, a profound lifestyle change, to manage. Yes, there was another older adopted son (in fifth grade as I would be in kindergarten), and perhaps it was they did not want him to be an only child. It was at the height of the baby-boomer generation, and there was an expectation that you would be a parent; you would have a family. Perhaps it is some of all of that, and yet, I think this adoption and the choice of this Norwegian, English, Irish, German, Welsh middle-aged couple was much more complex than what meets the eye. As noted in other posts, I am not sure this was a willingly-joint decision. As noted in a recent blog post, I believe my adoptive mother would have been content with one child. It is possible she would have been content with no children. I do not believe parenting was something she enjoyed, but it was something societally expected. On the other hand, both of them as the youngest, perhaps, there was pressure from their older siblings to have a family. Additionally, I believe that Harry, my father actually liked being a father. It might be that being a parent offered a sense of purpose he might not have been able to create as a childless adult. There are also a number of other things that might have influenced his decision. While this was never a topic of conversation, there are two particular statements he made, both when I was an adult that provide some insight into his reflection on what his life choices had done.
When I graduated from Dana College (in 1983), I was ten years out of high school. While I was proud of that accomplishment, I felt very far behind where the world said I should be (and I realize the problems with that statement, but it is what it is). Between graduation and my leaving for Summer Greek, I was painting the trim on my cousin’s house. He would come up every day and spend hours just wanting to chat, almost to the point, it hampered my work. I was recently engaged, and I asked him about being married to my adoptive mother. This was a difficult question because I sensed that while they have been married over 40 years, there was not a lot of happiness or romance in their relationship. As someone newly engaged, I wondered how that worked. After some conversing, I asked, “If you had it to do over, would you marry her again?” He looked at me rather sadly, and stated quite succinctly, “No f-ing way.” He did not raise his voice, and it was the first (and maybe only time) I ever heard him use that word. He simply said it and then looked off into the distance. I had no answer. The second time was only a few months before he passed away. He was 81 and I was married to my second wife. She recounted this event to me, so I did not hear it, but as she told it. She told him as they were on a walk that he had raised quite a son. That was a nice thing for her to say. She told me that his response was something like “[h]e actually raised himself. I wish I would have been there to do more to help him.” She was a bit shocked by his answer and asked me what it meant. I told her that he had been away much of the time during. my elementary and middle school (as it is called now) years. I think it was his way of apologizing he had not been there more. I think it was his feelings of remorse and sadness that he was not around to protect us from the abuse we experienced at the hands of our mother. Ironically, it did not make me feel sad for myself, but for him.
These two incidences were indicative of how profoundly different my adoptive parents were. While there is nothing concrete I can point to, I believe my father might have told my mother in 1959-1960 that if she was not going to support our adoption he might have left. I think he so desperately wanted to have a family that he was willing to take on preschoolers in his 40s. I also do not believe he ever looked back and said it was a bad decision. I think my sister and I complicated their lives to be sure, but he always loved us as his own. That is a significant thing to say. I remember at his funeral saying never once did he treat me as an adopted child. He treated me as his own. More importantly, I think he wanted to defend us from the other side of that when our mother would tell us we did not deserve to be there. The distance between those two positions created a chasm that was difficult to navigate, particularly when he was away from home for much of the time.
Again, as I have blogged before, I understand all of this so much more now. Part of that understanding has occurred because of a lot of counseling. Some of that acceptance has come from my realizing the importance of forgiveness. Some of it has come as recently as through my own experience of hosting Anton a year ago and being the closest thing to a father (there was being a step father in my second marriage to a high schooler also) that I have really ever done. Parenting takes skill and a wellness to be vulnerable. It requires patience and selflessness. It demands an ability to admit when we are wrong, and the perseverance to pick one’s self up and try again. Unexpectedly, I think I learned most of this from being a professor. While I certainly am not signing on to be a parent to the last 11 years of students per se, there are more times than I have fingers and toes that students have come to me for advice outside of the realm of assignments. There are times where mentoring them in life to support their studies, it seems I am the surrogate parent. Perhaps I have adopted more sons and daughters than I could have ever been able to support. I remember one student in particular who received their Master’s degree. I had been their undergraduate advisor and they must have put up with me for 6 or 7 classes. At their graduate, the student’s father hugged me and said, “You are as much of a father to her and I am.” That statement caught me off guard and my eyes welled up in tears. It might be one of the most profound compliments I have ever received. I remember two times in particular my father cried, which seldom happened. The first was when I received my Masters of Divinity degree, and the second was when I got married.
As I have told parents and students alike, I work to treat anyone with the respect I would hope they might give my own son or daughter if I had ever had them. In just the last day, I asked a childhood friend if they ever regretted not having children and they noted yes. I imagine I am the same, but that regret was more real 25 years ago. Now I am content. Content to be a surrogate parent of sorts. What I realize now, almost 25 years after my adopted father’s passing, that he is still here with me in more ways than I often realize. There are those who will tell me from time to time, you are so much like your father. What a humbling compliment. He was selfless in many ways. He was hopeful and optimistic, in spite of the sadness he endured in other ways. He was generous and always had a smile on is face (and he had perfect teeth). I remember when I saw him in the casket and pondered why he did not look himself. It was because he was not smiling. If he was awake, he was smiling. I think he adopted because he wanted a family in that time of families. I think he adopted because he wanted to be a father. I think he adopted because he had an endless amount of love he needed to share. On this date, the day he would be 106, it seems appropriate that once again, I say simply. Thank you for adopting Kris and me. Thank you for being willing to take on two little people when there was little reason to begin your life as a mid-20-something when you were mid-40-something. Happy Birthday. I love you; I miss you; and I hope I have made you proud of the child you raised.
To all the rest of you, thank you for reading.