Category Archives: Parenthood

Some Thoughts on my Father

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My father’s birthday was earlier in the week, and he’s been on my mind recently. At every stage of my life, he has been the father I needed. It seems fitting to spend some time trying to define the qualities that make him so special.

The first thing that must be said about Daddy is that he is very handsome. As a baby, he was adorable. As a little boy, he was impossibly cute, but the mischievous gleam in his eye and determined set of his jaw made it clear he was no pushover. As a young man, he was a heart-throb. When my mother first spotted him on the University of Kentucky campus, she knew he was the best-looking man she had ever seen. He was movie-star handsome, and, as an older man, he still is. He has aged slowly and well, with dignity and a kind of easy elegance.

Daddy wears his good looks lightly. He has none of the arrogant entitlement often associated with handsome men. If Mama and I exclaim over an old photo showing him at his fabulous best, he may laugh or remark at how much his ears stick out. He isn’t inclined to talk about himself or his feelings, but his perfectly calibrated sense of assurance is always evident. Daddy is never smug or boastful, but his self-confidence is a sure thing. He doesn’t rethink past decisions, nor is he plagued by doubt or remorse. If he has ever been anxious or worried, he has kept it hidden. His outlook is sunny. When trouble comes, he deals with it and moves on.

My father has nothing to prove. Unless he is challenged. Then, he has no fear. He doesn’t hesitate to offer an opinion at odds with those of friends or acquaintances. Should the need for a physical confrontation arise, he does not shrink from it. He has the grace and fitness of a natural athlete. For a while, Daddy and his office buddies played basketball during lunchtime. The head of the department, a big bulky guy, was a bully on the court. He made up for lack of skill by pushing, elbowing, and playing dirty.  After one annoying shove too many, Daddy punched the boss in the stomach, knocking him flat. My father didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t apologize. When the man got up, he was duly chastened. He never pushed or poked any of his colleagues again. Daddy doesn’t dwell on such events; he isn’t one to bask in moments of glory. He did what needed doing, and that was that.

Daddy is fiercely loyal to those he loves, and his persistence is unmatched when a loved one needs help. Mama wants a heavy piece of furniture moved into a difficult space? He’ll get it there if it means dismantling the entire room. I need a ride to an obscure part of the city? He’ll drive me, and he’ll make sure I get back home.  I awake in the dead of night to discover a gargantuan flying cockroach perched on my water glass? (This was a not-infrequent occurrence in Atlanta growing up without air-conditioning). He’ll be there in seconds, a rolled-up newspaper in hand, and that damned bug doesn’t stand a chance.

If his family feels strongly about something, my father embraces it, too.  My mother has a talent for interior design. She is a serial decorator who likes to refresh fabrics and color schemes often. Once she decides a room needs new paint, wallpaper, or upholstery, Daddy is on board. He does the heavy lifting, as well as whatever else is asked. If I’ve bought a new dress, he loves it. It’s been years since we shopped together, but I remember his offering to buy me anything that caught my eye.  During a trip to Kentucky, my daughter was looking forward to searching for geodes along the river bank, as we used to do when I was her age.  But the old path was gone, and the climb down from the bridge was steep and overgrown.  Most grandfathers would have said it couldn’t be done.  Not Daddy.  He found a way to get us all down to the river, and back up again, safely.  His priority is the happiness of those he loves, and he will go to great lengths to ensure it.

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I realize now, with sudden clarity, that my father’s greatest gift to me is the absolute, unwavering certainty of his love and support. Never have I doubted for a moment that Daddy loves me with anything less than his whole heart. Perhaps even more amazingly, he has always let me know that he considers me the best, the smartest, the most beautiful daughter possible. It’s not simply a case of his telling me so; I think he truly feels that way. Of course I know I’m not, but his believing it means everything.

*My mother is no less remarkable, but her birthday isn’t until June.

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An Evening of Discontent, Part II (The Big Family Dog-Walking Fight)

We may never attempt another family dog walk. Kiko, who looks like a fox and acts like a cat, tends to be ill-behaved on the leash. Four years ago, before we got our new puppy, I read Cesar Milan’s books. I was determined that our dog be thoroughly leash-trained. My faithful little friend would walk beside me in an orderly fashion, never lurching or tugging. But of course Kiko lurched and tugged. As Cesar the Dog Whisperer instructed, with each pull on the leash, I stopped abruptly. I maintained this practice for quite a while.  Our “walks” consisted of standing by the road, me angrily fuming, and Kiko coughing, choking and looking bewildered. With each start he shot off again like a rocket. Kiko’s determination outlasted mine. Now I let him go just about anywhere he wants, as long as it won’t get him killed.

H and D, however, are less complacent. They still try to control Kiko, who is dogged and refuses to be controlled. They blame me, rightly enough, for his lack of training. But neither were they willing to do the training.

The night walk is typically H’s responsibility, and he held the leash. Kiko was straining to go just beyond the reach of the cord. Seeing that he was heading toward a fence he finds attractive, I commented, easily enough, I thought, “Why don’t you let him sniff the fence? Sometimes he pees there.”

At this, H bristled and replied testily that he needed no dog-walking tips; he knew how to walk the dog.

I should have left well enough alone, but instead I forged ahead, foolishly. “No wonder he doesn’t pee for you. If you’d let him go where he wants, he would.” Now, I’m not making this up–there have been times when H storms in after the evening walk, griping that the dog wouldn’t pee, even though they went down the street and back.

H did not appreciate my valuable offering of constructive criticism. He rather vigorously handed me the leash, saying something to the effect that if I was the expert, I was welcome to walk the dog.

Soon, the whole family had jumped heatedly into the squabble. We spoke at once, our voices raised and tense. We used a variety of forceful gesticulations. I have no idea what was said, but it was impossible to miss the animosity that swirled around us, as sudden and destructive as a flash flood.

I’d had enough. I put the leash down. And we NEVER let go of the leash. Kiko may be badly behaved on the leash, but running free he would soon be dead. D looked at me with horror. It was the same look she gave me when I hit her in the head with the Frisbee at close range. (This was accidental, but she couldn’t believe anyone could be that bad at Frisbee.) It was a look that says she has realized her mother is a monster. But she quickly grabbed the leash, and Kiko lived on. I set off in the opposite direction.

H followed, telling D to get the dog walked. My instinct was to walk somewhere, anywhere, by myself, lengthily, exhaustively. Instead, H and I found ourselves at home together, still too furious for coherent speech. There was much stomping and banging as we ostentatiously performed our respective household chores: H took out the trash and I loaded the dishwasher. Too restless to stay in the house, I went back out to check on D.

I found her trudging morosely toward home, pulling Kiko unwillingly behind her. She played the child card. How did she get stuck with the dog, she asked, when she had been an innocent bystander to her parents’ bad behavior?

The evening was a loss. We all recognized the truth in that age-old pearl of wisdom, “Don’t go to bed angry.” Yet we couldn’t follow it. There would be no healing birthday cake that night.

An Evening of Discontent, Part I

Because of the early surprise party, we had been polite, considerate and somewhat uncharacteristically jolly for over a week when my real birthday finally arrived.  All that good behavior evidently took its toll. We were a tad grumpy that evening.  I didn’t feel like cooking—it was my birthday, after all. We were drawing a blank on meal ideas.

After much aimless avoidance and procrastination, we opted for our Sunday-night default setting and ordered Chinese food, which we ate in front of the TV. We had run out of conversation. We couldn’t eat in the kitchen, as we were battling an onslaught of ants, and the table was piled with the usual contents of the counters and cabinets. It was getting chilly on the screened porch. Despite an excess of cable channels, Tivo, Netflix DVDs and the vast possibilities of streaming video, there was nothing we could all agree on. Not even an old Seinfeld or Raising Hope. H commandeered the remote and persisted in not hearing the program requests made by D and me. Segments of House Hunters, 60 Minutes, and AFV interspersed with annoying commercials proved to be an especially unsatisfying combination. We were grumpier after the meal than before. It made me wish we had eaten on the porch in cold and silence.

There remained, though, the chance that birthday cake and ice cream would offer, if not real fun, then at least some solace. D and I had baked and iced a beautiful cake with snowy meringue frosting.

At H’s urging, we decided to walk our dog Kiko before dessert.  This would prove to be a most unfortunate choice.

Crab Feast

The night before my actual birthday, we had a fun family dinner at a local restaurant specializing in Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.  The elemental, primitive experience of steamed crab eating was new to our daughter.  She wasn’t expecting the Formica tables spread with brown paper or the absence of plates and utensils except for a sharp knife and wooden mallet.  My husband was unprepared for the garage-like atmosphere of the place, its worn linoleum floor and cinder-block walls covered with signs advertising bail bonds and auto-body shops.  But I had heard that the focus was on the crabs, not the décor, and I found it rather charming.  It reminded me of the blue collar bar in Princeton that H and I used to frequent when we first met.  D has always been an adventurous eater, and it didn’t take her long to get into the spirit of the meal.  Soon she was delving into the pile of crabs before us on the orange plastic tray, banging cheerfully with her mallet.

Crab picking is slow going, especially for those like us who are out of practice or novices, and it brought home to us how easily consumable the typical meal is.  We are accustomed to food that has been removed from its inconvenient exterior casings and arranged in neat, extra-large portions.  Completely fork-ready, it can be eaten with haste and ease.  No doubt we’d all be healthier if we weren’t such effortless consumers.

A Pre-Birthday Surprise

My husband (H) and daughter (D) recently threw a surprise party for me. I was completely shocked, but in a good way. My birthday, which is best described as a significant one, was still eight days away, and I suspected nothing that evening.

I had never had a surprise party before. I hadn’t had a real birthday party since I was twelve, when I invited ten friends for cake and ice skating. That was somewhat of a letdown, and it made me appreciate my family’s typically low-key marking of birthdays. H’s family, however, takes the opposite approach. They retain a remarkably resilient enthusiasm for celebrating all of life’s events. This includes the birthdays of the middle-aged, which are considered by my side of the family to be, at best, an excuse to go out to eat. While I thought I would be OK with a subdued acknowledgment of this birthday–I had said I didn’t want a party–I was glad to be overruled.

H and D took great pains to organize the event and to keep it a secret. To their credit, they are usually terrible liars. Yet apparently, if justified, they can pull off any number of untruths. They set up a complicated scenario that ended with our wandering, somewhat aimlessly, I thought, into a local music cafe. I heard H say quietly, “Happy Birthday,” but I was still surprised to hear it echoed, loudly, by a fairly large group of my closest friends.

I was still soaking up the surprise when I saw Robin and Linda Williams (and Their Fine Group) on stage setting up their instruments. Their music is an engaging blend of folk, bluegrass and gospel. I had discovered it years ago as a grad student studying for exams. Since then, for nearly every emotion or major life event I experience, there is a corresponding song by Robin and Linda. Their melodies, whether hauntingly sad or exuberantly joyful, are matched by evocative lyrics and accomplished instrumentals on banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. Their music is the soundtrack of my life, especially now that H and D love it, too. Each year as we cross the Sagamore Bridge onto Cape Cod, we sing Southern Shores, their song about escaping to the Outer Banks; it works for going north as well as south. The presence of the Williamses (who happen to be kind, friendly, and completely without pretense) and the promise of their music brought tears to my eyes.

Both H and D had prepared sweet and thoughtfully comical tribute speeches. As they spoke, it struck me that I am extremely fortunate to share my life with these two caring and admirable people, these two people who know me so well and yet still love me.

It was uplifting to see my good friends representing the various aspects of my life: neighborhood, church, and my daughter’s school. It brought to mind our small wedding, when H and I were surrounded by dearest friends and family. Our families had never met, and it was sort of magical to see, for example, my Uncle Bill laughing with H’s grandfather. I got the same impression as I watched my friends mixing happily together, some for the first time. Throughout the night, I was conscious of a powerful sense of community, a certainty that the issues that divide us are insignificant in the face of those that unite us. I found myself wishing that my parents could have come up from Atlanta to attend; they would have agreed that sometimes, indeed, celebrating in earnest is essential.