Imperfect Fathers

By Elliott Potter

My father was a flawed man.

As it turns out, so am I.

For this pair of Potters, however, the impacts of our imperfections on fatherhood proved a stark contrast. I came out ahead. My son and I share the kind of bond that became my father’s unrequited dream.

I wish I’d done more to lift him up. When I became a dad myself, 35 years ago, I quickly realized that fathers are mere mortals, prone to trip over hurdles high and low. I’ve pondered the effects that mistakes and shortcomings can have on life. And I’ve thought about who ends up carrying the scars and bearing the responsibility.

Is it the father, or is it the son?

I detested my father for years. I can’t remember feeling as a boy any love for him whatsoever. We shared a first name, but I shuddered when anyone applied it to me. I still don’t know his birthday; I do know I never celebrated it. If there exists a picture of us together, I haven’t seen it.

His biggest problem was alcohol. It had taken over his life by the time I was born. My mom told me a few stories about his drinking. A welder by trade, he laid out of work weeks at a time. When the booze ran out, he sometimes drank rubbing alcohol. He was a mean drunk.

My mom left her doomed situation when I was six months old, and we moved in with my grandmother in Goldsboro, NC. My father eventually settled in Goldsboro, too—though I never understood exactly why.

As a young boy, I would catch a glimpse of him on occasion, usually when we were driving through downtown to church. I’d see my father standing on a street corner, maybe holding up a light pole, still staggered by the effects of a weekend binge. “There’s Charlie,” my mother would say.

“Yes, there’s my dad,” I recall thinking. “He’s the town drunk.”

My father and I finally had a conversation when I turned 16. He showed up at my high school one day. The school secretary made a rather odd announcement over the intercom: “Will Charles Potter come to the front office?” The secretary was kind of a jokester, and she knew better. My classmates pounced; they knew I didn’t like to be called “Charles.” Something was up.

When I turned a corner toward the office, there he stood. He was sober and wearing a suit. (His attire was not unusual, despite the warm weather; I later learned he had a reputation as a sharp dresser.)

We walked outside and stood beside the old Rambler station wagon that he drove there. He did most of the talking. My father never really apologized—he just told his side of our story. He blamed everything on my grandmother. That drove a nail in any chance we had of reconciling; she was my saint.

He finally worked up to the reason he came: He had told himself for years that he’d reach out to me when I was 16. And he came bearing a gift, the Rambler. Unlike Charlie, I showed up for work, even at an early age. With my Granny’s help, I had my own car already, and it was a Chevy Nova. I sent him on his way.

I never entertained much hope that my father would be a part of my life. My mother remarried, and I had a joyful existence. I remember thinking as he drove off, “He sure missed out.” I knew then we would never have a real relationship. Though we met briefly a couple of other times, we never did.

Charles Jessie Potter died of cirrhosis in 1983. I attended his funeral; in fact, I used my Social Security survivor’s benefit to help pay for it. By then, I was on my way to a rewarding career in journalism. I remember one of my uncles asking me after the service what I had thought of my old man. “Well,” I said, “I hope he was proud of me.”

My son, Jake, was born two years later. Maybe my mistakes as a man, as a husband and as a father were different in degree and nature, but they were mistakes nonetheless.

I learned from my father’s struggles long after he was gone. Despite a divorce from Jake’s mom when he was still a child, I was entrenched in my son’s life. Proximity and time shared with my son took over as priorities. There were good women who helped make this father-son relationship work.

Later, when I had my own struggles with alcohol, my son never wavered.

I can see clearly now that there are no perfect fathers. We all need a little compassion from time to time, a little understanding, lots of love.

We also need forgiveness.

As a son, especially as a grown man and aware of just how tough this ol’ world can be, I wish I’d been more forgiving of Charlie.

Not once did he hear me say, “Happy Father’s Day.” I will say it now. It may be too late for him, but perhaps it’s not too late for me.

Happy Father’s Day.

POSTSCRIPT: I ran across my father’s birthday in the course of writing this piece. It was January 25, 1916. I found it in a photo of his headstone at Findagrave.com. The site lists various family members, but I am not included, though it could be only those who have died are listed. Chiseled in stone is simply, “In Loving Memory.”

Elliott Potter is a staff columnist and blogger for HERStory. He is a former newspaper editor and publisher who lives in Jacksonville, N.C.

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