A couple of years ago on I-70 my son saw a billboard and said, “Dad, why don’t we ever eat at Hooters?”
My wife looked stilly forward but with a victorious smile said, “That is a great question.” I’m looking forward to more great questions like a lightning bug looks forward to a Mack truck on the highway.
More recently, I rushed into the kitchen because my little girl was wailing in terror. This was a real cry, not the fake, cough-like imitation she uses when trying to pull my dad strings. My wife, who was already consoling her, mouths out, “Goldie died,” over my girl’s shoulder. Goldie was the family goldfish.
In the awkward silence females instinctively use to cue apologies from males, I stalled out. I looked to the imaginary ticker in the sky for an idea. Nothing. Then in a selfish move, my wife switched to the other shoulder, turning my girl toward me. As a reflex, my “compassion” mask flipped up and covered my “I-don’t-understand-why-there-is-crying” face, which I have heard is insensitive. Men only have about five facial expressions, and a dead goldfish does not cause any of them.
Then my wife said, “Well ... let’s think of things we remember about Goldie.” True story. I walked around so my wife could see my “You’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me” face, but she was hiding in my daughter’s hair. She had thrown me under the bus, and she was ashamed.
I said, “Well ... she always seemed to be trying to say something.”
Not good. A new wave of crying — “Goldie was a boy!”
“Oh, I didn’t kn — how do you know?” My wife combed the hair over so I could see one of her thousands of faces, each distinguishable and detailed like a Chinese character. This one was under the “Get-with-the-program” umbrella.
I tried again. “I mean, maybe we can get a new fish.”
Crying girl’s counteroffer: “Can we get a cat?” Another pause.
“Maybe,” I said. My girl instantly pulled away and went back to the fake, cough-like cry. “Maybe” wasn’t enough to get me to buy a stupid cat, and she knew it, but her performance to that point was chilling. It was clear that she was advancing in the womanly arts and clear that I was in real trouble.
As you can read, I am learning how difficult it is to be a “father.” I was on board with being a “dad,” “daddy,” “pop” or even “old man,” but “father” is the only title that can be used as a verb. You cannot “dad” someone.
When I look at my childhood, I realize that my dad was a “father.” A “father” has to have two-fold respect: honor and authority. I always wanted to please him because he had true integrity, and I always wanted to obey him because he had eyes that could punch a person in the face. My father never hurt me in any way. It was never necessary because even though I was bigger than him at 16 years old, I was scared of him until I was 23.
However, I did not realize how much of his strength was only for my benefit. It sure fooled me. I was led to believe that the only thing keeping me alive was my mom — whose eyes could punch my father in the face. Mom used this in her good cop, bad cop routine.
Mom: “Don’t make me tell your father!”
Me: “OK. OK. What do you want to know?”
Mom: “If you confess right now, I think I can get your ‘father’ to go easy on you. Then you’ll have to tell your ‘dad’ yourself. OK?”
Me: “OK. Thanks, mom.”
I now understand almost everything I did not understand about my father when I was growing up. I still do not understand why someone that buys broken stereos at garage sales cannot think of one thing he would like as a Father’s Day gift. But that’s OK.
However, I do understand why he hated seeing me spend so many hours on sports, now that I have never been asked to make a free throw at a job interview. I now understand that he tried so hard to teach me about cars because he could tell from my work ethic that I would always be poor and, thus, drive abused cars. I see now that he worked so much because he was poor as a kid and wanted to provide for me.
I also see now how smart he was. He tried to tell me that Milli Vanilli was too good to be true. He was right about that ex-girlfriend and right about my wife. He may have been wrong about Lindsay Lohan, but in his defense we only know now that something in California’s drinking water kills brain cells.
The biggest epiphany came when I had kids of my own. Like all parents I would look at my kids and think, “Which one has the best chance of providing for me when I’m old?” Well, most parents diversify, because, statistically, they know that out of three kids, one will likely go to jail, one will go to Yale, and one will actually work. So, one day I realized that my dad was cranky because, as an only child, I was his nest egg all in one basket and there I was watching cable on the couch in my wet swim trunks calling silly girls while eating candy bars and wearing sandals because I was too lazy to make knots. It wasn’t looking good for the home team.
Considering all, I think Dad was pretty all right.
To me, “Father’s Day” is an intimidating concept because it puts me in a category with people who have actually earned the title. However, because of my father and those other patres familias I respect, I have hope.
(I would like to say, though, that my father never had a daughter.)
Brad Clemons is searching for his inner father and also gift certificates for garage sales.