My Family by Bob Pettis

During the second quarter of my first year at Cal Poly in Pomona, I took a class titled “Family Life,” taught by psychologist, Dr. Louis King. My roomies assured me it was fairly easy to get a good grade from him if I followed a few simple rules. Always be on time for class. Sit in the front row, and always volunteer to be one of the first to read your paper. 

Our first assignment was to write three pages on the subject of Parents. I was very careful how I wrote my paper. I had good parents. How difficult could this be? After reading my paper, Doctor King proceeded to tell me things about my parents that I could not have imagined. He said my dad was an authoritarian, the strong one in the family. My mother was the caring and nurturing one, and had a troubled past she dealt with almost daily. She sought stability in her life more than love. The one comment that still rings in my ears was, “no one in your family has ever told you they love you. Your parents can not express love verbally.” I was stunned. 

My mother was one of 6 children. Her mother died when she was just 12. Her father was not able to keep the family together, so the two younger girls were put up for adoption, and the remaining four were sent to live with relatives. Mom ended up in South Dakota. She excelled in school, and worked for families in the area to support herself. Following high school, she attended teacher’s college for one year, and then became a one room rural school teacher. She soon leaned to set goals, live up to them, and to be an effective disciplinarian.  Her first school included several farm boys who were older than she was, and a lot bigger. That didn’t faze her.

My father was one of four children raised on a farm in South Dakota. His mother and father had both been school teachers, and expected their children to excel academically. During the worst days of the depression, all four children attended college and all became school teachers. 

Mom and Dad married when he finished college. Dad started teaching high school in rural South Dakota, and then become a farm advisor. Dad had been in ROTC in college, and in 1941, he was called to active duty. Our family moved to Victorville, on the California desert, where dad helped open the new Army Air Field there. I was born just before we left South Dakota. Following the war, my parents chose to stay in Victorville. Dad bought a Laundry and Dry Cleaning business, and it became successful. Mother became active in the community by working for the Chamber of Commerce, and then becoming an activist in her passion of helping others in need. In that little, dusty town, she started several community service organizations which continue today. 

My father’s actions toward his wife and children were always caring and supportive, and in his way, loving. But, he never learned to say those three words that would have expressed his love for his family. Nor was he comfortable when they were directed to him. On his death bed, I was alone with him, and said “I love you Dad.” I hoped in that moment I might hear the words I longed to hear for such a long time. He replied, “I know Robert.” If he ever used the work “love” in talking to any of us in his family, I am unaware of it. My mother told me that in all their years together he never once told her he loved her, but they did love each other, even though it was unsaid from him. That, it turned out, was as good as it got.

The other member of our family is my sister, Lorna. She is three years older, and was treated differently than I was. Maybe it’s because she was first born, or just being a girl, but she was always the most favored.  Lorna was the beauty queen, got more presents at Christmas, and always found it easier to get favors from our parents. A family friend, whose wife was expecting a baby, told my dad one day that his wife had given birth to a girl. My dad’s reaction was “Oh, that’s too bad. You’ll find out you can always say ‘no’ to a boy, but never to a girl.” 

Doctor King was right. My father and to some extent my mother, were not capable of telling Lorna and me how much they loved us.  And neither of us ever heard our father say those three words, “I love you.” But we were raised in a home of stability, support, and loving ways. And in my case, I was given a lot of freedom and encouraged to set my own course. I have tried to make my life one that they would be pleased with. That has been as good as it gets. 

While they were alive, I was vocal about my appreciation for what they’d done for me. I did tell both of them before their lives passed how much I loved them both. I think that made a difference.

Explore posts in the same categories: Info for Students, Life Story, Life Story Class, Student Info, students' writing

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