Monday, June 8, 2009
Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 7: Altered States
I wasn't buying the miracles I was reading about in the Bible, but the fact that my father and I were getting along seemed to defy, if not any Law of Nature, then at least the laws of our natures. It's not that we had settled any of our our differences, it was that we had an unspoken agreement, for the time being, not to raise them. So we didn't talk about politics or any social issues. I still held very radical views and he still held very conservative ones. Considering our past seven years of anger and estrangement, it seemed to me a minor miracle that my father had invited me to come live with him and his new family. Dad had married Shirley three years back and had acquired four children--three young boys and a little girl--in the bargain. This in itself was completely out of character for a man who liked to quote W.C. Fields, "A man who hates dogs and kids can't be all bad." When we were growing up, dad would sometimes amuse himself and his guests by saying in our presence, "Why don't you kids go play on the freeway?" Now my father had a house full of rug-rats and had softened toward me as well.
This surprising change in my father was, I believe, one of the effects wrought by his new love relationship. His love for Shirley was so life-alteringly profound that, in spite of his antipathy toward children, I'm convinced he'd have married her if she had come with a whole tribe of pygmy headhunters. Not only was he willing to accept her four children as part of the marriage package, but he was genuinely trying to be a father to them as well. Their own father had died of cancer four years before--in the hospital where my dad was administrator. That is how he met Shirley, then a grieving widow. Although dad was trying to be a good father-figure to Shirley's children--ranging in age from three to thirteen--parenting was not something he was very adept at.
His two big disabilities as a parent were that he had next to no patience for children's horse-play and its attendant noise, and that his own father had been distant, cold and even at times cruel. I believe my dad was seeing, in these children, his second chance at parenting, of getting it right. And although his efforts were often awkward or faltering, he was giving it the best effort he was capable of. It was a little odd for me, a product of his first effort at parenting, to watch him try to relate to these kids while being both a loving father-figure and a disciplinarian as well. One minute he'd be taking the little girl tenderly in his arms after she'd skinned her knee but then the next he'd be snapping sharply and loudly at one of the boys for running in the house, "Dammit, I said stop that!" Although it was a bit painful to watch him struggle in his new father-figure role, I was feeling, for the first time, real sympathy for him as a parent because these kids were a very big handful at their ages and, on top of that, the youngest boy, Jimmy, was over-the-top hyperactive. If Jimmy came up to say anything to you he'd be on his tiptoes, rapidly bouncing and shaking his hands in the air. And he was already on Ritalin.
A psychiatrist I recently heard on a radio show said that we'd all be doing a good job as parents if we only passed on half the hang-ups our parents had passed on to us. I am not certain just where I'd stand by that criteria. I suppose this calls for an honest self-evaluation. My fathering may have been marginally better that my father's, but I don't know if I can claim it to be fifty-percent better. I know my father did much better than his father. My father, later in life, made a good and successful effort to get closer to us kids. I hope I can be as successful as he was in this.