Tracing My Ancestral Roots Gave Me the Confidence My Father Denied Me
Growing up, I could never live up to my father’s expectations, but researching our family history helped open his heart to me.
"You need to lose weight," my father said, his index finger poking the plump folds of my stomach. "Lay off the snacks and you'll get thin."
I stared at the offending roll of fat that strained the buttons on my shirt and knew he was right. He was always right.
Appearances were everything to my father, a shrewd businessman who expected nothing less than perfection from his employees and from his own family. Being the youngest of four kids, I often fell short of those expectations and felt the sting of his unyielding judgment. He wanted his children to have a proper education and impeccable manners, but more importantly, to respect his opinion no matter how much we may have disagreed with him. If I held my fork wrong during dinner, he would summon me to the head of the table, ask me to hold out my hands, and then he'd smack my knuckles with the handle of a steak knife. If my siblings or I broke the household rules, we were spanked across the backside with my father's leather belt, the angry welts a stark reminder of who was in charge of our lives.
Added to my list of imperfections was an eye condition, known as mixed dominance, that developed while I was in elementary school. I was forced to wear an eye patch in first grade, but instead of rocking that pirate look, I shrank from people, convinced that I was some sort of freak. I didn't dare tell my parents about the sense of dread I felt each morning when I left for school. Fear was a sign of weakness in my father's eyes, and if my Achilles heel was exposed, I knew that his criticism would be relentless. I quickly learned to conceal my emotions to avoid accusations of being overly sensitive and immature.
My Father’s Disapproval Hung Over Me Throughout High School
Despite having a cruel streak, I knew my father still loved me and my siblings. Even though he was not demonstrative with his feelings, he never failed to protect or provide for us. He showed affection in the way he shared his love of history, travel and classical music with us. He made sure that we spent every summer exploring museums and battlefields around the country and attending opera festivals to "broaden our horizons."
To find common ground with him during my teen years, I joined the school band, orchestra and choir. Music gave us a comfortable connection for a brief time, but whatever pride he may have felt was overshadowed by my low grades in school and my expanding waistline. The specter of his disapproval hung over me like an albatross, the unshakable fear I had of failing him morphing into anxiety and depression. During my senior year of high school, I ended up in therapy after my mother spotted the angry red lines on my wrists from months of cutting.
By the time I was an adult, I had realized that I could never measure up to my father's impossibly high standards and that no amount of effort on my part would change his opinion of me. I'd wasted too many years waiting for the approval that never came. He loved me, but I wasn't doing anything special with my life—unlike my siblings—that would generate a sense of pride. One sister owned her own business, the other managed the bank's trust department and my brother worked in real estate alongside my father. I was simply a mother of four who cleaned houses, sold cosmetics door-to-door and ran a babysitting business on the side. My husband also worked two jobs, but we still had difficulty making ends meet—a situation my father added to his arsenal against us for making what he considered poor financial decisions and mediocre career choices.
I Reconnected With My Father Over Our Ancestry
It wasn't until years later that he took an interest in my activities when I started researching our ancestors. He was very proud of our family tree, our roots heavily steeped in the pioneers who shaped our country. My quest to learn more about our family history began long before ancestry information was available online, which meant that my research was based on spending countless hours in the musty aisles of our small library and digging through old boxes filled with photos and letters that my family had saved. Together, we huddled over the dining room table to examine the long arms of a tree filled with ancestral names, dates and fascinating stories. My father was as giddy a child on Christmas morning when I unearthed relatives from 1490 Scotland. He grew up believing his family was of German and Irish descent and, as a history buff, he was astounded to learn through my research that our bloodline originated from Germany and Scotland, not Ireland. Sitting side by side at the table, his eyes misted over when he squeezed my hand and told me how proud he was of me for the hard work I had done.
After 48 years, I had finally earned my father's respect. I was no longer just a stay-at-home mother struggling to get by; I was the daughter who shared his love of ancestry and who embraced the rich history of our family. It brought us closer in ways I never imagined—we spent many evenings and weekends sharing history books, organizing old photos, taking notes and dreaming of a trip to Scotland to visit our ancestral home. The deeper I delved into the branches of my family tree, the stronger I felt about my intellect, stamina and worth. I realized that I was capable of doing anything once I put my mind to it. The weight from years of failure had finally lifted, and for the first time ever, I felt the buoyancy of self-confidence.
Not only did the research with my father strengthen our relationship, but it also brought to light facets of his personality that I had previously never understood. While growing up, I learned that he was the youngest of three boys and teased unmercifully by one of his siblings. His parents disdained any display of emotions, even after losing one of his brothers who served in the Air Force. The walls that my father had carefully constructed guarded the grieving heart of a young man forced to portray strength in the face of adversity. It made him methodical and unyielding, his mode of defense against anyone who threatened to expose the cracks in his armor.
Our Family History Bonded Us in Ways I Will Never Forget
When he was diagnosed with leukemia a year later, I never doubted him when he said he would beat the disease. He was my father, and it had been ingrained in me that he was always right. But once I felt the brittle knots of his spine after his sixth chemo treatment, I knew that cancer was winning.
He softened so much in those final months, telling me the things that I had yearned to hear when I was young. He told me I was a good mother, a strong, stable woman and the daughter he had always been proudest of, even though he'd never been able to articulate those feelings into words.
I lost him two weeks before Father's Day. He died with my face against his chest as I listened to the last beat of the heart that had finally opened to reveal the light hidden underneath the pain.
It was years before I resumed my research on the family tree. I needed time to grieve, to process what I'd learned when I bonded with my father over history books and faded photographs. I came to accept that he was the product of his upbringing, passing down what he had been taught—that toughening children through criticism and rigid discipline was an act of love designed to strengthen their character. His form of parenting worked on my siblings, making them determined, successful people. But for me, it was crushing and turned me into an anxious, distrusting person. Therapy eventually helped me understand the dynamics of my father's upbringing in conjunction with my own, enabling me to forgive not only him but myself for years of self-loathing.
During my recent ancestry research, I found a Scottish Lord of the Manor from 1440, my 15th great-grandfather. My father would be thrilled and so proud of my discovery, but no prouder than I am of myself for continuing my journey through the family tree. In many ways, it feels as if I'm traveling a quiet road back to my father, back to my home where the light burns brighter inside me.