I am my dad’s first kid, one of those first beings who change the outlook of the world from the present to a point on a continuum. Almost instantly, a new parent becomes aware of the ancestors who made him possible, of the sacrifices and choices that were made for him to be standing in this place, faced with raising a future that extends past his purview. It’s a mind warp, and not a comfortable one; the enormity of the task and the smallness of one’s role in the greater scheme of things is overwhelming. Nothing challenges a person to be better than they are than becoming a parent who cares.
I did not disappoint on the challenge front. I did not sleep. I would not be left in a crib. I pooped my clothes, made a habit of eating cigarette butts at the park, cried literally ad nauseam when left with anyone but my parents, and was often only soothed by being fed. Some things never change.
My father, who never had music lessons, sat through hours and hours of squeaky violin recitals, heard years of practice, and paid for the privilege. He and my mother sacrificed greatly to send us to the best schools we could get into. Trips to Europe, home improvements, new cars and piece of mind were sacrificed to our education instead.
He taught 14 year old me and my 12 year old sister to change a tire by parking our car on a hill and telling us to change it. He didn’t help. He suggested we block the wheels so we didn’t get run over and told us what to do, while standing and sitting with his hands in his pockets. It was stressful and hard, and I was irritated at his making it so hard. We had to jump on the wrench to loosen the lug nuts. When I got my driver’s license, I was confident in how to change a tire, check spark plugs, fuses, and fluids not because I had been shown, but because I had done all those things. Dad’s teaching philosophy was always Montessori by fire.
I grew into a teenager who never slept, and was thus even crankier than the average teen. I had a sharp tongue that I wielded with such flair that no one was safe. I knew everything. Right and wrong were clear as day if you weren’t stupid enough to get caught in the weeds, and I had no patience for people who weren’t smart or funny. In fact, if you weren’t funny, I assumed you weren’t smart. My father, I learned years later, is a very astute man, with a singular experience of the world, a biting and absurdist sense of humor, and maybe the best instincts about people of anyone I know. But when I was 14, he was a boor.
Every night, I’d come to dinner, my arrows already notched and waiting. Inevitably, I’d be rude or make some outlandish statement with way more authority than I owned. My dad, also a person who did not suffer fools, especially when they were family members, would return my volley and we’d be off, sparing and arguing until one of us would lose our cool and blow up. Victory went to the cooler head…if that happened to be me. If it didn’t happen to be me, victory was still mine because he was just wrong. WRONG!
If you ask my dad if he is proud of his parenting, he will not say yes. He will give the credit to my mother for how the three of us turned out, as though he didn’t have anything to do with any of it. And every time he praises my mom while belittling himself, it breaks my heart a little bit.
When I was that heinous teen, Dad came down to dinner every night, knowing full well that I would be there, and what was likely to go down. But he was there every night, available and open to me, making me better and smarter by knocking down my bad reasoning and asinine thinking, and being there so that when I finally turned that corner and grew up a little bit, he was there like I had not damaged our relationship. He absorbed all that so I could still have a dad when I grew up. And I do. And I am sorry I was horrible.
Mom would not have been able to stay at home and raise us with all the face time she did, if Dad was not out busting his butt doing whatever it took to earn enough for a family of 5. Dad spoke to us like were capable and smart. He teased, oh he teased, but he didn’t belittle us. He always assumed that we could accomplish absolutely anything we set our minds to. I take that back. I remember one time, in passing, he said that our family wasn’t made for running and maybe I shouldn’t play soccer. It was so out of character that it stung like the dickens and I thought it might be true, or he wouldn’t say such a thing. I played volleyball instead.
Dad harbored secret desires for us to go to one of the military academies, become elected officials or generals, and change our communities for good in some big way. But he never pushed it, barely even mentioned it and bankrolled and supported us following our own interests. He thought I’d make a great architect, and always looked at the floor plans I drew for fun with great interest and gave me tips. He suggested I apply to West Point and I had to tell him that they didn’t have an orchestra and I wanted to be a music teacher. I don’t know how hard he had to bite his tongue, but he let it go. He sent me off to study music and bought me a car so I could get to lessons with a top teacher.
My dad thinks he didn’t do a good job. I should ask him against whom is he comparing himself? He raised three funny, smart, well adjusted functioning adults who’ve all managed to snag and keep funny, smart, well adjusted partners. We are people of our word. We work hard. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We try to treat others well. So, Dad! What else do you want? Look at us. You nailed it! Yeah, none of us is a senator, or a general, or president of anything. But there are some assholes in those jobs, and you didn’t make any of those.
Happy Father’s Day to all the men who strive to do this job, and thank you, from all of us who have to live with your kids.