Who Was Dad and Who Am I? Poise and the Past Perfect

by Gary on March 7, 2014 in


facing the futurejpgWarriors, men and women at war with their own weaknesses, make a dramatic turn at a certain point, a conscious pivot away from the past to live in the present as artists shaping the future that is emerging moment by moment. 

Before that momentous shift, we are frozen into a backward gaze much of the time, forever trying to reconcile what has happened to us.  The ordinary person drags around a pain body, as Tolle tells us, a stale bundle of unresolved issues, distorting at least some of what actually happened to make memory more palatable.  

One escape from this bubble of self-reflection is a recapitulation of all past life experiences, beginning with the most recent one and working back to early childhood.   

As we recreate past experiences in great detail one by one, we can almost relive each individual incident, staying with it until the energy locked up in that memory is fully released, and then we are able to laugh. 

At the end of the recapitulation, which may take a long time to complete, our past life stands naked and undefended by our victim stories at last.   

Now we don’t have any pain body to drag around anymore. 

Now we are amused at the melodrama that has been our life. 

At last we can sustain our poise—present, connected, grateful, creative, and light-hearted. 

Now we can emerge.   

I’ve been called back into the past

I completed a recapitulation yeas ago.  Then I turned to the future, and I have been looking, looking, breathlessly, in awe, ever since. 

I feel lucky to be in the bow of my ship, the first to see the wonders I sail toward, while much of humanity seems to gaze forlornly from the stern, hypnotized by the turbulent wake boiling behind them. 

Poised, I don’t look obsessively back.  Instead, I embrace what wants to emerge.  I live in possibility. 

But a flurry of calls to revisit the past has been seducing me, drawing my attention back into past relationships and situations. 

I’ve been conflicted because I’ve been invited back into the past by people I have loved, and even though our relationships are now artifacts, I’m tempted to revisit them, as if I could resuscitate the loves of the past and recreate them now, decades later. 

First, my sister has been searching our family history on our mother’s side, calling me to help her remember who was who.  I don’t want to invest much time and energy in this pursuit.  Everyone we bring up is dead, unable to testify or add interesting stories, so I don’t contribute much to the search, preferring to put my attention in the now. 

Then I started receiving emails about the annual gathering of Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School graduates living in Arizona, where I live now.  Every other day I get an email listing the grads that have agreed to attend, my name among past attendees conspicuously absent.  The last email was friendly and personal:  Gary, are you attending? 

Next I received notice of my high school’s 60th reunion this summer in Cedar Falls.  60!  Ohmygawd.  I’m seduced, remembering all the girls and boys I loved in my childhood, even though they would not know me now, the person who has emerged, and would be unlikely to expend the energy to know me now.  At least that is what happened in a couple of reunions that I did attend in the past. 

One of the most intriguing seductions by the past is a newly received invitation to the Burt High School 50th reunion this summer.  My first teaching job!  I was the English, speech, and drama teacher for three years in this tiny high school of 88 students.  

At first, I wanted to attend the Burt High School reunion.  To see all of those beautiful gifted kids that I taught five decades ago!  They had grown up together in this rural village of 600 good souls, and they let me into their lives for three precious years.  

The fall and spring plays filled the gym with parents, grandparents, younger brothers and sisters, and neighbors who had known these kids all their lives.  The Diary of Anne Frank.  Our Town.  The Miracle Worker.  A first place in the state drama contest with our Irish one-act.   

Then I did the math: the Burt graduating class of 1964 are 68 years old, getting Social Security and Medicare! We’re all senior citizens.  I don’t know them now. They don’t know me.  Our meeting again, I thought, could require a big modification of my loving memories of those kids—Jane, Judy, Pat, Boo, Joanne, Mike, Francie—ah, Francie, the perfect, perfect Emily of Our Town!   Nope, I’m not wanting to dilute the loving memories I have of those kids and of myself as an energetic new English teacher in his mid-twenties. This is another Siren call, and I’m chaining myself to the mast of The HMS Now. 

Then my cousin, Carl, whom I had not seen since we were both about 14 years old on my grandfather Stokes’ farm, showed up at my house.  He has been doing a family search on the Stokes side and showed me wonderful photos he had discovered, including a picture of the ship that transported my grandfather, his 9 siblings, and his parents to Canada when they emigrated from England. 

Carl saved up his biggest discovery for the end of our conversation when he told me that my father, Compton, and his brother, Merlyn, had been convicted by a jury in their early 20s for larceny in the daytime and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary.  His records showed that they had stolen less than $58.00. 

I was skeptical.  I had been close to the Stokes clan for decades while the generations ahead of me were still alive, and I had never heard anything about anybody in the family going to jail, let alone my own father. 

I had interviewed Mom at length about Dad in the year before her death.  I didn’t get much new information in those interviews, just, “Oh, I feel so bad that your father didn’t give you more emotional support.” I have a drawer full of videotapes of those conversations, none of which had any hint about Dad’s imprisonment. 

Carl didn’t have any documents with him to support his findings.   

I wasn’t disturbed by the possibility that Dad had been in the pen, but the unexplained past now had my full attention. 

My recapitulation had produced a bad explanation of Dad and me

Years ago, during the recapitulation of my life, I had examined every memory I had of my relationship with my father.  I looked at us fearlessly and was, at the end of my examination, at peace with Dad.   

My description of Dad as a father and as a man was loving, but almost clinical in its detachment.  

  • Dad was an alcoholic.  In my last interview with Mom, weeks from death then, I asked her to tell me about their wedding day in 1935.  Grandpa and Grandma Janssen had not approved of Dad, she said.  “Why not?” I asked.  He had a bad reputation, I guess, she said.  She had moved out of her parents’ home because they disapproved of her going out with Dad and moved into her grandmother’s small room at the hospital where both worked.  You were pregnant with me, I reminded her.  She said they got married at Iowa Falls City Hall with strangers as witnesses.  Mom was 20, Dad 30.  Where did you go that night, I asked.  Well, I went back to the hospital.  This was your wedding night, I said.  Where was Dad?  I don’t remember, she said, maybe he slept in his car.  He was homeless! I exclaimed.  She was silent now, remembering that day.  How soon did his drinking become a problem, I asked.  It was always a problem, she answered.
  • Mom told a story about driving down an Iowa highway with married friends in the back seat.  Dad, loaded, got angry with the couple, stopped the car in the middle of nowhere and demanded the friends get out of the car.  They did, and he drove off.  “I was never so embarrassed in my life,” Mom concluded.
  • Dad loved sports.  He owned a couple of DX gas stations during WWII and sponsored a softball team.  I got to be the batboy, a roll I relished, proudly wearing my red and black satin Stokes DX uniform.  Later, though, Dad only rarely took me along on hunting and fishing trips, so I never learned the skills of those enterprises.  He did join me in the front yard during my high school football days to throw passes to me.  I would run straight out 20 yards, then cross to the right or left and Dad would unerringly hit me as I ran full speed.  I dropped those perfect passes sometimes and I never forgot the time he said, “Butterfingers,” an appellation I wear to this day.
  • I don’t remember Dad ever complimenting me directly.  Instead, periodically he would come home from work to say, “I saw Bill McKay today and I told him that you made the honor roll last semester.”  Or, ”I told the boss today that you made first team football.” 
  • Bill collectors called our house during my high school years, calls that my besieged mother had to field.  Mom said that she was humiliated at having no money, having to beg Dad for grocery money.  When I was 16 and working for the summer in a Canadian fishing resort run by a couple from my home town, the couple’s unpleasant little eight-year old boy told me “My parents say that your dad is a deadbeat.”  The next day, July 3, and the day before the resort’s biggest day of the season, a food truck stopped at our remote lake and I asked the driver if I could go back to International Falls with him.  He said yes, so I hurriedly packed my bag, went into the resort kitchen and told the couple that I was quitting and going home.  They were angry and shocked that I was leaving them in the lurch, shorthanded.  I told them that their son had told me that they called my dad a deadbeat.  I won’t work for you, I said.  Angry, they paid me $60 for six weeks of 12-hour days without a day off, and I left.  I told Mom why I quit when I got home.  It never occurred to me to tell my dad.  Toward the end of her life, I asked Mom if she had ever told Dad that story—how his son had had his back.  Mom couldn’t remember the incident.
  • My dad sold cars most of his married life.  When I was 14 and 15, beginning my driving days, Dad would sometimes come home from work and take me through his drinking ritual: he would hand me one of those wonderful old Coke glass bottles and tell me to “drink the top off,” meaning I was invited to chug that cold soda down to the first line in the bottle’s neck.  Then he would say, take it down to the next line, which meant another careful but huge swig to my eager agreement.  Now, the bottle half gone after my two throat hits, he would fill the bottle to the brim with whiskey.  Then off we would go, me behind the wheel of yet another exciting automobile that he had brought home from the lot.  Maybe a new Packard.  Maybe a used Cadillac that made me feel rich and privileged, no matter what our real financial reality was.  Maybe tonight it was the huge torpedo of a Nash.  Out on the narrow two-lane Iowa highway with high curbs that could get you into trouble if you put a wheel over it, Dad seemed content in the passenger seat, drinking and enjoying the rural scenery. There was never much conversation, except for Dad saying, “Automobiles are the greatest invention in the history of the human race.”  Whizzing along at 60 in a nifty car, I agreed with him completely.  Then he would say, “Come on, put your foot into it.  Let’s see what this thing will do.”  You have just heard the full curriculum of my driving instruction as I grew up, the self-taught skill of driving a car 100 miles per hour.
  • At 18, I told Mom that I would be staying with a friend for the weekend.  Instead, I picked up my future wife at her college and we ran away to Montana, getting married along the way at 18 and 17.  Later, in our first telephone call a week after our disappearance, Dad would say only, “Well, I guess there were quite a few things I didn’t know about,” an assessment that he could have plugged in at just about any point in our relationship.
  • A few years before he died at the age of 65, he was attending a neighbor’s party across the street from his house.  I was visiting and happened to be in the front yard when Dad came out of the neighbor’s house.  He didn’t see me across the street.  I watched him trip on a low decorative fence along the sidewalk and fall down backward and hard onto the grass.  He was drunk.  I quickly went indoors before he saw me.
  • Before he died, Mom finally told Dad that she was through with him if he didn’t stop drinking, thirty some years into their marriage.  He pretended to quit.  After his funeral, I discovered bottles of vodka secreted all over the garage and in the back of the classic MG that he had meticulously restored. 

I summarized my recapitulation of my experiences with Dad years ago in what I thought was a sophisticated but loving acceptance.  In recent years, I have told my wives and friends that I Identified with Jean Paul Sartre, the French existential philosopher, who said something like, “Thank god I didn’t have a father.”  He meant that the absence of a father in his home allowed him to grow up free to learn and explore without the powerful imprint of a father, an imprint that would have shackled his ability to explore reality on his own. 

But I must have had it wrong.  I wasn’t completely poised as I examined our relationship: I had not been fully present but aloof. I hadn’t acknowledged our connection adequately. I hadn’t been grateful enough to make a fair assessment.  I had been somewhat earnest rather than light-hearted. I was obviously not finished with Dad and me. 

The past is speaking to me assertively and I’m listening.
I develop a better explanation


Carl has sent the documentation from the State of Iowa Department of Corrections. Dad, 23, and his brother Merlyn, 21, were convicted by a jury of larceny in the daytime of $57.79 and sentenced to 5 years each in separate prisons.  Merlyn served 3 ½ years at Fort Madison Penitentiary.  No record of how long Dad served.  He entered Anamosa Men’s Reformatory on February 8, 1928, seven years before he would marry Helen Janssen, my mother. 

I look into the eyes of this handsome young man, wearing a bow tie the day his mug shot was taken.  

What must he have been thinking at that moment?  Was he afraid about what was ahead of him in Anamosa?  C2

His penitentiary intake information includes these facts:

  1. Four previous incarcerations—30 days, 30 days, 15 days, 10 days.
  2. Character of mother and father: good
  3. Conjugal relation of parents: Pleasant
  4. Former character: Fair
  5. Financial circumstances: Poor
  6. Moral susceptibility: Fair
  7. Character of associates: Fair
  8. Habits: Intemperate 

Nobody in my large extended family had ever said a word about Compton and Merlyn being felons.   

My mother never revealed this secret, even when Dad was dead and I was asking her for details about his life. 

Dad never told me about this part of his background.  He had told me that during WW II he—with two young children—had tried to enlist in the Army, Navy, and Air Force but was rejected.  Was his prison record the reason? 

Did he ever get to vote? 

Strangely, the reality of Dad’s life coming into sharper focus now, I was moved.  I have been feeling a deep compassion for him.   

I do some more recapitulating.  I remember Mom, Dad, Barbara, and me entering my grandparents’ home in Hampton, Iowa, on Christmas night, our annual holiday visit.  Dad’s three brothers would be there with their wives and my cousins—Uncle Merlyn, by then a successful owner of a motel and trailer court that he had built with his own hands, Uncle Wayne, and Uncle Ray. 

Now I know that they all knew about Dad and Merlyn. The terrible realities of their painful pasts were embedded in the relationships they all had with each other.

They all knew my father as a drinker with a criminal past. There was shame. Now I realize why they all seemed cautious and less than delighted when Compton showed up. 

These startling revelations have caused me to revise the conclusions of my previous recapitulation.   

My saying I didn’t have a father was probably a combination of self-protection, judgment, and bravado.  Yes, Dad, emotionally fenced in as he was and numbed to some degree by alcohol, could have been a much more engaged parent to me than he was. But I have incorrectly discounted his influence on me. 

My life eventually turned out to be remarkably abundant, happy, creative, and vibrant. 

New research about ancestry reveals that upwardly mobile and successful lives are partly due to strongly inherited characteristics: 

  • The compulsion to strive
  • The talent to prosper
  • The ability to overcome failure 

I have those qualities.  I got them from my parents.  I got them from Dad. 

Dad was a model of striving.  He moved from prison—homeless some of the time and jobless–to learning a profession.  He took risks, starting and running businesses.  He got a real estate license at 62 and tried something new. 

He had enough talent to prosper, moving from penury to middle class life in Orange County California, two cars in the garage, and enough money to take vacations. 

He overcame an immense failure.  He had been in jail five times, the last one a crushing punishment for his inability to get things right with his fellow citizens. He emerged from defeat to marriage, parenting, employment and membership in The Chamber of Commerce. 

The past has called me back to revisit an incomplete recapitulation.   

I did have a father and he was a guiding influence on me, a good influence, as he passed down his compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper, and the ability to overcome failure. 

My recapitulation has been properly amended, and I see that I stand more than I realized on my father’s shoulders. 

I turn back to the present now, welcoming the future flowing in. 

My heart is filled with gratitude as I remember and honor my father, Compton Stokes.

by Gary on March 7, 2014 in


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  1. Hi Gary,
    What a lovely piece of poetry this recapitulation of yours is. I was thoroughly taken in by the loving portrait you presented of what at the time must have been a challenging relationship with this walled off person, who was your dad. Such a big secret to have held for so many years, so many unspoken warnings, buried shame, and complicity in keeping it hidden from you and your sister.
    Your turning back the leaves of time, and finding out the truth resulted in a big surprise, and I was really taken with how you were able to take what could have been a bitter harvest and turned it into a positive view of what your dad overcame as he made his way back into society.
    There is a bit of Tom Joad in the background, a resonance of the Depression in the face and the life story you tell. Thanks for sharing that. I will take away a sense that our family histories can still surprise and instruct us long after the actors have left the stage.


    1. Eric, Thanks for your elegant comments. One surprise here is how little can be hidden ultimately. The truth will out, as the old saying goes. Gary

  2. Hi Gary (Grandpa) What a great story about our family history indeed! Wow! What an interesting Stokes family secret that has been kept bottled up for all these years….it blew me away. I remember being in Prescott at your home a few years ago looking at pictures of your Dad (My Great Grandfather) and Uncle Wayne and the rest of the brothers in that family and you were telling me about how your dad wanted to fight in WW2 with his brothers but couldn’t, do to something that we thought was a rejection based on an injury. Could this have been the true reason he couldn’t enlist? What a stunning family discovery! To think that Compton took this to the grave and that Grandma Stokes took this to the grave without saying anything is truly remarkable. Over the past 5 to 8 years I had talked frequently with Grandma about our family tree. She had a tremendous amount of information that helped me with my family tree project….This obviously was not included in her information to me. I admire the way you’ve chosen to decipher or process this information and the way you have “dealt” with it. A great story about our family, and particularly about the relationship you had with your Dad. Great addition to this blog!
    Nate Stokes

    1. Nate, Thanks for your comments. One thing strikes me about all this: we can evolve, as families and as individuals. We all inherit a past, but the past doesn’t limit us We can build on whatever has been given to us at birth. Grandpa

  3. Hi Gary,
    I love your posts and really find them very insightful. Just a quick question, do you think that maybe by living in the past with regards to school reunions that you’re actually rejecting the now? It occurred to me that e.g. when you were a teacher for 3 years that even though you had a fabulous time then, by not wanting to meet people how they are today for fear they might ruin your memories, aren’t you in effect rejecting the now? I’m not criticising at all, would like to hear your opionion on my theory is all 🙂
    Keep up the interesting writings,
    Kind Regards,

    1. Anne, You bring up a good point. I wrestle with this question myself. On the one hand, I feel somewhat unfriendly in my reluctance to attend reunions. On the other hand, I have attended them and sometimes with great pleasure, enjoying the now of them.

      I don’t suppose that I have a theory about this issue. The question is, perhaps, what is my relationship with loved ones from the far past. I say loved ones, because I remember them with great love, affection, and gratitude. How lucky that I was in their lives.

      But we don’t really have a relationship anymore, if we have lost contact for decades. We don’t know each other any more, and our lives are not intertwined anymore. Are we wanting to get to know each other at the reunion? Probably not, at least that’s my experience, as I said in the post.

      Our question brings up another memory: a former wife, as we parted for the last time, said, “Maybe we can remain friends in the future.” I said, “Nope, we’re getting divorced because we weren’t able to be friends.”

      Maybe I feel that way about the people I would see again at reunions. I think you can see, Anne, that I probably don’t have this issue figured out. Gary

  4. To Gary;{My Cousin}
    That a real touching life story of you and your Dad. Maybe I should have let {“OLD DOGS LIE”} I was unsure if I should or not tell you about your Dad in his younger day’s. But then again your beautiful life story would have had a missing chapter !! I truly believe you love your father, and your story makes you a stronger person for it. So I guess it was not a bad idea after all. It makes me feel a little better.
    Thank you ,your cousin Carl Brown

    1. Carl, I believe you gave me a valuable gift when you revealed that Dad had been imprisoned. Your research and revelations allowed me to revisit my relationship with Dad and create a better explanation about him than the explanation I had previously settled on. My heart has opened more toward Dad now, and I thank you for making that possible. Your cousin, Gary

  5. Great article, Dad. I love the way you honor your father by stating how your Dad overcame failure. In reading this, I contemplate on what his driving force to overcome those big failures must have been. I would venture to guess that at the heart of it all was his family and a great love for his wife and children. He may not have expressed his love to you verbally, but through his committment to his marriage, parenting, and other accomplishments, you can see that he had a great and powerful love for you!