On StoryCorps, a project of National Public Radio, I heard 73-year-old Walter Dean Myers tell a story that he says has forever changed the way he remembers his father.
Myers, an author with almost 100 books to his name, recalls that at 14 he already had a love for writing. Since his parents didn’t have much money, he says he started working early and before long had saved up enough to buy a typewriter. According to Myers, however, his mother had a drinking problem and spent what he had set aside.
When Myers’ father, a hardworking janitor, learned what had happened, he took some of his own hard-earned cash and bought a Royal typewriter for his son.
Since Myers went on to become a successful author, his father’s kindness might sound like the kind of moment that every child would treasure. Myers recalls, however, that in the years that followed, his relationship with his dad was not so encouraging. Even though his dad bought him that typewriter, he was deeply hurt by the fact that, over the years, his dad never said anything about his writing.
Myers said that even when he began including in his books some of the stories he had heard his dad tell, his father would never comment on them.
At that point, the interviewer asked Myers whether he ever asked his father why he never said anything about his writing.
Myers said, no, he had never done that. He added that even when he brought his dying father a book that he had just written, his dad just picked up the book, looked at it, and laid it down without saying a word.
This, however, was not the end of the story. After his father’s passing, as Myers was going through family papers, he noticed something that surprised him. He saw X’s wherever his dad’s signature should have been.
With words filled with emotion, Myers went on to say, “The man couldn’t read. I mean, that was why he never said anything about my writing. It just tore me up, . . . I could have read him a story at the hospital.”
At this point, Myers’ story might merge with our own. Few things in life are more important than the ability to be at peace with thoughts and memories of our moms and dads. Yet because of our own unmet longings for approval, feelings of hurt and resentment can linger without the kind of understanding that ended up meaning so much to Myers.
It might help us to know that our parents are probably more like Myers’ father—and like us (needy, broken, and with unmet longings)—than we ever dreamed or imagined.
We have reason to believe that such generational struggles are common to many of our families. Think, for example, about the parents of the Bible. Almost all of them come to us with issues. Imagine the regret that Adam and Eve must have endured, especially after their first son killed his younger brother. Then there’s Abraham and Sarah. If we only remember their best moments, we miss the way they hurt others by their lack of faith (Genesis 20:1-9; 21:9-14). Even though they were destined to become patriarch and matriarch of a chosen people, the stories of their descendants were repeatedly marred by what we now call “the sins of the fathers.” The Bible doesn’t cover up Isaac’s personal weakness, Jacob’s deceitfulness, David’s adultery, the ironic foolishness of Solomon, or the kingdom-dividing arrogance of Rehoboam.
Such realism does not require us to dishonor our parents. What it can do, however, is to help us avoid a tendency to either idealize or dehumanize them. In reality, our moms and dads are probably neither as good or as bad as we think they are. In so many ways, they are just like us. They too have spent their lives looking for significance, security, and satisfaction. They too have longed for a kind of love, acceptance, and approval that they didn’t find completely in their own parents.
There’s a good reason for this universal experience. Even though we were made, in part, of the seed and stock of our moms and dads, we weren’t made for them. Neither were we made to find our life in, by, or through our parents.
Some of us may need to lower our expectations of our parents so that we can see past them to the Father who made us for Himself (John 14:8-9).
Father in heaven, it has taken some of us a long time to come to terms with parents whose own struggles we have never really seen or understood. Please help us to see them not in place of You but rather in light of the eternal life, provision, and protection that You alone can give to us. From the security of Your presence, help us then to honor the mother and father who needed You as much as we do now. —Mart DeHaan