Sunday, Jenkins wrote about saying goodbye to his 93 year old father. In that piece, he tells us a bit about who he is and how he got that way. Having lost my 93 year old mother this year, I can understand what it's like.
He offers some strong and sex stereotyped ideas. I think that while his generalization may often apply, and surely apply to him, I've found that the roles he talks about can be reversed or shared in different ways by both parents.
"Fathers make men. Mothers polish them, smooth the rough edges, make them human -- but fathers make them. They are our first role models, the guys we emulate -- until, as teens, we decide they are stupid -- the guys who imprint upon us, in ways good and bad, a roadmap for our lives. Men love their mothers, but spend their lives trying to win their fathers’ approval."Paul and my relationships with our parents were much different. I had an easy relationship with both parents (who amicably divorced when I was about five), and I always felt I had their love and approval, Though that didn't mean I could do whatever I wanted. My parents were reasonable, strict, but flexible, and we could talk about why a rule mattered or didn't. And if my argument was good, I could get them to change their minds. There was one important rule my mom insisted on: we did not go to bed mad at each other.
Jenkins didn't have that with his dad.
"Mine was perhaps the proudest, hardest man I have known. He knew the Depression’s hunger, the Dust Bowl’s calamity. He lived a life of personal honor. He would never lie. Never cheat. Never take advantage. There was right; there was wrong. He was an absolute stickler for personal responsibility and accountability, grim death on tardiness. It was the military in him, I suppose. “3 p.m. does not mean 3:01,” he would growl. “It means 2:55.”
"A stern-looking man, even in his last years he could freeze people with a piercing look I have seen a million times. An imposing figure not to be trifled with, at 93 he still was tall and thin. He walked with his back ramrod-straight, and, this always amazed me, still squared his corners when he turned. He hated slouching and had very old-fashioned ideas about punishment.My dad grew up during WW I in Germany when food was scarce and then lived there through the post-war depression and as the Nazis gained power. My mother was born after WW I, but was in Germany longer and suffered the humiliations and fears of Jews as the Nazis began their harassment of Jews. She didn't get out until September 1939 as a 17 year old, leaving her parents behind. So while I'm sure that Mr. Jenkins senior had it difficult, my parents had it at least as hard. But debating who had it hardest is not a fruitful path. In any case, I think a loving family trumps survivable, economic hardship.
A free spirit, I rebelled early and we got along like a sackful of cats. He was, I was certain, quite insane. By my late teens, we were estranged. I escaped into the Army and we rarely communicated."
After Jenkins' mom died in 2007, he writes that he and his dad started talking by phone and that his dad talked to him for the first time about his early years, the military, and how he met Jenkins' mother.
He ends the piece dramatically, telling us that his dad had a strong influence on him, for better and worse.
"Dads leave imprints. I am who I am largely because of my father. The good and the bad. I wish I had known him better. I wish I knew whether he approved.I came to conclude long ago, that 'maturity' comes when we develop adult-adult relationships with our parents. If they can't handle that, then the adult child learns to understand how they got the way they are, recognizes they can't change, and forgives them. Their words no longer have the power to hurt. Their approval is replaced by our own self-awareness, our own ability to self-evaluate, and ultimately, self-approval. Jenkins, it seems, never got there.
In my unprofessional, but human, way of thinking, I'm guessing that all those columns in, first, The Times, then the Anchorage Daily News, and now in the Alaska Dispatch, were attempts to win the approval of father figures in the Republican party and in the oil industry. All the money in the world can't buy peace if one is still seeking his father's approval.
Ultimately, we are all born into this world. If we're lucky, our parents raise us and we learn to deal with others, first from our relationships with our siblings. Then we, again if we're lucky, get some schooling, find a partner, and work to support our own families. We watch our kids grow up, maybe have grandkids, and then we die. These are the basics that nearly all human beings share, whether they're rich or poor, Americans or Syrians, Republicans or Libertarians or Democrats, male or female or somewhere in between. We all face the ultimate questions of who we are, how to live, and how to deal with our impending deaths. Everything else is decoration, often used to successfully avoid facing the critical questions. I'd note that the academic field that deals with those fundamental questions is philosophy, part of the humanities that a number of politicians are trying to cut. They'd rather we discuss which products we want to buy than what is a good life.
But with the death of a parent, we're forced, at least briefly, to face the most fundamental human questions.
And that's what Paul Jenkins seems to have done when his father died. And in writing a bit about it, he shared his humanity with us, something he doesn't do much in print. And when we share those fundamental issues, we see that as humans, we are all facing the same issues. And when we make ourselves vulnerable by sharing our questions and doubts about life, we make ourselves approachable. We are no longer any of the labels we mask ourselves with or are given by others. We're just human beings. And then it's easier to talk to each other and stop competing, stop trying to beat each other, and have a chance to share and work together to make this a better world for all.
I hope Paul Jenkins doesn't stop this self reflection now that his father's ashes have been laid to rest. I hope he continues to reflect on who he is and who I am and who everyone he meets is. That he sees us all as humans who also want the approval of their parents, and how the experience of gaining that approval (or not) shapes them, and that he can be sympathetic to them.