Sins of the Father

Many times, I’ve told myself that I’m my own worst enemy–my own harshest critic. Perfection has been my goal for as long as I can remember. Sometimes this exaggerated need compels me to stop short of completing a task because I know, just know, it won’t be perfect. The roots of this behavior are multi-generational.

For as long as I can remember, my life has revolved around perfection. If I achieved perfection, there was no one in the world who could point a crooked finger at me. If every grade was an “A,” if the floor was always clean enough to eat off of, if the corners of the bed-covering were military-crisp, if I never needed to be corrected in public, I would be perfect. Daddy reminded, “There will be no starving children in China if you eat all your vegetables.” The list is endless. You get the idea.

Six “A’s” on a report card instead of seven was reason for total disgrace. Coming in second or third in a field of two hundred and fifty was reason to be embarrassed. Hitting a flat note in the big concert was like fingernails on the chalkboard of life. Any incident I can recount, however, is like a cakewalk when compared to the home in which my father grew up.

There is cause to mourn the sad little boy who never received a word of praise or appreciation; he remained inside the grown man. He never received a confirmation of his worth or value. From his birth, he was the object of ridicule. He was given humiliating nicknames, like Hide and Blindy, and laughed at for any mistake, however minor. Being handed the responsibilities of an adult at an early age left him exhausted at the end of a long day, with chores still to accomplish. Arriving home late, he found the dogs eating his supper. “If you can’t get here on time, you can do without.”

His lifetime of this kind of treatment led to my pristine life. “Use it up and wear it out, but don’t tear it up,” was our motto. I squatted to play, never sat. My shoes grew too small but were never scuffed. After a trip, the car was always washed before we returned to the house. The tub was wiped down before the body was dried. Any grade of less than 100% was not acceptable. Though others felt his hypervigilance came from years in the service or hand-to-hand combat, it went deeper.

My father could neither outrun nor outlive his upbringing.

He was never a cold nor an indifferent man. He was loving and thoughtful. I never went to bed without a hug and hearing him say, “I love you.” My birthday and Christmas were always special occasions, with gifts and special meals. Even when he stayed home and worked, he always ensured that we enjoyed a summer vacation. We just knew, and practiced, the rules of expectation.

The sins of the father shall be visited on the third and fourth generation.
Exodus 20:5

The original situation was masterminded by a man with neither heart nor soul. His offspring overachieved to avoid his wrath and judgment. My dad, in turn, wanted his children never to know the sting of rejection and ridicule from anyone, so he pushed us to be better than anyone else—out of love, not evil. I, therefore, grew into a hypervigilant adult who also expected my children to be better than average. They both succeeded for me by becoming overachievers.

There is no peace nor joy in having a sensitive barometer, an internal critic. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to relax and let go. I see this so much more in my children than I do in myself. They are both driven to excel. They are good, loving, but firm parents. They neither rest nor relax well. How I wish we didn’t have this baggage and could have a “do-over.” I believe we would have better relationships, more satisfaction, and a greater sense of self. God, give us the ability to stop, step away, and realize self.

Bess Terrell, a native of Alabama, writes poetry and prose, paints in oil and watercolor, and is a hand seamstress. She published Finding Your Second Wind, a book of grief recovery poetry, and individual poems and short stories. She won a new poets award for her poem, “Stones Ripple on Water,” from Bess’s greatest claims to fame are her three grandjoys. She lives with her Yorkie companion, Andy.