It has been years since I’ve spent this much time with my Dad, and in my whole life, I don’t think we’ve ever been “just the two of us” for anything like the length of time of these five days. So it has been interesting for me to observe my Dad—and myself! Are our parents predictors for our own aging? Or are they merely possibilities for us, to choose to grow into or not?
“Youth in Age:” Last night at the restaurant to which we went for Dad’s 88th (a steak place, so he could have “beef and a baked,” his favorite fare), we met the owner, Steve, and were waited on by a man, Gary. The former was maybe in his 50’s, the latter, maybe in his 40’s. Both asked my father’s age—and commented on how young he looked! “I hope I look like you when I’m your age,” Gary said—and in our family’s typical modesty, my Dad replied something to the effect that he hoped that Gary would never look like him! And I thought: You should have seen him years ago, especially before my mother died, when, indeed, Dad did look younger than his years. And maybe he still does now, to others, except not to me.
I wonder: Am I seeing my father? Or am I seeing myself, years from now, and thus feeling my own aging displayed before me? I don’t have the stake in seeing him as younger than he is—and he does not himself, for that matter. But the ways others view him is informative, if not instructive.
“Paternal Example:” Along these lines, my father has been a “meat and potatoes” man all of his life. I asked him if he wanted something “green” with his meal, and he laughed and waved me off! Other evenings, the restaurants where we’ve dined have served us salads. Dad pushes his away after a few token bites, and refers to how that would better serve his “special lady friend.” In California, I am immersed in a culture of health-obsession. Every item for intake is weighed and measured for its nutritional benefit or risk. One’s weight is a subject of constant worry, and the concern for “aging well—if at all” is ubiquitous. My Dad is oblivious to any and all of these concerns. Freed from the constant anxiety of eating right, he eats abominably—and prospers. When on the odd occasion he finds himself weighed and measured by medical personnel, he is told he has the BP of a 20 y/o and the triglycerides of a man half his age. Years ago when I, who eat my broccoli and spinach with ritual rigor, was finding myself with rising BP and the threat of either taking medication or stroking out, I asked my Dad whether he had encountered the same malady as he got older. I was looking for a genetic link. Instead, my Dad was merely confused: High BP? What’s that? This was as foreign and distant a phenomenon to him as maybe the likelihood that our President would be African American.
I wonder: My father’s diet has served him, if not well, at least not poorly, all of these 88 years. I should live so long! So why do I concern myself as I do with what I eat? I surely have other things to worry about! What I tell myself is: My family is “Mediterranean” in extraction—meaning, not only are the meat and potatoes OK, but a little red wine would only help. Pickling is another way of “aging well.”
“Hail Fellow, Well Met—Especially by the Ladies:” Watching my father make the acquaintance of waitresses and female salespeople and service personnel is observing a master. With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, he greets, and quips, and jests until, in a surprised and often shy way, the woman’s face mirrors the twinkle and the grin she was given. My Dad is all rapport and repartee. She responds more often than not in kind, and a certain warmth surrounds the two as they realize that they can enjoy each other’s company. My Dad is not a flirt! But he does come alive in the exchange, and he does take pleasure in the conversation not being business-as-usual. So there is a kind of gentle seduction that takes place: an invitation, a dance, and gracious bow and curtsey of gratitude when the music of the moment stops. My father put the fox in fox trot.
I wonder: Would my children, who are often embarrassed by my behavior with waitresses--or my friends, who are (thankfully) more often bemused—feel the same way about it if they realized that I was unconsciously emulating my father? Or do I lack his grace, so that I am more accurately becoming the “dirty old man” my father has so obviously avoided being?
“Man to Man:” One of the joys for me about my relationship with my Dad is the level of our conversations. This level has deepened since my mother died, at least, so it seems to me. We speak not only as father and son, but also as men, about being men. As one might guess, “being men” often means “in relationship with women!” For the differences and mysteries of our genders continues to fascinate us both. But it also means that we share a commonality of experience as well as perspective. The bluff and bluster of masculinity bonds my Dad and me, and I thank him for that, since too often fathers and sons compete, and rivalry replaces respect. I think the nature of father-son bonds begins with the father; the father sets the tone and the terms. I haven’t always liked or responded well to the terms my father set, but now… now we are close. And relaxed. And easy-going. And comfortable in a shared and special intimacy. I am grateful.
I wonder: I hope I am the father my Dad is to me to my children, and especially to my sons. I hope that I live long enough to feel that our relationships have matured in this way. I am glad that both my father and I have lived long enough to have come to the relationship we now share. And I know that it means a lot to my Dad, too, because, if I know one thing about my Dad, it is that a deep love and respect for his father abides in him. Perhaps good fathering can be inherited.