People have their own memories and perspectives. Understanding and tapping into them is critical to lead and build a business successfully. Mark Albion’s blog series explores the impact that our relationship with our father has on how we build our business and life. Each post has a serial and commentary portion. While useful to read in succession, each portion is written to stand on its own.

It doesn’t matter who my father was. It matters who I remember he was.
– Anne Sexton  Tweet This Quote

I never met my father until he was in his early 50s.

While he was just 27 when I was born, it wasn’t until my mid-20s that I began to view him as a person with his own life, his own needs and desires, his own struggles and triumphs. I knew him only as my father, a soon-to-be old man, with one heart attack already under his belt. Today, however, I’d meet the young Dick (birth name, “Donald”) Albion for the first time. Today, I would find the box in the attic.

Having missed the funeral, his oldest grandchild, Amanda, was anxious to visit his grave. We left Boston to spend a week in South Florida, staying with Marilyn, a rarity. We usually stayed with my brother John and sister-in-law Lauri. I’d always been close to John, and with three children, staying there gave me an opportunity to spend maximum time with three of my four Florida-based nephews and niece. My sister Janice’s son, Max, I’d see at Dad’s home—now Marilyn’s home—as we’d visit regularly during our Florida stays.

I arrived with trepidation, remembering the funeral. But that Marilyn was long gone; “Marawee” (“Nana” to Amanda) couldn’t have been more welcoming and helpful throughout our stay. We had a great time with the whole family, even with the unfortunate reason for the visit. But with Dad gone, it felt different. How could it not?

It was the first time I’d been in his house when it was still. No tension filled the air. No expectancy hanging. No waiting to hear his next command. I should have expected it, but it still caught me by surprise. I guess I thought he’d appear any minute, that if anyone could cheat death, it would be Donald Albion. He had me believing enough to take second looks. This visit confirmed that the man who “took up a lot of space,” who dominated our lives and nearly every family conversation, was really gone.

We had shared an intense relationship, noteworthy at times as much by its silence as our speech, by its distance as our closeness, by its avoidance as our interaction. That relationship, his control, was finally over. I was no longer a child — his child. I was now free to be an adult in his house, just as I had been everywhere else. Free to be an adult in a place where I had grown up—but in a space where I had never grown up. Or so I felt when he was there.

“It’s not over ’till it’s over,” Dad would say, quoting one of his favorite players from his favorite pastime, baseball. That was one thing we had in common. At times, I thought maybe the only thing. But he knew, and I knew, that while one relationship had ended, a new one had begun. It would be a more perilous journey for me.

It is only when a man’s father dies that he can truly be free.
– Maasai proverb  Tweet This Quote

The physical father was gone. Gathered in his house, with Marilyn, too, and without the stress and emotions of the funeral, we had time to talk about shared memories. We had time to reflect on where we were as a family, on what we learned from the retreat, and on what we should do… now that the air had changed.

My siblings had been intimately tied to Dad’s daily wishes and needs. Everyone had worked in the family business, with Janice continuing on even as I write these words. Each day had been spent pleasing the family patriarch. That goal, that motivation, was gone, or at the least, changed.

Speaking to myself as much as them, I told my siblings that this moment was similar to the Exodus from Egypt. “Free” in that they, along with Marilyn, now run the family, knowing how hard that is to do when you have been “slaves” your whole life, focused on pleasing Dad. Could they now run their own lives, without his judgment, advice and approval around? Would they be able to change the family culture from competition to greater collaboration?

We had dozens of informal conversations in various random groups of siblings. One thing was clear: our memories were different.

Just as at the retreat, we steered clear of controversy—after all, in many ways we were rebuilding new relationships. At times we’d divert to an activity so we could avoid the pain of dealing with memories said and unsaid. This was particularly true for Janice (and, of course, Marilyn) who had spent every day those last years with Dad, caretaking. The wounds were still too fresh.

“Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.
– Margaret Wheatley

It was also a good time to clean up some things at the house. Marilyn was fastidious in keeping everything in place just as Dad left it. We all understood completely. Her word in this matter was the only one that counted.

Dad was from that generation that didn’t throw anything away. “You never know when that will come back in style, handsome.” I had forgotten until I just wrote those words: He used to call me “handsome,” especially when I was a dorky, pimply young teen. “Handsome.” I thought it was corny. Sounds different now…

He used to call me “handsome,” especially when I was a dorky, pimply young teen.  Tweet This Quote

Anyway, it was Dad’s command to keep everything. I guarantee that he went into the mini-warehouse storage business just to have free storage for all his stuff! But as much as I brought my judgment to this part of his nature, I would soon be thankful my father was a pack rat.

Marilyn allowed me to go up into the attic and check out what was there. She knew of my interest in Dad’s old artifacts or personal effects. I was careful not to move anything around without first checking with her.

As I rummaged through stacks of boxes and sundry items, I chanced upon a nondescript, unlabeled brown box. Soon my face resembled that of a child on Christmas morning—the joy of gazing at all the presents around the tree. Questions came rushing into my head at an incomprehensible speed as I found dozens of items from Dad’s past.

Stuffed into this box were answers to my questions. In this box, I’d find my father… and myself.

Would I find more questions than answers? Was it really answers that I sought? Or something else?

What would you want to find in your box in the attic?

What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember and how you remember it.
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Laureate in Literature  Tweet This Quote

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Mark Albion

Author Mark Albion

Mark Albion left his business school professorship to answer his life question: "How can I be a Marxist and still own my own Jacuzzi?" He is now a serial entrepreneur, faculty founder of Net Impact, and author of a series of books exploring meaningful careers, impact entrepreneurship, and success.

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