Sunday, October 16, 2011

Robert Paul O'Neill

My father died fifteen years ago this week.  He leaned towards silence, but his voice was powerful and heard by all his children, myself included.  Even as a child, I was saddened by what I knew about my dad's early life.  I knew he grew up in great poverty in Detroit, Michigan.  I knew one of his brothers died in infancy.  Although he was an intelligent person and a curious autodidact, I knew he hated the rough Catholic schools which he attended as a boy.  I knew that he left school during the Great Depression to sell newspapers and do whatever work he could get in order to help put food on the table for his family. Hardest of all for me was that I knew he  HAD TO GO FIGHT A WAR far away.  To top it off, when he got back from the war, he had to go to work everyday at a job he appeared to hate in a place that was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.  I hated  that he only had two or three weeks off in a whole year.   I always felt as if he got a bum deal in life.

I carried all these sad feelings around about my dad.  As a kid, I lived with the repercussions of his early life  but I never blamed him for stuff.  I know now that he and my mother did the best they could with  the parenting tools they had.  If you look at most definitions of parental success (are the children healthy? are they responsible citizens?  are they compassionate and contributing members of society?) then surely you would say that my parents were successful at their parenting.  All nine of their children meet and, yes, exceed those criteria.   As an adult, however, I am saddened by the distance that was part of their style (at least from my perspective) but it wasn't intentional.  It was what they knew.

I was scared of Papa until I moved far away and found my own life.  When I was growing up, there were long periods of time when he would arrive  home from work and a black cloud would descend on our home.  There would be tiptoeing around and unease everywhere.  Dinner would be silent except when he barked orders (SALT!) or when he rejected something (I can still remember him shoving pork chops that were too done or not done enough or something out of his way - and I felt for my mother who had made the dinner - why did he have to be so mean about it was my thought).  He would silently and brutally retire to the living room to sleep his evening away while the tv blared on.  I was often scared of him and often overwhelmed with sadness in his presence.  I couldn't let go of the fact that he had a rough life and that I couldn't do anything about it.  In my world, I didn't think he could do anything about it either.

 And I remember his raging.  HIs yelling and throwing things around.... and one Saturday morning in probably 1969 or 1970, he said in my hearing that he wanted a gun.  If he had a gun he would shoot himself.  I was scared and I was incredibly sad.  I suspect I felt guilty too - as if we (the kids) were part of the problem.  In retrospect, I don't really think we were part of the problem.  He had wanted a large family, he was always happy about a new baby, he was proud of his brood (though he never said that), but, of course, he had to support them.  I think the changing world was why he raged on that particular Saturday.  I also think the hardships of his life, combined with family patterns and perhaps a genetic predisposition, allowed him to turn to booze (his term) to find some peace.

I believe that  the cultural changes that shifted his universe beginning in the 1960's really rocked his life.  I am sure the Kennedy assassination shocked him but, there were also changes afoot in the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church had offered stability to him through all the dark times of his life and now Mass was being said partially in English. Later in the decade, people would be shaking hands as part of the holy Mass and his familiar Latin hymns and chants would disappear.  The anti war movement must have been hard for this war veteran - though I never knew where he stood on the Vietnam War.  He was a real Democrat - a salt of the Earth kind of guy - but all the protests must have been unsettling.  I know he strongly supported the Civil Rights movement.  He spoke highly of Martin Luther King, Jr prior to his assassination.  I remember the evening of that assassination and my dad was very clear to us that the world had lost a powerful and important leader. I think the feminist movement confused him.  It took away the basic framework for his life.  It put family on the back burner and he was all about family.  Beyond all this, I think he felt disconnected from his kids.  Things weren't going the way he thought they would.  His kids weren't getting married and having grandchildren.  Bigger than that, his kids weren't going to church.  Eventually, he worked his way through that disenchantment and, eventually, he did get to meet grandchildren.  In a rare moment of self disclosure, he once told me that his biggest disappointment in life was that most of his kids did not go to church.  Even though he acknowledged that, he was able to accept his children and their decisions, even if he didn't approve or understand.

There was something so gentle about that man and yet he had the toughest walls ever.  He was remarkably generous with both his limited money and his time.  He was a man of deep compassion and I can cite numerous examples of his quiet generosity.  He could be warm and friendly but he was never one to have a wide collection of friends.  His family of origin and my mother's family of origin supplied his core group of friends and the church community rounded that group out.  I think his days as a medic in the South Pacific must have forever affected his ability to make friends.  After all, having to literally pick up the pieces of the body that was once your friend cannot inspire more friendships.  

He was a tender man too - I wish I had seen more of that.  I remember fondly the Christmas  I was five and I got a book of storybook tales.  He sat on that bench in the kitchen while the turkey was cooking and he read me Dick Wittington and His Cat.  He clearly enjoyed that and I felt happy to be with him.  There were times when he would go to the hardware store and I remember going with him.  Mark and I would tag along.  Why?  There was nothing of interest to me at the hardware store. Maybe I was bored? I think  it was just about being with him. I remember there were three times when he took me - and me alone - to the drive in movies with him.  I suspect he just wanted to see the movie and he wanted company and Pauline couldn't or wouldn't go - we saw Cat Ballou together and Ship of Fools (which was way too sophisticated for me).  The creme de creme, was when he took me to see Gone With The WInd.  I remember that I really really really wanted to see it after I read the book for the first time.  It had recently been re-released but I didn't drive and I couldn't get there by myself.  He knew I wanted to go and so he took me.  There was also this Father / Daugher dance the year I was a sophomore in high school -- I think his friend Carmen Cavezza - whose daughter went to my high school - asked him if he was going and , by golly, he decided he wanted to go.  I had the nicest time with him.  But then he would go back to being pissy and mean.  Sad.

He was largely a self educated man.  As noted above, the 1930's rough Catholic schools in Detroit did not work for him and after the war, he went back to night school to get his high school diploma.  He was never able to go further with formal education but he was reading all the time and he devoured information.  We subscribed to two daily newspapers and he would watch a blend of informational and entertainment tv programs.   On the nights when he was talking at dinner time, he would go around the table and ask us, "What did you learn in school today?"  It was clear that education mattered to him and that he was an intelligent and reflective man.  He was also creative and his creativity found the most wonderful outlets.  He was into telescopes for awhile, for example, and worked at creating one of those.  He got into tile work and created a number of beautiful tile tables.  He was a brick layer and a builder and always had a project going (building trailers, boats, barbecues, and houses, for example).  He was a jack of all trades and master of many.  He earned his salary as a welder and that required skill and creativity but his life is replete with examples of his creative nature.

He was the first person in the family that I told about my first husband and me splitting up.  Years later I heard from my mother  that she was very hurt by that - that I told him before I told her.  But he ASKED me.  He brought it up,  There was also a time in the Safeway in Willits - just Robert and I were there.  I don't know why it was just us  but he asked about Ken ( a long term boyfriend).  When I told him we had broken up, he actually got this sweet smile on his face and said, "there are plenty of fish in the sea".   I know he liked Ken but he was also being supportive of me. The one and only time he ever told me he loved me - actually spoke those words - was the Christmas that I brought Michael to Bell Springs for the first time.  He seemed really happy that year.  As I recall, a lot of us were up there and I was laying out the bedding on the floor. He was not drunk, I remember that and he was also getting ready to retire to his bedroom.  He came up to me and put his arm around me, checking in about our accommodations for the night , and ended with those three words "I love you".  Powerful and unforgettable for me.

What kind of a connection did I really have with him though?  Obviously not one of conversation but more one linked by similar temperaments and family ties.  I  wish I knew more about him.  I wish he would have talked more.  I have a few letters that he sent me over the years and a few pieces of his poetry.  I think he hid well.  I do believe I have a lot of my father in me.  As noted, I have a tendency to build walls. I also live with compassion and tenderness.  I can turn to alcohol when I want to go underground, when the world feels like too much.  I am a political liberal who favors the underdog and who wants to spread out the wealth.  I am always eager to learn new things and am never without reading material.  I do not go to church and I do not value the Catholic Church as it has come to be but I do value the core teachings of the great religions and I do find my self in the dark and light of spirituality.  I somewhat doubt that my father knew how much he had really given his children.  I don't know that he wanted to ask and I didn't know then exactly what I had gotten from him.  I know now that my father's influence can be found in my own children and so he lives today.  I know that as long as I live I will still look to his life for guidance and that says a lot. I will toast him today as we remember his last day on Earth and I will wonder what lessons I still have to learn from him.


  1. If there was one thing I knew growing up, it was that education after high school was a must. I may have procrastinated applying to Cal Poly until April of my senior year, and I may have entered as an Ag major, it being the sole choice at that late juncture in time, but enroll and attend I did. I attended every hearts game that existed in the cafeteria those early quarters, and I attended every party. I occasionally went to class, hence my "D" in "Rocks and Stars," by everyone's standard, the easiest class on campus. I think Robert knew only too well how much he had given his children. They all grew into their respective community contributor roles, and that was available for him to see, long before the year 1996. Just as importantly, he saw the children, and he liked what he saw, and it made him smile.

  2. Thanks JT. You did a nice job of examining the big picture and context in which our father lived his life. As a child he invoked fear in me and I can't say I ever felt a close connection with him. It was only after I moved to Bell Springs that I learned he was not by nature a cold and distant person, in fact quite the opposite. I liked the way he was grounded, and could be very aware of his own impulses (even if he could not always fulfill them). He was not burdened by intellect or ego, but by virtue of his own innate wisdom could think deeply and clearly about truly important matters. He could be bold when the time called for it. I always felt his mission to Bell Springs had a quasi-religious calling to it, and in a certain way the land was where he communed with his own being. I'm happy he was able to put his heart and soul into "the land" for the last 20 years of his life, and that his final full day on this planet was spent in hearty and fulfilling physical labor. In the end I do believe he did discover his own Paradise with an Ocean View!