Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a chance to spend a little extra time with my father, who turned 90 last month. As my schedule allows, I try to find a day here and there when I can leave the office a bit early and go over to his place in Pinehurst.
I find him on the shaded back porch, sipping a glass of wine and reading a newspaper or magazine. Dad is a loyal reader of anything on paper and works hard at not having a backlog. He stays pretty current.
It has always been thus. As a young boy growing up outside Washington, D.C., I can remember him coming home from his job at NASA headquarters in the city. He’d have a glass of wine with mom, dinner with all of us, then he’d sit and read his Washington Post and watch the evening news.
He’d read that paper cover-to-cover into the night. Even at mom’s call for bed at 9 p.m., he’d be in his recliner reading as I’d give him a kiss goodnight.
Now, I knock and let myself into the house. I pour myself a glass of wine and go outside and join him on the back porch bench. Lately, the early evening breezes have favored porch sitting, and we while away an hour or so updating each other on our days and the usual what-not. The other day we talked about hearing aids and telephone scams. Note to would-be grifters: He’s pretty sharp. I’d put him on your “do not call” list.
If I’m really lucky during these pre-dinner interludes, dad shares a story from his days as a NASA executive, or as a second-career stockbroker, or of being a father.
You think you know your mom or dad — you’ve known them your whole life, right? — and yet we never really do realize the full sweep of them. What motivated them growing up? What scared them? What’d they do for fun? What kept dad getting up every day for 40 years to trudge off to the same job at the same place? What does faith mean to him? What does he think of you as an adult? Of himself as a father?
Our dads once commanded the world around them. Now they barely recognize it. How must that feel to them? Kings don’t normally live on in realms they once ruled, yet these monarchs do.
My dad was the youngest of 10, with a mess of sisters ahead of him. Depression-era kids had it rough, and growing up in Donora, Pa. among the zinc and coal works was no different. He grew up fast and often times, with his older brothers away in the military, he had to man-up.
I always knew him as the provider, the guy who’d put on a wide tie every morning, pack his lunch and meet his carpool for the trip into downtown D.C. They’d trade driving duties, so dad had his turns too. The men would compete to see who could get home fastest. Dad mastered a route so well, the carpool took to calling it the Hungarian Highway. Score one for the kid from Donora.
Over one (maybe a second) glass of wine recently, dad told a story about how on some Fridays, some of the gang from the office would go to a particular D.C. restaurant for lunch. There, he’d order a crab cake sandwich and a martini. Then a second martini. And sometimes a third. So would the others. Then they’d go back to work.
“No one was drunk,” he insisted. “But everyone was in a really good mood the rest of the afternoon.”
Yes! Go dad! Of all the stories, this might be my favorite. It’s so — what’s the right word? — manly? Human? Unfatherly? After all, the man before me was not always dad, or a father at all. He was a guy in the Army, a man on the make, jumping on the top of a car at a Catholic young-adults group outing trying to attract a comely Italian woman with raven hair and a shy smile. He smoked back then, for God’s sake!
Dad has been, if nothing else, a moderate man of his time, a rock and a lock, as automatic and loyal and committed to the right thing as they come. He was as straight and tight as the crew cuts he wore back in the day. He has always been fully under control.
I can only recall two nights where he might have enjoyed himself a bit too much. The first was the night of his retirement party from NASA. Mom drove home, and mom, a nervous driver to begin with, hated driving at night.
The second such occasion was in Florida, at a neighbor’s wine tasting on their back patio by the pool.
The neighbor poured a wine that he swore no one could guess the grape. Dad, whose smart mouth I inherited, let the warmth of the wine and the levity of the fruit overrun his mouth and he blurted out, “Thompson seedless.” Damn if he wasn’t right.
Stories of our fathers — I’m ashamed how little I really know of my king, a paterfamilias unfamiliar in so many ways.
For that matter, what do my children know of me? Do they really want to know the dumb crap I did as a teenager, drinking warm beer on the river causeway with friends after Friday night football games? Or the stupid lovestruck, booze-drunk goofball antics I pulled for a young woman’s attention? Or the way I’d work myself so hard I would grow bitter and resentful of the co-workers who had the temerity to go off and have fun rather than stay late with me at the office?
So we walk across these lands, we fathers, we benevolent and wiser lords of lesser-formed creations. We guide with responsibility, we counsel with learning and, yes, sometimes we rule with iron fists when the situation calls.
And yet, we are all subjects of the man who came before. And over that glass of wine (or two) on the back porch in the shade and breeze of the late-spring afternoon, I can see that the crown rests easy upon my dad’s head. Long may he reign.