Sunday, December 20, 2015


It snowed this morning, just a little bit.

Around here the first dusting usually comes a day or two on either side of Thanksgiving, so this was right on time.

It reminded me of my Dad.

Right after college I went to Yemen to teach English with the United States Peace Corps. I lived on the shores of the Red Sea for two years and the temperature never went below 50 degrees. Often it was over 100. I did not see my family once in those two years.

When I came back it was the Fall of 1989 and the Berlin Wall was coming down before our eyes. I lived with my parents in their house in Wilmington, Delaware while I figured out what I wanted to do next. While I figured it out, I took a job working for my Uncle Steven, stripping the finish off the cement floors of his warehouse and then resealing them. It was a job that gave me a lot of time to think.

The warehouse was very near my Dad’s office, so he and I carpooled each day. He drove, I sat, we talked.

My father and I never had much of a problem talking. There was sports. Politics. The weather. My siblings. My mom. His work. But we never went much below the surface. And this was fine with me. I’m pretty sure it was fine with him too. Those rides to and from work were good.

And then one morning in late November we were on I-95 nearing our exit when the radio weatherman said it might snow. I had not seen snow for more than two years. And something about the forecast made me suddenly choke up and almost cry. To cover my embarrassment I tried to say how excited I was about the chance of snow, but it didn’t come out right. My Dad could hear the emotion in my voice.

I snuck a peek at him as he drove. He looked a bit stricken.

Emotion was not something we dealt with very much in the Dawson house. And my father had grown up in a Dawson house, too, so he had even more practice not talking about deep feelings than I did. I could tell from that half-second glimpse of his face that he registered my verklempt-ness. And I could tell from the sudden quiet that he did not want to talk about it.

Or maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe he just didn’t know how to talk about it. Maybe emotions are like spoken language. There is a window of time when we are young where we are able to produce an enormous range of sounds using our lips, tongue, and throat. As we age, we lose the ability to produce sounds we have not heard other humans using. This is one reason learning a foreign language can be so difficult as an adult. We have trouble hearing and reproducing some of the sounds if they are not part of the aural palette of our birth language.

My Dad told many stories of growing up in Wilmington and then moving out to the country in Yorklyn, Delaware as a teenager. I used to think I knew a fair amount about his childhood. Looking back, I was wrong. While I knew a fair amount about some of the things that happened to him growing up---having to hitch to and from school, falling through the hayloft floor as he helped build a new barn, meeting my Mom at a CYO young adult Catholic dance---I can only imagine how he felt about these things.

He simply did not talk much about his feelings. He and my Mom were married for more than fifty years and I did not have access to the things they talked about when they were alone. But to me, there were just a few broad categories of emotion: happy, angry, sad, excited. I never really heard much about some of the more complicated mixtures of emotion that, in my experience, seem to be the stuff of life: melancholy, bittersweet sadness, whatever that feeling is called when you win an athletic contest but your best friend has lost and you feel both thrilled and sympathetic, or the simultaneous pride and bereftness you feel when your teenage daughter needs you less and starts getting along fine out in the world without your help.

So, sitting in my Dad’s car in I-95 traffic that morning I did not know how to tell him about how much I had missed him and my Mom while I was in Yemen. Or about how terrifying it was to hand over my passport at the airport in Sana’a when I had first arrived. Or about my doubts that I could make it through two years in such a foreign place. Or about how thrilling it felt to be walking around a foreign country at 22, speaking Arabic and getting along on my own. Or about the deep loneliness that hit when the only other Peace Corps volunteer in the town of 250,000 where I lived stopped talking to me. Or about my growing certainty that I could not stay in Delaware, even though that was where my whole family lived. Or about my fear that I was 24 and worried that I had already done the most adventurous thing I was ever going to do in my life.

All of these feelings were boiling around in me as we took the exit for D and S Warehousing and I got out of the car, put my bag lunch in the fridge, and got to work stripping away the old sealant. But I couldn’t tell my Dad. We simply did not have the vocabulary to talk about it.

It is now 26 years later. My Dad died of a heart attack last year and I never did tell him about those things stuck in my throat that morning in his car. But over the years my understanding of what was going on in that car has changed. My Dad was a smart and caring man. The things I was feeling would not have been foreign to him, even though the experiences that led to the feelings would have been. I think now that if I had simply started talking, he would have understood. He may have been a bit uncomfortable—especially at first. But he would have understood and maybe even helped me gain some perspective.

I do not have many regrets in my life. Very few, in fact. But that car ride is one of them. I blew the chance to open up a whole new relationship with my Dad. The story I have told myself over the years is that he was just too uncomfortable with talking about emotions.

But seeing the snow this morning and remembering that ride, it has become clear that it was my discomfort that stopped me from saying anything. We had a few conversations that strayed into risky emotional territory over the ensuing years, but then we would retreat to the old standby topics of sports and politics and the weather if things seemed to be heading somewhere neither of us was willing to go.

This Thanksgiving brought a real stew of feelings: pride in what I have made of my life, wonder at who my daughter has become, thankfulness for the love of my wife, guilt about not going to Delaware to be with my Mom and siblings, and one huge dollop of regret that I did not trust my Dad and myself enough that morning in the car to turn and say, “Can we just park here and talk for a few minutes?”


  1. Chris....Just wanted to say, thanks, for sharing your thoughts....I know that setting them down is a gift to me, but also, to others, and perhaps, to Isabel one day. The quote below, from the end of Smoke Signals, is one I meditate on sometimes, and it continues to give me food for thought, to touch that place in my soul that shares musings, old dreams, lost opportunities, and tender memories. I send much love to you, dear friend.

    "How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little? Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all? Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers? Or divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing, or leaning? For shutting doors or speaking through walls? For never speaking, or never being silent? Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it. If we forgive our fathers, what is left?"

  2. Once again, you so touchingly recalled a brief moment in your life with such clarity, I can hardly respond, and yet must try. Think of how many father/son or for that matter, young man/older man relationships you may have described in your revelation. I'm just considering it a birthday gift and we'll let the conversations fall where they may in the next two weeks. Mike

  3. Terrific, Chris. Isabel Chenoweth forwarded this to me. She was touched and so was I. We miss you in New Haven. Hope life is treating you well in Ithaca. Go Big Red!