In Memory of Bill Dowling
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Tribute by Race Dowling to his father

On Father’s Day — June 7, 1987
by Race Dowling

My first child, Selene was born during the summer after my freshman year, of my second time around in college. I was not quite ready to be a parent, at this point in my life, yet in retrospect, I wasn’t ready for marriage when I got married either. When I held her, I didn’t quite know what to make of this little thing; I was always afraid that I might drop her or she would break if I held her too tightly. I have no sisters, and didn’t know how I was going to handle this little girl. Even as she grew older she was so skinny and apparently frail, that she even broke her collar bone from a fall off of an ottoman. I feel differently about my son, Trevor. Aside from my being a more experienced parent, my son had more developed muscles, he bounced a lot better and could take rough play with less regard for pain. And, though I love my children very dearly, and try to treat both of them equally, I must admit I spent more time with my son than with my daughter. I recognize that I have a feeling about my son, a bonding that is different from the feelings I have about my daughter.

Since I recognize this special bond which I have with my son, I tried to think of what made my relationship with my father different from the one with my mother. This is not very easy for me, since I have always had a good relationship with both parents. In fact many kids had a good relationship with my parents. My house was always the house where the neighborhood kids congregated. Very often, I realized that some of my friends visiting were not coming to my house to see me; they seemed to find it much easier to talk with my folks than with their own. I feel almost guilty about that and remember feeling frustrated as a teenager, that my parents were so aware of what was going on that I couldn’t put one over on them.

I wish that I could say my parents grew up with the same feelings about their families. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics. My father was, in fact, brought up by uncles, and very often was beaten by whomever happened to be running the house at the time. And for this reason, he never struck any of us. My parents felt that the conventional wisdom of the time was severely lacking, and developed their own ideas about how to raise children. They felt that, while they did not know exactly what would work, they certainly knew what did not work. They consulted with each other on most aspects of child-rearing. They tried to give us as much freedom as possible, and avoided being judgmental. They tried to treat us in a way that they would want to be treated and in a way that would tend to bring us together, not drive us away. They tried to let us know that we could come to them for any reason, without fear. To them, there was no unforgivable thing in the world. Yet still they were individuals, and tended to handle things with different styles.

When one thinks of fathers and sons, one usually thinks of little league games, football teams, camping and visions of Ron Howard and Andy Griffith walking to their favorite fishing hole. In contrast, my father and I had very little common ground between us. My father was a very physical person, he was a varsity football letterman in high school, he had always wanted to be a gym teacher, but ended up in road construction after his tour in the military. Now, some of you may find this hard to believe, but I was very introverted and withdrawn as a child. I liked science and math, built model rockets and thought it was real neat to pick up Australia on a short-wave radio. I was never very good in sports. And try hard as he could, my dad could never get me interested in physical activity. We tried just about everything once; fishing was boring, camping was a disaster, basketball was even worse, and I never did learn how to take five steps before throwing a bowling ball. He never seemed to mind much, never tried to force me into anything, we just would try different things from time to time. It’s not like we had no fun together, we had our good times too. One of my favorite things was when I was given the privilege of piloting our two-ton ChrisCraft speedboat. I liked the demolition derby at Freeport Speedway, and also when we would go sample the rides at a, long-since-demolished, local amusement park every Sunday. Of course, when I got my first car, my dad and I spent many hours under the hood. I don’t think I can describe the look of both joy and disappointment on his face the first time I fixed a starter without his help. These were some things which I knew I would only be able to experience with him.

Fathers are the most under-rated of parents. Moms always get the first and last hug during a visit, they get more calls on mother's day than fathers get on father's day. And their birth  days are remembered much more frequently. However, I always had a special fondness for my dad. Since my mother was such a great confrontationalist, I found it much easier to hurt my mother than my father; all of my mother's harsh words paled in comparison to one look of disappointment from him. I always seemed to know my mother better. I always knew how she stood politically. I knew her stand on religion and how she felt about morality. Yet I could not say the same for my father. Those things just didn’t seem as important in our relationship.

If I may take some liberties in generalizing the whole world based on my limited experience. In my opinion, there are just some subjects on which most moms are totally unqualified to give advice. For these things, a boy needs to talk to his dad. How do you handle the school bully, for instance? Mothers will almost always tell you to ignore him, to walk away from a fight; but fathers know better than that. Fathers are the ones to give you your first beer, tell you your first dirty joke, and the first one to teach you about sex. Fathers are supposed to teach their sons about what it means to be male in our society. And I suppose that while mothers teach their sons what should be done, and where their aspirations should be; fathers teach there sons what needs to be done in order to survive.

When I started writing this I came to the realization that I had no idea of my fathers feelings about religion. That bothered me and so I called and asked him about it. Since he is, by nature, conservative, and also very laid-back, I fully expected to hear that he just lost interest and never bothered to go. The answer I received was so closely aligned with my feelings about religion, that I was astonished. The bond between my father and me must have been stronger than I anticipated. He said, "Well, I have to say that I’m definitely not an atheist. It’s just that I don’t need anyone to give me forgiveness. I guess some people feel superior to others because they go to church every Sunday, but I felt you just didn’t have to be the Sunday type to be good." My father, it seems would make a fairly respectable Unitarian.



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