By Joel L. A. Peterson
“Let us pray!” My dad’s bass voice rumbled as he bowed his head.
“But it’s not dirty!” I objected.“You know the rules in our house, no son of mine is going to leave this house wearing the same shirt two days in a row.” Something about her words seemed to pull a grenade pin inside me. “So changing a stupid shirt is what makes me your son? It’s good to know what makes me fit to be your son. Since I’m NOT your son, I am not changing my shirt!”
I didn’t know what had come over me. I shouted these last words at my mother. There was something about the words “no son of mine” that set off that emotional grenade inside me and shattered the shrapnel of my teenage insecurities along with other inner demons – demons that hide inside most adoptees – who now were screaming things through my mouth at my mother. I was shocked and enraged at the same time.There was always a trickle of blood inside my soul from a wound that could never fully heal. And there simply existed too many questions surrounding my identity that no one else could comprehend. And in the mirror, my Asian face screamed at least one of the answers every day, an answer I did not want to hear. “No son of mine.”
I ran up the stairs and into my room, slamming the door behind me. A few minutes later, there was a knock on my bedroom door. “Mind if I come in, Son?” My dad’s voice sounded muffled through the door.Dad stepped through the door into my small bedroom. I kept staring out my window as I sat on my bed. Dad sat down next to me. The bed sunk down noticeably under his weight. He too stared out the room’s window.
Elmore Lindquist was not a man for elegant words or eloquent phrasing. And though my dad would later completely forget this episode and this conversation, I would not. I would remember every word. And Dad found an eloquence—at least that day, at that time.He almost never called me by my name, Noah, but nearly always addressed as me “Son.” It never occurred to my father how much that simple word always meant to me, coming from a man like him. I had never had a man in my life until I was adopted at age seven. Most of the men that I had met before adoption were through my birth mother, and there was always something off-putting, something not right. I could feel that the men were there for a purpose not linked to me. They were creatures focused on my mother as she prostituted herself to feed and care for me. And my birth mother was a world apart from Ellen Lindquist. But they shared the same intense love for me.
I had grown with up seeing nothing very positive regarding men or being a man -- until Elmore Lindquist. Elmore was married to a trim, attractive woman who had the classic blond haired, dancing blue-eyed combination of her Swedish blood and an air of energy and efficiency that hinted at her nursing school training. She smiled easily and often and had a musical laugh. She was Doris Day, but slighter and far more intelligent. And she was everyone’s “go to” girl. Her sense of what her faith required was amazing to behold and led her to embrace the hardest jobs, the least desired tasks. Every neighbor and community member said so in our small Minnesota town.Dad was a new sort of creature to me. At six-foot two, he was a physical presence, but was never physical. He never seemed to get sick or tired or impatient or demanding. He would drive endless hours along endless miles of highways during summer vacations, enduring endless hours of children squabbling about touching each other and whining for bathrooms. He could execute unending honey-do lists and chores he would never have thought to invent. He just was. He was a constant, dependable, working, providing presence of strength and good humor, perfectly paired with a smarter, stronger, and more faith-driven Doris Day of a wife.
Dad cleared his throat. “Son, I just want to share with you a little something I’ve learned. There are two people in this world that a man shouldn’t argue with. One is his wife. The other is his mother. Just because. It’s that simple. A man just doesn’t argue with either. And your mom is truly your mother in every way that is meaningful.”He paused and from the corner of my eye I could see him glance down at me. I didn’t look back at him, but instead, kept staring out the window. “Son . . . because . . . being a man is about . . . it’s about . . . it’s . . . It’s NOT about how loud you can yell or the hurtful things you can say or how hard you can hit something or someone. You’re going to learn that the hardest fights that a man will have in his life will be inside himself . . . with himself. Being a man is about winning against the pettiness of your own ego. It means saying you were wrong, even when you know you were right; it’s saying you are sorry, even though you’re not . . .Because . . . it just doesn’t matter. Of course, sometimes it does. And if it does matter, if you truly believe in your heart and soul that the world will be a better place, that the course of history and your corner of mankind will truly be better off, then of course, stand up and be a man. But if you know in your heart—deep down inside you—that it doesn’t really matter, except to you and your ego, then be a real man. Say you are sorry, even when you’re not. Say you were wrong, even though you are right. Because a man should only stand up for things that truly matter.”
I still gave no reaction though his words were like a parting of storm clouds that suddenly reveal a shaft of light. But I remained silent and staring straight ahead.“So . . . Son, if you truly believe the world will be a better place because you wear that shirt, then by God, wear the shirt. But if you know that it doesn’t matter to the world at all—only to you—then be a man, Son. Be a man and wear something else. Tell your mother that you’re sorry – for what you said and how you acted – even though you really aren’t. And that you were wrong, even though you may feel you are not.”
Dad stopped talking. His big, bass voice stopped filling up my small bedroom. The silence went on for minutes. He finally stood up. “Well, I have to get going to work now, Son. I’m late. Be the man I know that you are. I know you’ll do the right thing, Son.” With those words, Dad turned and went out my bedroom door.I knew that my dad was right with a profoundness I’d never felt before. I now saw it so clearly and his words made perfect sense. And I knew that what my mother had really meant was that she wanted me to live up to her high standards because I was her son. I felt so stupid and so ashamed. And so not like a man. I knew what I had to do – be the man that my father was.
As I came down to the kitchen with my book bag over my shoulder, my mother looked up from her cup of coffee. I was wearing a different shirt.
“Uh . . . hey Mom? I’m really sorry for the things I said . . . And…you were right.” I could visibly see the relief and the release of more tension than she had likely been aware of. And in her eyes, I thought I saw a forgiveness and understanding – and joy – because she could see that I only saw her as being my mom. And she could see me trying to be a man, just like my dad had revealed to me.“Thank you, Noah. You’d better hurry. You’re already late for school.” I could sense she wanted to say more, maybe to say how sorry she was about my bleeding soul, to let me know that she loved me and worried for me. But she didn’t need to say anything…I knew!
In writing his new biographical fiction book, Dreams of My Mothers, Joel reflects on some very unique experiences, at extreme ends of the human condition, he has been privileged to bear witness to during a time when society struggles to find a shared identity -- with race, culture, and what it means to live in North America. And, through his upbringing, he has realized the incredible influence our parents can have on building that identity, no matter our race. You can ask for the book at a book store near you.