Sunday, September 15, 2013

About My Dad...What I Learned Through Genealogy

Genealogy: it's more than the who/where/when type of facts that make a difference to me.

What have I gained from studying genealogy?

  • A reunion with long-lost family members
  • Insight into my father's alcoholism
  • A degree of closure about my relationship with my father
  • Info about family members I've never met

I think I've alluded to the fact that my upbringing was less than desirable.  My father was a lifelong alcoholic, and he often became physically abusive when intoxicated.  The environment at home was like walking through a minefield--you had to tread carefully, lest you incur Dad's wrath.

As an adult, our relationship remained dysfunctional.  Both my father and my mother were extremely reclusive.  They had no friends, rarely went out, and didn't really even want our company (me, my brother, our families) unless it was a holiday.  They were critical of many adult decisions I made, even though I know I made many choices in an effort, however fruitless, to please them.  It took years and lots of counseling for me to figure out it wasn't me.

There are several things about this relationship I find interesting, though.  My dad was an avid Chicago sports fan (especially the Blackhawks hockey team and Bears NFL team), and I have that same passion.  He also loved old movies, especially those with a war theme, and I have the same fondness for classic films, even war movies.  It was something I did with him during some rational moments, and it makes me remember him in a favorable light.  He loved cars, and so do I.  I share many of his passions!

My mother was an only child, but my father had a sister, my aunt.  Unfortunately, Dad had a falling out with his sister when I was about 10, so she, my uncle and six cousins were never mentioned again.  When I began my family research, I discovered that my aunt was still living...and after some communication, I was able to reunite with her and my cousins this summer...after 45 years!  I must admit to feeling some trepidation before our meeting...would they be normal?  What would they think of me?  Was there any animosity?

They are...simply incredible.  My aunt, who will be 90 next month (her hubby passed a few years ago), is kind, funny and sharp as a tack.  My cousins are wonderful people with families that are close-knit and supportive of one another.  It's a foreign concept to me, but they accepted me into their fold and now, my brother and I are no longer orphans.  It's an amazing feeling, and I have genealogy to thank for it.

The other thing that came from this meeting was insight into my father's mind.  My grandmother passed away at the relatively young age of 52.  My father had been in Korea, serving in the Army and in active combat, when he was called home to her deathbed.  Upon her death, my grandfather lost it and moved away.  He'd apparently never been much of a father to my dad, and losing his wife left him completely devastated emotionally.  My father must have felt the same way, and I cannot imagine how difficult it was for him to return to the war immediately after losing his mother.  Dad rarely spoke about his family, nor about his experiences in Korea.  I suspect there was some trauma that impacted him on a deep emotional level, and he was simply unable to cope without turning to alcohol as a crutch.
Dad & Me, my first wedding 1980
Copyright © 2013 Linda O'Donnell All Rights Reserved

Dad passed away in 2008, from the same cancer that claimed his mother.  I was holding his hand when he took his last breath, and I have complete peace about him.  He is in a better place, and when I see him again, we will at last have the father-daughter relationship I've craved my entire life.  I know that he was a tortured soul, and while he may have mistreated me, I think it was because he had personal demons he just didn't know how to deal with.  People of his generation rarely sought counseling, and he never did respond to my efforts to talk about things with him.

Dad knew I loved him, and I know he loved me.  He helped make me who I am, and I turned out okay.  It wasn't a great relationship, but after doing genealogy and finding out more about what he endured, I have compassion for him, and a sense of closure for myself.  Knowing just the dates and names would never have provided me with this kind of's the stories behind the facts.

This is dedicated to the memory of my dad:
My father and me, circa 1958
Copyright © 2013 Linda O'Donnell All Rights Reserved

Thomas D. Barski (1931 - 2008)


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