Carolyn Hax: Making peace with a father’s past transgressions and present sweetness

Carolyn Hax
Columnist May 13

Dear Carolyn:

Many years ago, my father began sending me letters filled with news articles that he thought I’d like. I do like them. And he’s funny and sweet in his notes on the articles. Often the envelopes have funny sayings, too.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I have an overall rocky relationship with my family — they have boundary, intimacy, emotional, physical and even some sexual and substance abuse issues (the whole deal), but my dad and I get along pretty well and he’s the least bad of them by far. And he’s changed somewhat for the better as he has gotten older.

For a while, I got rid of everything he sent after reading it. My parents are also hoarders, and I am trying hard to break the cycle. I’ve realized lately that I won’t have my parents forever, and recently started to keep some envelopes and some of his writing on news articles.

How do I balance all of the past pain with present-day love and appreciation, and also future cleanliness? This could take over a lot of room in my small apartment, and I don’t want to give the space over to it, symbolically or physically. Some might say that I’m asking for trouble by keeping anything, but everyone makes their peace as they have to.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Stuffed With Meaning

Symbolically and physically, I recommend compartments.

People are complicated, ever-evolving and generally all, to some degree, strange. And, even while consciously choosing to act in a certain way, they’re inclined also to react on some level to their environment, including the people around them — so you can often see a very different side of a person just with a change in circumstances. Think of people you’ve known a while and compare their behavior in one relationship vs. in another, or at home vs. on vacation, or in their element vs. under stress, etc.

Now imagine how different the conditions at home are now from when you lived together as a young family.

All of this is to say that it’s not unthinkable for the funny and sweet version of your father to coexist with the “all of the above” slate of issues you ascribe to him and to your childhood in general.

How you deal with his contradictions is up to you — certainly plenty of people decide the rocky negates the sweet — but I’m not sure “balance” is necessary, or even possible. He is a deeply flawed person, check. He has his good points, check. You have your eyes open to both, check. Why not simply respond warmly to the good, and distance yourself as needed from the bad? Attempting this is not for everyone, but you seem to be remarkably temperate about the chaos buffet around you.

Physically it can also work to sort things out as you go. If you’re not hung up on the tactile, you can scan and save his notes electronically. But if the feel of newsprint and the swipe of the ink are part of what you value, then buy yourself a scrapbook. Mount the best of his missives, and release yourself from the rest.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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