My father never once tossed a ball with me. But he did take me to see ‘Mildred Pierce.’
There was a time in my life, about 6 years, when my father and I lived by ourselves. This was in spite of the fact that I am a part of a very large family. My siblings had all gone off to college or begun their lives, my mother had begun a new chapter in her own, and Dad and I suddenly found ourselves alone, together.
Dad had not counted on raising a lonely teenager by himself. In truth, we knew very little about each other, and didn’t even have a shared language. I remember Dad, a microwave engineer, coming home to dinners and asking him about his day. I would get a long discussion of RH frequencies, wave modulations, oscillation, deltas and gammas. For my part, I am sure I offered the typical conversation of a teenager, eye rolls and sighs.
Dad decided that every Saturday, we would together do one thing of my choosing, whatever I wanted to do, no questions asked. Though I eyed this emotional Trojan Horse suspiciously, I took him at his word. We took regular trips into Philadelphia for the Art Museum (he was there when I first discovered the Japanese tea house, an impossible and thoroughly sensible structure), or the Graff House, or the Atwater Kent Museum.
One weekend I circled a double bill of movies at a repertory cinema on the Penn campus: ‘Mildred Pierce,’ with Joan Crawford. ‘Jezebel’ with Bette Davis. To this day, I do not know why I wanted to see these movies so much, but to his credit, Bill Whistler didn’t bat an eye at escorting his 14 year-old son downtown to see two camp classics.
I was enthralled- the high drama of the movies, the style, the tough-as-nails writing. But sitting in that audience, I was also aware that others were smirking at the movies, or saying favorite lines aloud, out and out laughing when Joan Crawford slaps her daughter, the insolent Ann Blythe, across the face after she snarls at her: “My mother…the WORKING WOMAN!”
I didn’t see the joke…yet. I wouldn’t for years: I simply didn’t have the language to know what it was I saw in those moves. I don’t know if my father saw the joke either, or just smiled his smile and ran crossword puzzles in his head. But instead of leaving me alone in that theatre, or stopping me from going, he sat there and let me start fumbling over the basics of what would become my own language.
As the years went by, I learned that language well, and always was able to share what I was learning or what I was fascinated with my dad.
There is a somewhat gushy and embarrassing memory of sitting him down to play the entire album of ‘Follies’ and explain the plot… He never made me feel self aware. He never made me embarrassed. He smiled his smile and listened. He let me find my own language, my own voice. He taught me self worth, curiosity, courage, kindness, and pride – and in doing so, taught me what it was to be a man. When I learned enough of the language to be able to say to him that I was gay, and that I saw different things than he did when I looked at the world… I got the same smile, and the same ‘no questions asked.’
He had one thing to say to me when I came out. “I’ve always believed in Love. Full strength.”
Thank you, Bill Whistler. I miss you.
“Love Full Strength” is written by Michael Whistler.
Michael Whistler is a theater artist and writer and include a link to my webpage michaelwhistler.com