That’s My Daddy

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I shared my first bedroom with my brother Tony.  The walls were painted a cheerful shade of buttercup yellow, and sun streamed in on a Sunday morning and lit up a pile of clothes resting on a Danish modern scoop chair in the corner next to my bed.  My parents bustled in and out of the bathroom across the hall, and I could smell my Dad’s shaving cream.  I lay on my bed, hands under my head and relaxed.  Today was going to be a good day even if we had to go to church.

Dad hits the brakes of our old Dodge, the one with the oxidizing purple/blue paint that shimmers with rainbow iridescence in strong light.  He’s found a side path that leads from the top of the levee down to a strip of concrete and gravel on the shores of the Great Miami River.  We gingerly descend the narrow track and park.  I can see a dam farther upstream and tall buildings across the river.  Dad, Tony and I empty the trunk and carry a minnow bucket and two seine nets to the river edge.  We’ve changed into old tennis shoes and wade into the water with a seine.  The river bed is rocky, slimy with moss, treacherous.  We make several passes, water up to our knees, and snare some crawdads.  I fall twice and twist my ankle. When we have a bucket full we stow our gear and change our shoes.  My shorts are wet, but Dad doesn’t care about the car seats.  One of the blessings of driving old cars is that they become more useful the less they’re babied.

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Dad and I go fishing at Caesar’s Creek a few days later with the crawdads.  We’re not getting any bites until we set our bait at a lower depth.  Catfish are bottom feeders, and soon my line bends over double and jerks in tight circles.  I haul a ten inch catfish out of the muddy water, and Dad snares it in a net.  I’m afraid of the spiked whiskers even though I’ve never been stung, and Dad obliges me by taking a pair of plyers out of his fishing tackle box to extract the hook.  The catfish looks up at me from the bottom of the boat and croaks.  He seems to be saying, “Hey, buddy, what did I ever do to you?”

My sister Carla and I are scraping paint off the side of a wood paneled house across the street from the Delco battery plant in Kettering.  The paint comes off easily in the blistered sections, but some flecks stay embedded in the ruts and crevices of the pitted wood.  We use a wire brush on the stubborn spots and worry whether we’re doing a good enough job.  Dad’s warned us that the new paint won’t stick to the side of the house if applied over a loose layer of old.  Carla and I talk as we work to pass the time as the job is boring and nasty.  Our shoulders ache, and scraped paint sticks in speckles on our sweaty arms.  We’re grateful when Dad shows up and appears to be satisfied with our progress.  He doesn’t say anything, but carefully scans the walls, points out a few patches that need work, and nods.  We hope that he’s brought some soda–it’s a high and dry summer day with feathery clouds floating in the powdery blue sky–and he tells us to look in a cooler in the trunk.  He’s bought a cheap brand of grape, but we don’t care.

I get off work at  three a.m. from a restaurant shift that should have ended at twelve.  A late rush pillaged a practically spotless kitchen and dining room, and it took two hours to restore order after we ushered the last customer out at 1.  We’re exhausted but hungry, and five of us go to an all night coffee shop to get breakfast.  We talk, smoke cigarettes and tell a few jokes, and it’s dawn when we walk out to the parking lot.  I pull up to the house just as the front door opens.  Dad trudges out carrying his lunch pail.  He stares at me for a minute, shakes his head, and gets into his car without saying a word.  He no longer thinks that a lecture would do any good, and it’s too early for a shouting match.

I shoot a photograph of my Dad for a class at Wright State University.  He’s wearing a t-shirt and work pants, and glowers at me.  Art classes are a waste of time.  I develop the 35 mm. film and make a large print.  A class mate asks me if I took the shot in a prison yard.  I said, “No, that brick wall behind the man is the neighbor’s garage, and that’s my daddy.”

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So, The Last Kid Gets Married

My son wed his long time sweetheart, Amy Carlie, a few days after Christmas.  My daughter married Bryant Scott yesterday, May 20th.  I felt a lot more relaxed on the day that Alan walked the aisle, but found it harder to give Annie away.  A father feels a protective attachment to his daughter.

I spent the morning of the wedding beset with dull anxiety.  I kept mostly to myself and said the least amount possible.  When I saw Annie in full wedding regalia a few minutes before the ceremony I had to catch myself.  She looked stunning in her gown and with her hair swept up.  I knew that if I was going to break down it would be at that moment.

She looked nervous but happy and a little tearful.  She had been afraid that she would cry through the ceremony, so I told her a joke.  That didn’t work, so I deadpanned, “I hate you.  I wish you’d never been born.”  She picked up on her cue and said something about hating me too and that I had been a horrible father.  We meant the opposite, of course, but our declarations of mock disdain cut through the welling emotions that threatened to turn our walk down the aisle into a Dad/Daughter weepy fest.

We made it.  I shook Bryant’s hand, hugged Annie, took her hand and placed it in his. I sat down next to my wife. The ceremony was brief but funny, sweet, and touching.  Their ring bearers were the couple’s two dogs.  The officiant, a friend of the groom, declared the official words of union saying, “By the powers invested in me by the internet and a quasi-religious cult, I pronounce you husband and wife.”

Several hours later my wife and I drove home.  I sighed with contentment and relief that all had gone well and that my daughter had married a man who loves her deeply.  A feeling of gratitude replaced the odd sense of loss that had been plaguing me for several days.  I was happy that I had been given a chance to be my daughter’s father.

“Funny” is Cruelty in Disguise

once, just onceOnce, Just Once  (graphite)

Humor is often based on pain and discomfort.  How many good jokes have you ever heard about sunshine, picnics and flowers?  Bad jokes, of course, are based on silly word play, puns, but the ones that really get me laughing hit on a deep level of hurt.

I heard one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager and was dealing with daddy issues.  It goes something like this:  “My father, he was tough, really tough.  One day he rowed me out to the middle of Lake Erie to teach me how to swim.  He threw me overboard and told me to swim to shore.  But that wasn’t the hard part.  The hard part was getting out of the bag.”

I could relate to that.  My Dad forced me to teach myself how to swim by dunking me every time we went swimming.  It became a ritual of dread until I finally learned to dog paddle in the shallows when I was about ten or eleven.  Then he and my sister threw me into water over my head. They knew that I didn’t know how to tread water and thought that it was funny when they had to grab and shove me toward shore as I flailed around and choked on muddy lake water.

Pops didn’t really have any homicidal intentions, but there were times when I doubted whether he was truly happy to have me around as another burden costing him money to house and feed.  And he was tough, really tough.

The bag joke exaggerated my own situation to the point where it became ridiculous.  It defused an emotional bomb that was ticking in my head and let me know that other people had had similar doubts.  The joke had power in its truthful, if negative, take on the relationship between fathers and sons.

Some comedic writers such as Richard Russo have a keen sense of human folly, and their best work is based on the interaction of their characters as they stumble through the mishaps of their lives.  Anne Tyler’s early work often mixed shrewd observation of human behavior with comic moments that revealed flaws in her characters.  In “Celestial Navigation” she wrote a chapter from the viewpoint of an abrasive, domineering woman.  The words that this harpy uses to criticize her brother and sister end up exposing her harshness, self-righteousness and blindness to the needs of others.  She becomes a comic figure in that she unwittingly indicts herself.  Both writers were merciless and unsparing at moments while still showing some compassion and acceptance.

In his weaker, later novels Russo eases up on his protagonists and allows them to mule around, to wallow in their flaws.  He doesn’t skewer them, doesn’t deliver adequate comeuppances, and the work seems a bit flabby and sentimental.  Tyler’s work shows a similar laxness in her last five or six novels.  It seems that the two writers allowed their critical, sometimes cruel observation of human nature to soften into passive resignation. Their claws have been filed down to the nub, and the humorous elements of their work have been caged and tamed.

South Park and Family Guy will probably never lose their cruel streaks, but are often difficult to watch.  These shows keep trying to find new levels of meanness, new ways to outrage and shock their viewers.  But their humor often lacks realistic observation.  It’s often an abrasive attack on their viewers’ sense of decency, a never ending quest to violate another taboo.  Testicular cancer, grave robbing grandma’s corpse, and a father doing a lap dance for his daughter at her bachelorette party all become subjects of fun.  The two shows are like sharks that can never stop swimming as they search for new victims to tear apart.

But in the end their humor has little power;  it shocks but does little else.  It no longer connects to realistic observation of the human condition.  There are few moments of revelation, and the gratuitous cruelty becomes a pointless, soul deadening experience.

 

House Husbands Anonymous

Alan lay in his crib napping, and Annie played with her dolls in her nest of toys, stuffed animals and books beside the sofa.  I sat down for a minute to relax before starting supper.

“Hello.  My name is Dennis.”

“Hello, Dennis.”

“I’m a househusband.  It’s been two weeks since an old lady walked up to me while I tended my children.  Alan was in the stroller and Annie held my hand.  We stood outside on the sidewalk in front of the administration building and…and…”

“Take a deep breath and relax, Dennis.  Tell us what happened.”

“Okay, okay.  This old lady came up to me with this nasty grin on her face.  Alan was crying–he was hot and tired–and Annie was tugging on my hand, whining.  My wife, Judy, had a meeting with the dean of faculty.  She told me that it would only take a few minutes, and Annie kept asking me where Mom was when we had been standing there fifteen minutes.”

“And the old lady said something to you, Dennis?”

“Yes. Yes.  She asked me if I was babysitting my kids that day.”

“No!  She said that?!  What did you say?”

“I told her that I was their father, not their babysitter.”

“Did she give you that blank look?”

“Yeah–the one where they can’t figure out how a father could be a caregiver.  But the worst thing was her attitude of contempt.  She looked at me as if she enjoyed the trouble I was having with my children.  She relished seeing a man in a difficult situation with kids.  It was as if she were taking vengeance for all the women who had ever suffered as mothers.”

“You’re a bright guy, Dennis.  Did you really expect some kind of praise from her?”

“No.  I’ve had other experiences like this before and I could tell by her attitude as she approached us that she had nothing good to say.  But it made me so mad, so mad that–“

“Walk it off, walk it off, Dennis…Okay.  Why were you so mad?”

“When am I going to get some credit?  My wife is the only woman who appreciates what I’m doing.  She gets to have a career while I change diapers, wipe noses, mop floors and read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ for the umpteenth time.  All these women, strangers who know nothing about me, stare at me in the park and at the grocery store as if I’m some kind of freak!”

“You’re not a freak.  What about the men, Dennis?  How do they react?”

“They act like I have a disease they’d rather not catch.  Their wives nudge them and whisper, ‘He helps out with the kids–why can’t you?’  That’s when they start to hate me.”

“The men?”

“Yeah, the men.  I try to talk to them about sports and fishing, but they just turn away.”

“Do you want their approval?”

“No.  I just want to talk to an adult.  Judy’s too tired when she gets home from work, and the kids cling to her as soon as she walks in the door.  I guess I just feel lonely.”

“Are there other parents at home during the day in your neighborhood?  Could you arrange a play date and sit and have a cup of coffee with them?”

“There’s a mother down the block from us.  She’s friendly when I see her in her yard but would never have me and the kids over.”

“Why not?”

“The neighbors:  she’s afraid that people will talk.”

“Even if you visit with your kids in tow?”

“Even if…If I didn’t have you guys to talk to I would be totally screwed.”

“We’re here for you, buddy.  We’ve all been there.”

Annie tugged my sleeve and said, “Daddy?  Are you asleep?”

I shook my head to wake up as she climbed up into my lap.  She held up her Barbie and handed me a pair of tiny black tights.  Barbie wanted to change her outfit.  I struggled to open a tiny snap on the doll’s cargo shorts (Safari Barbie!), and couldn’t seem to get the tights up over her plastic hips.  Had Barbie been indulging in late night snacks?  Just as I thought that the seams would rip the cloth slid the final quarter inch–mission accomplished.

Annie wiggled down and scooted off to the kids’ bedroom.  She came running back and said, “Alan’s awake.”  She held her nose and said, ” I think he needs a diaper change!”

He did.  The load had a sticky, grainy texture, and I knew that no amount of baby wipes would completely clean it off.  I did the best I could with five wipes, and then hauled him off to the bathroom.  Fast running water and lots of soap did the trick.

I diapered him back in his crib.  He toddled after me to the carpeted playroom and began to stack and knock down towers of plastic blocks.  I got down on the rug beside him and handed back blocks that he had batted out of his reach.  Annie came into the room carrying a book about a lazy puppy.  I read it to her and Alan crawled into my lap and tried to turn the pages.

I had to get up and start supper and left them in the playroom.  I came back every five minutes or so to check on them and listened while chopping vegetables for the sounds of distress.

They were playing quietly together when I came back after getting supper prepped.  Alan was trying to pry a little teddy bear out of Annie’s hands, but Annie pulled away and set the bear on the futon by the window.

She asked, “Do you want the bear, Alan?”

He laughed and shuffled toward it, but Annie darted in at the last second and grabbed it up again.  “No, Alan,” she said.

Alan frowned at his sister.  That was a bad sign.  But Annie suddenly relented and said, “Here, Alan.  You can have it.”  She handed it over and Alan giggled with delight.  He stuck the head of the bear in his mouth, and drool ran down his chin and landed on his shirt stretched tight over his round belly.

The phone rang and Judy told me that she was coming home an hour late.  I sighed dramatically in hopes of making her feel guilty. 

The kids looked restless when I came back into the playroom once again.  I curled my fingers into claws and wiggled my digits at them.  I said, “My name is Chloe.  You wanna wrassle?”  Annie ran over and pulled on my belt.  I let her take me down to my knees.  Alan ran into me with a full head of steam and hit me in the back.  I fell on my side and Annie jumped on my ribs.  I pushed her off and rolled on my back just in time for Alan to fall on my stomach.  I said, “Ooof!”

We wrestled long enough for them to wear out.  I turned on Reading Rainbow and retreated to the kitchen to finish supper.  Judy came home and the kids swarmed her, and I sneaked away to the bedroom to be alone for a few minutes.

I must have drifted off as I lay on top of the bedspread.  I dreamed that I was back at the Househusbands Anonymous meeting.  We recited our creed:

  1. I cannot make my children stop crying when a toy breaks.
  2. I cannot make other people respect my choice to stay home with my children.
  3. I cannot always control my children’s poop.
  4. I cannot earn enough money to feel financial power.
  5. But I can love my children.
  6. I can love my wife.
  7. I can give my children all the patience and kindness at my command.
  8. When I lose my temper and am harsh and unjust I can apologize and make amends.
  9. The greatest gift I can give to my children is my time and attention.