This is part 1 of an address given at the sermon time, Fathers’ Day 2009, at St Philip Anglican Church, Victoria, BC.
This story begins with a moment of beauty. I was spending time in quiet prayer when a memory of my father came to mind: I was small enough to not have reached his shoulders but tall enough to see out the window. He nudged me and indicated beyond the curtains. A eucalyptus tree was ablaze in the setting light, it’s glory enhanced by a curtain of dark storm clouds behind.
I noticed the light beyond my eyes change from the darkish tone of a rainy day to a glow. I rose and went to my window and the eucalyptus that grows in the neighbour’s yard was cast gold with deep grey dark clouds behind.
I stood at that window, my heart enlarged by this “coincidence”.
My father’s life had left a burden on me I could not identify or resolve. My family did not like to talk about him much. I realized there was so little I knew about my dad. “What is your story?” I whispered.
When questioning my mum she said the letters that were the key to dad’s story and that painful burden….SS. My dad was a soldier with the Waffen SS.
My dad was born in Germany just after the First War, was a child in the dark, starving years of the 1920’s, a teenager in the blinding glare of Hitler’s 1930’s and ended up fighting the Second World War. He was a poor coal miner’s son. The apartment house he lived in was called ‘Schloss Pee Pee’ because the boys poked out windows to pee into the street. He found comfort in racing pigeons and found strength in boxing.
My father had a fight with his brother; his mother went after him with a broom. So he ran away. He was 19. Although born and raised in Germany he was not a citizen and could not enlist in the regular army. He was told the Waffen SS could use him. He became an elite soldier.
There was no going home for my dad. He was his family’s prodigal. My parents, when they were pregnant with me, went to visit his older siblings. You, they said to my mum, are welcome; him we never want to see again.
After the war, my father was found not guilty of war crimes, but even after flying to the other side of the world to start a new life, what dad was a part of would not let him go.
My father drank to forget. But as the memories were shut to his mind, they opened up into our living room. He would sit at the dining table with a bottle of stout. During his flash backs he would come after us with a knife or a bayonet and we would flee into the night with our mum and our dog, walking long enough to allow him to collapse, knowing we could sleep for the rest of the night in safety.
Our father’s attempts on his own life provided respite. We would come home from an outing or a holiday to find him collapsed in the bathroom or lying in a pool of blood or his hair smouldering from a failed attempt at lighting his last cigarette after he had downed a bottle of pills. These episodes meant dad was taken to a mental hospital for an extended stay. But then he would recover enough to earn a living, come home and it would start over again.
The dark was mixed up with little girl light.
My little sister would wake early on mother’s day. Dad would be eager for her to help him pick flowers for mum. My littlest sister would clamber all over him as he worked on an old Peugeot. He would bring a kitten home for us – it’s little head poking out from the flap of his briefcase. He took photos of us eating rolls of bread or holding vegetables he grew; for a man whose childhood was years of hunger his children were in a land of plenty. He would take pigeon feathers and tickle our feet with them ‘til we were sick with laughter. We would comb his hair singing a Beatle’s song “we love you yeah, yeah, yeah”. To my sister, as she gave her little girl strength to pick him up after a drunken fall, “Thank you my little piggy”.
It was not an easy burden to love our dad. It is one thing for children to have to forget terrible memories. It is the saddest thing that little children have to bury their love for a parent.
In the presence of us little ones a doctor in the mental hospital looked at us and said to my mum “They’re not his children are they?!” “If only they weren’t” my mother replied… a different doctor threw a lifeline of dignity into my father’s story. “Your husband is at the core of his being a good man; he is this way because of what has been done to him”.
My father did not live long. He died, when I was 13, at 51 while yet again in a mental hospital. We were sent to school that day. I cried when my teacher asked about my dad and stopped when, while washing my face in the girls toilet, I was made fun of by bully girls. From that day I buried that sorrow…or thought I had. Sorrow wrapped around my soul like a desperate ghost, never quiet for long….my feelings and tears burst forth too large for whatever had provoked them and art bore forth dark images along with awful sadness and pain; though my mind stopped at remembering exactly for what.
Today I wish those doctors were here, I would say it was all true about my dad – the beauty, bravery, and the brokenness, and the brutality. Those little girls were witness to it all being part of one person. I have come to understand that it is love that forms us and combined with innocence allows children to see clearly.