Family Tree -- 3/2/14
(Bob Maginnis is away on family business. His garden column will resume when he returns. This week's photo is of his father, Robert Maginnis Sr., and his son Michael Maginnis. To enlarge the picture, click on it.)

Though my father has been dead for more than 15 years, I sometimes have dreams in which he is alive and we are talking together, about politics or something else. Then, even as I dream, I realize that he is dead. And at that point, although I can still see him, it’s as if I’m watching him from somewhere outside the scene.

This is part of growing up, I guess. If you dream that an alligator is chasing you, it does not seem as real as it did when you were a child. That’s good, because when you wake up, there is no strong father there to pat you on the head and tell you that things are going to be all right.

You do not appreciate this when you are a child. While you are crying about the monster in the closet, your father may be spending a sleepless night wondering if the old family car will last another year or whether there’ll be enough money to pay all of the bills. Those concerns don’t have a monster’s scary teeth, but the fact that they’re not imaginary makes them just as fearsome.

Certainly I didn’t realize this growing up. Children, at least the ones I’ve known, are self-involved. If dad gets deathly ill, the ordinary child’s first thought is less likely to be “poor dad” than it is to be “What will happen to me if daddy dies?”

The older a child gets -- and I’m remembering my own adolescence here -- the more he wants to pull away, to start living his own life, even if he’s too young to drive or pay taxes.

My father was in World War II, but I didn’t learn a lot about what happened to him in the South Pacific until after he died. I didn’t ask and he didn’t volunteer much.

My father grew up during the Depression, in the hard coal region of Pennsylvania, the youngest child of a large family. His father died on a trip to Kentucky, when my dad was just 2, after being suddenly stricken with what sounds like pneumonia, from stories I’ve heard.

As the other family members talked about how to tell my grandmother about this tragic turn of events, I am told that the toddler snuck into the room where the body lay, grasped the dead man’s hand and tried to wake him up. I didn’t ask him about that, either, and so I didn’t know why he was different from the other dads.

In our working-class neighborhood, the belt or the hairbrush were favored over the heart-to-heart talk as tools of correction. One neighbor whipped all of his boys when one got in trouble, on the idea that if everyone felt the pain, they’d work to keep each other in line. Another boy in the neighborhood came to school wearing sunglasses to hide the black eye his grandfather had given him after the old man decided to join in the beating the lad was already getting from his dad.

I stupidly believed that my father didn’t care enough to beat me, but the fact was he hadn’t learned that form of familial expression from his own dad. I survived my own stupidity, however, because a serious illness kept me out of school for much of my senior year. I wasn’t too intimidated to behave badly, I just didn’t have the energy.

And so I went to college, worked on the college paper and was hired at The Herald-Mail in 1973 after a summer internship the year before. The homeplace was only 100 miles away and even after the first oil embargo, gasoline was cheap. But I didn’t go back home as often as I could have, or should have. The conversations my father and I might have had or the memories we might have shared are only a dream now, as I said when I started this.

But he did have a positive effect on me, because I was determined to do things with my sons that he hadn’t done, not because he didn’t care, but because my grandfather had died before he could teach my father how to be that kind of a dad.

That meant volunteering with Scouts and Little League and talking the boys to NAACP scholarship dinners, to show them that there was another culture and another race of people who would be part of their lives as they grew older. I read books to them, set up model trains and talked to them often about what I thought were the right things to do in this life.

I did this because, as I have told my sons, one of the hardest things about this life is the regret you feel as an adult about the things you didn’t do, or didn’t correctly, when you were young.

My regret every year on Father’s Day is that I didn’t spend enough time with my father. Why? Because I wanted to have fun doing other things. What things? I can’t remember a lot of what I felt was so much more worthwhile than going home and spending time with him.

He might have given me another or even some style tips, because, as I have learned from reading his World War II letters, he was fine writer himself. He might even have told me, as I approached 60, what to watch out for.

But I didn’t have that conversation, so all I know for sure is that if there’s anything serious to worry about, it’s not the monster in the closet.

(Did you enjoy this column? If you have suggestions or constructive criticism, please send an e-mail to


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