More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Shaping Our Childhood Memories
January 7, 2007

THE ways we think we are affecting our children as parents and the actual impact we have are two different matters. Already I see evidence of this with my four. My richest memories of their childhood and their richest memories are not the same memories. They?ll say, ?Remember that time, Dad...? and I don?t, even though I was there, and I?m in the story.

From a young age, they are editing our family?s life through their filters.

I lived this with my own father. In several basic ways, he shaped me: He was a newspaperman who valued education and family. But the most vivid memories I have of my childhood, I know, are not the ones he would have selected. Those memories have pushed me to try and be a different sort of parent than he was.

One of the most central influences he had on me ? developing my voice as both a writer and parent ? came about in ways that he never would have guessed and that I myself did not recognize until well into my adult years.

As a young reporter, I was constantly in search of my writer?s voice, since I?d been told all real writers ? as opposed to journalists ? had one. In the early going, this produced ludicrous results as I discovered my voice was exactly the same as whatever literary giant?s I happened to be absorbed in that week. (Particularly deadly for newspaper readers was my Faulkner phase.)

By my third newspaper and my 30th birthday, I had given up; I?d resigned myself to being a journalist without a voice.

And then one night after work at The Miami Herald, I went out to Johnny Raffa?s Lobo Lounge with a terrific editor, Doug Balz. After a few beers, Doug asked where my distinctive writing voice came from.

I was stunned. Someone thought I had a voice? This was the moment I?d been waiting for, except I had no clue what my distinctive voice was. I had to ask him.

He told me I had an ability to poke fun at people in my writing, to accurately portray their foibles and yet still convey my genuine affection for them.

And the moment he said it, I knew where it came from. My ?writer?s voice? was the mechanism I?d developed that let me live with my father and hold onto his love. The voice was so central to my being while growing up, it was inaudible to me.

My dad was a good, loving man, but difficult and troubled. On the street where we grew up, the houses were so close together every neighbor could hear the next neighbor?s business. We knew who the drinkers were, who the adulterers were, who was out of work. Dad was none of these. He drank in moderation, came home to my mother and worked steadily as a newspaper copy editor ? seven days a week at one point, to put us through college.

But as the whole block had to know, Dad was a vicious screamer. He was floridly profane and verbally abusive, usually toward my mother, and it could go on, with rest breaks, for hours. Throughout high school, I did not bring home friends for fear my father would have one of his explosions.

It wasn?t until after he died, in 1980, at the age of 65, that I got some insight into his rage. Piecing it together with family members, I guessed that my father suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental illness that can compel people to obsessively repeat rituals. In some ways, this served my dad well. He was the slot man at The Boston Herald ? the final person to check stories before they were printed, to pore over every piece of copy to make sure no error got into the paper.

Today, this illness has become a part of mainstream culture. My father most likely had the same disorder as the amusing private investigator on the TV show, Monk.

However, if there were funny parts when I was growing up, I don?t remember them. I do remember, as a boy, catching my father repeatedly washing his hands, then seeing him struggle to turn off the bathroom light with his elbow to avoid germs. It?s not hard to imagine why he?d build up rage inside, having to deal daily with a humiliating disorder that he did not understand.

Somehow, in the course of my childhood, I found the voice to let him know he was behaving badly, to convey the message in a way that communicated my love and, at times, defused his rage. My mother used to say, ?Michael, you?re the only one who can placate your father.? I?d guess that what reached him as much as my words was a child?s na?ve attempt to make things right.

He was so mercurial ? from cruel to remorseful and back ? that he forced us to feel deeply and often. He could launch into a screaming fit if the kid next door accidentally kicked a ball into our yard, and if I got up the courage to challenge him ? ?He?s a good kid, Dad, what do you think, he did it on purpose, Dad? We do the same thing, Dad.? ? he?d stomp upstairs. Then, just when everyone was drained and humiliated and hoping he?d never come down again, there were the footsteps on the stairs, and we braced for the next explosion. ?You boys want to take a ride and get some ice cream?? he?d say on a good day.

Besides my writer?s voice, he influenced my own parenting style, though not in the ways he would have guessed. That same voice I used on my dad I use on my kids to make sure they know how much I love them even as I?m grounding them. I also repeatedly remind my kids that their friends are welcome at our home. And I?ve always strived to avoid arguing with my wife in front of our children. I?ve sworn a silent oath never to do to my kids what my father did to me.
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