In the footsteps of a ghost

I was thinking the other day that I haven’t felt so close to my dad since I was eight years old. There’s a faded color picture taken by my brother on the deck of an A-frame in Callaway Gardens, Georgia, where Dad was teaching orientation classes to Southern Baptist missionaries. In the photo, Dad is giving me a sip of coffee. On his face is a father’s affectionate smile; on mine, a combination of distaste and pure joy. His big belly is frozen mid-chuckle; my body, pulling back from the bitterness.

My first memory of that face was when he was teaching me to read, at age 3 or 4, in Toronto, where he was director of the Toronto Institute of Linguistics every June. His elation puzzled me but sent a clear message that I would need to continue to win his approval from that day forward. By being smart.

Around the same time, he displayed me in front of a linguistics class at the old Bethel College campus on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. He wanted me to say “squirrel” because I couldn’t say my “r’s.” “Skwowo,” he wanted me to say. I fell mute and tried to hide behind him from the happy gazes of the students. I’m sure I was very cute.

Things happen in families, and between fathers and sons. To keep it brief, I felt alienated from my dad from an early age.

Dad lost his father at age 10, and in a sense, so did I. I wonder if he had an unconscious desire to pull away at about the time his dad was pulled away from him.

Dad was a little crazy, a workaholic, and Mom was crazy too, after living with him for so long. Our family became more dysfunctional as I grew, in a slow downward spiral that eventually stopped and reversed itself. Thanks to Dad, in part, facing up to it all.

I suppose my feelings about Dad were tangled up with my feelings about God, whom I perceived as a terrifying taskmaster watching my every step and waiting for me to stumble — not to catch me, but to hurt me even further.

From a young age, I was sore afraid, to quote the Scriptures via Linus Van Pelt, my spiritual guide through early childhood. I was afraid of the other children and their lust for life, afraid of hellfire and other fictions, afraid of my own longings and secret thoughts, afraid of Led Zeppelin album covers and “Radar Love.” When it came on the radio at night, I switched it to the North Stars game or a radio quiz show on WCCO called “Honest to Goodness.”

Mostly I was afraid of letting my parents down, not for fear of punishment (although I did receive my share), but for fear of a simple disappointed look, or worse yet the tears my mother shed when she found out I smoked cigarettes. I thought I had to be perfect, in the words of Jesus, “as our Father in heaven is perfect.”

Dad pushed me toward anthropology and linguistics, probably noticing my gifts in those areas, but I felt like a horse trying to spit the bit and run free. Which I guess I did. As I passed beneath the lintel to my first class in the Ph.D. program in anthropology at Berkeley in 1987, memories flooded back of my father’s heavy-handed guidance: the way he dismissed sociology (my love at the time) as a lesser subject than anthropology; the way he called my interest in philosophy and literature “navel gazing”; and most importantly, what I found in his file cabinet one day in a folder marked “Brett.”

It was a paper I had written in high school, and on it was a note to a colleague at Bethel where Dad was professor of linguistics and anthropology. “Brett is planning to attend Seattle Pacific University to major in English,” the note said. “What can we do to get him to come to Bethel and major in anthropology?” Standing in the doorway in Berkeley, it occurred to me that I had done his unspoken bidding, transferring as a sophomore to Bethel and majoring in anthropology. For fear of letting him down. A few years later, when I was considering grad school in sociology, one morning I woke up knowing I would apply in anthropology instead.

Three weeks after my threshold revelation I quit the program, the morning after a drunk in a bar wearing a newspaper pope hat told me and my friend Chris, “We’re all children of God. That means we’re forgiven. That’s the promise.” Once I knew my true Father would forgive me, I realized my earthly one would probably come around.

He did, gaining respect for me as an English teacher and a journalist and a writer, but we were never as close as the non-Swedish fathers and sons I knew. We probably could’ve been closer if we had both understood ourselves a little better, or if he’d said “I love you” now and then, but Dad was raised without a father, in a culture that didn’t talk (or care?) about feelings. In his old age, a startling confession: After his father died in a car accident in 1936, no one ever talked to him about it.

To cope with my own garden-variety trauma, I took to reading deeply and widely in philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature. Without such navel gazing, and the love of my friends and wife, I’d probably be as messed up now as I was at age 16, 18, and 20.

Dad passed away in 2000, and now I am here, following his dream for me, relying on his guidance as I navigate a foreign culture and a foreign language. I see him everywhere, talking to strangers in a strange tongue, smiling like he did in that photograph, his big belly frozen mid-chuckle. I follow him, barefoot like a child.

I miss you, Dad. I wish you were here. Nina pole sana, Baba. I’m so sorry.

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