Parents’ Most Important Gift

I had determined not to read any more of Pat Conroy’s books, but the book “The Death of Santini” seduced me. It is a memoir of how Conroy’s other books were made into Hollywood movies. I had heard many of the stories which are fictionalized and slightly disguised in his other books. My primary purpose in reading has been to study one of America’s great Southern writers.

Reading the stories of Pat Conroy’s father’s brutality is not easy. I realized as I read one of the stories that I was trembling. My hands were relatively steady, but my insides felt like I had consumed ten times my limit of Starbuck’s coffee. Every nerve within me was on the move.

My guiding question was where Conroy learned to tell stories. His father was from Chicago, went to college at St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa and was a Marine fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam. His mother grew up in the mountains of Alabama during the depression. Her mother left her four children in the depth of those years, leaving them alone while she moved to Atlanta and through eight marriages.

Chapter eight in The Death of Santini is about that mother—the author’s maternal grandmother—her influence upon him and her re-entry into the family. She alone could have given the writer enough stories to keep him busy. The chapters about her are worth standing in the library and reading.

“Every family produces one unconventional, breakout member whose sheer willfulness and obstinacy will change the course of that family’s history. When my grandmother Margaret Nolen Peek deserted her four children and husband in the middle of the Depression and hitchhiked a ride on a mule wagon heading for Atlanta, when she got a job in the notions department at Rich’s Department store, then married a Greek salesman of adding machine who also ran the numbers racket in the city, she transformed everything about how her children looked at themselves in the world.” (Pat Conroy, Death of Santini, Doubleday-Random House, 2013. Page 117)

The story of that grandmother takes on color when she reveals she married first when she was eleven. She did not “bail” on her kids. She saw herself as leaving them to go into a new land to find a life that would release her children from poverty, starvation and dead-end lives. She did that.

“My meek and God-fearing grandfather Jasper Peek had hitched his fate to the wings of a firebird, and Stanny (Grandmother Stanton) left her talon tracks everywhere she took flight.” (page 128)

I conclude my limitations as a writer rest on my lack of relationships with eccentrics and weird people. Most of my relatives are common sense types. They have successfully hidden all of their crazy habits or mountain adventures. I would like to know more about the histories of my grandfathers and their families of origin. There are stories there that have been erased from the family Bibles.

When Pat Conroy was twenty-five and married for the first time, he and his wife invited his parents and young siblings to visit them just before his father left for another tour in Vietnam. It was during one of the nights that he heard his drunken father slapping his mother. Pat followed the crying and defended his mother with flying fists. He threw his father out of his house and then picked him off the lawn, placed him in the car and threatened his death if the Marine ever again entered his home or touched his mother or siblings.

The writer’s mother ended the marriage soon after. Oddly, Pat and his father came to an rapprochement and the father began a rehabilitation process that borders on things thought impossible. They have a conversation that is engraved on my mind:

“Dad, do you understand your part in Mom’s kicking you out?”

The “Great Santini” responds with the most outrageous explanation imaginable. Pat Conroy’s response to his father is astonishing. There are a couple of lines that grip me:

“You were a hideous father and husband. You ran a reign of terror in every house we lived in. Your own children hate your guts. You don’t know a single thing about any of us and you never seemed to care.” (page 60)

We’ve been reading and studying about building a prayer strategy for our families. There is another line from another book that I engraved in my brain 30-40 years ago: “It is not that children and their parents don’t like each other; it is that they don’t know each other.” To me, the words to the vicious Marine are the worst indictment imaginable.

If we are to influence our pack’s young pups or intelligently, effectively pray for them as they mature, we have to know them. Until we do, Proverbs 22:6—“Train up a child in the way he should go…” is not likely—probably impossible.

  1. What is their passion? What do they love? Hate? Would sacrifice for?
  2. How do they manage life?
  3. How do they see themselves?
  4. Where are they uniquely vulnerable? What bruises them?
  5. What is their love language? How do they say “Love you,” “I’m sorry,” “I need some help.”

It is possible for good people not to “get” each other. But “…you never seemed to care,” demands repair. That indictment makes my insides shake.

©2016 D. Dean Benton                 Writer, Wonderer

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