I originally told this story at my dad’s memorial service in 2012 and then I wrote it down to tell at The Moth Story Hour. I’ve put my name in the hat twice at The Moth to tell this story. Once with the theme “Fathers” and another time when the theme was “Love Hurts”. I wasn’t chosen either time. So, I’m sharing this story with you. In honor of Fathers’ Day in less than a week – Happy Fathers’ Day.
This is a story about my Dad and I. He would have been 91 in April of this year.
Jim Donahoe was born in 1926 and grew up during the depression on a farm in Beans Cove, Pennsylvania. He had an 8th grade education and he went to school in a one room school house. I mean like a “Little House on the Prairie” one room school house. He left home at 16, I imagine mostly to get away from my grandfather, whom I never met, but the stories of his meanness were legendary in my family.
My dad was a self-made man. I like to say he was a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll because he always had a Ford Pickup AND either the latest model Lincoln Town Car or Cadillac. He kept a pistol wrapped in a hand towel under the driver’s seat along with a pick handle. When I was young, I would supplement my allowance by washing cars. We lived on a dirt road and every drive left a light coating of dust, so I washed a car almost every day and he paid me fifty cents a wash. Once he told me that he finally had his seat in the Cadillac perfectly adjusted for his comfort, so I wasn’t to move it when I washed it. This resulted in me having to almost lay down in the seat to reach the gas pedal to pull the car down beside the house where the hose was. I could barely see over the dash. I knew not to touch either the gun or the pick handle and always vacuumed gently around them.
My dad was affectionately referred to as “The Godfather”. I once heard a story about him making a grown man cry when one of our neighbors ran his car up in our yard and my dad pulled the man out from behind the wheel and sat him on a bench on our front porch while swinging that pick handle around his head, telling him, “You could have run over one of my kids!” You simply did not mess with JD.
Dad was a wonderful provider. When it came to physical affection . . . . not so much. My brother Bill compared hugging our Dad to hugging an ironing board. You’d go in for the hug and his entire body would stiffen up.
Growing up, my Dad never once told me he loved me. And I never told him.
Now, to backtrack a bit, my oldest brother, Steve, died in a car accident weeks after his high school graduation. He had graduated valedictorian of his class with a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon and he wanted to be an astronaut. He was full of promise. The rumor I’ve heard is that my mom had a nervous breakdown after his death and shortly after that , got pregnant with me. I was born eighteen months after my brother Steve’s death. And when I was ten, my mom died of throat cancer.
I kind of marvel about families who haven’t experienced loss, like when I meet someone my age whose parents are still alive and not only that, but their grandparents are still alive and I think – “How is that even possible?”
Ours was a family touched by tragedy. I think the worst thing that could happen to a parent is to lose a child and I think the worst thing that could happen to a child is to lose their mom.
My dad lost his firstborn son and his wife of thirty years. And our family dealt with things by never speaking of them again.
In my late thirties I attended some personal growth seminars. I liken it to intense, condensed therapy in a group session. Lots of sharing, lots of processing and I loved it. And honestly, I NEEDED it. My dad couldn’t fathom why anyone would willingly go talk about their feelings with a group of people and he started asking my siblings “Is Rachelle still going to those spill your guts classes?”
It was during this time that I started telling my Dad “I love you” when I talked to him on the phone. That went something like this.
“Okay Dad, great talking to you. I love you. Talk to you soon.”
And he’d say “ . . . . okay. Take care. Bye bye.”
He wouldn’t say it back! And this went on for I don’t know how long. In one of the weekend seminars I got really upset about it. I felt really, really sad and angry that my dad had never told me he loved me – even when I said it to him. I knew I wanted to talk about it with him, but I knew I couldn’t be all emotional when I called him, or it would totally freak him out. He didn’t know how to deal with me sometimes. I’m the youngest, extremely sensitive, artistic daughter. I knew I had to be calm and rational for him to even understand me, so I spent some time getting it all out of my system. When I felt I could talk about it without getting upset, I called him and a little bit in to our conversation I brought it up.
“You know Dad, when I tell you I love you, I’d really like to hear you to say it back.” And he immediately said, “Honey, you know I love you.”
And I did know.
And I told him so, but that I still really wanted him to say it back to me.
I said, “I love you Dad.” And he said, “I love you too.” And I said, “Great! I’ll call you tomorrow so we can practice some more!”
The next day I called him and when he answered I said, “Hi Dad, I’m just calling to tell you I love you!” in a sing-song voice. He said, “I love you too.” And I said, “Great! I’ll call you tomorrow!”
The next day I called him again and when he answered I said, “Hi Dad, I’m just calling to tell you I love you!” He said, “I love you too.” And I said, “Great! I’ll call you tomorrow!” And he said, “Rachelle, don’t push it.”
If you liked this story, please share it and if you have a story to tell about your dad, please share it in the comments. Thanks for being here.