A Dust Pan for Dad – A Fish Out of Water Story

The other day I was picking up a few items at the grocery store, walking through the produce aisle, selecting some bell peppers here, a few (overly) expensive mangos there. Coming towards me was a middle-aged man and what appeared to be his two children–a boy and a girl. Nothing unusual in that. If anything, it’s always good to see the continued debunking of the media myth that men don’t contribute in the home.

As I selected a few lemons, I couldn’t help but notice the father. Slumped over his cart as he was, it was clear he wasn’t entirely comfortable in whatever “this” role was, probably a new one for him. Seeing that, I started paying a bit closer attention to the situation surrounding him and his children.

I caught one of the kids talking about the apples and I heard the man say something like, “But do we really need them?”

I didn’t catch the rest; probably because I was immediately swept away into a memory from my childhood. One that included another middle-aged man–my father–also with his child–me–and also clearly not entirely in his element.

I was probably 13. After 11 years of what seemed to be a stable, if perhaps uneventful, marriage, my stepmom announced she wanted to separate from my father for a while. As usual, my father seemed caught completely unaware, a trend that he appeared to have ignored much of his life. But, it being the 80s and divorce trends on a steep trajectory upwards, while I wasn’t unfamiliar with divorce, I didn’t know what a “separation” meant and I found myself at a complete loss as to how we were going to make it without her at home.

Even at that young age, I recognized that it was very selfish of me to immediately jump to concerns of self when my parents were clearly having problems. But the last time my father had to care for me (and my brother at the time) by himself, he was not good at it and it only last about a year because he quickly met someone who stepped in and took over everyday home-making.

At 13, I needed little supervision. I got myself up in the mornings; made my own breakfast and got myself out the door with no intervention from my parents. Dad was gone to work long before I even got up and my step-mother stayed in her room getting ready for work until after I left.

My father was not a “household chore” kind of guy. He was a builder. Tell him something needed fixing and he was on it. Tell him he needed to cook dinner, however, and he was at a total loss unless it meant cutting up and boiling some vegetables.

I very clearly remember our first trip to the grocery store. It had probably been two weeks since my stepmother had packed up her things and moved out. She had rented, and furnished, a nice apartment about 30 minutes away. Any hopes I had that her moving out was just a temporary thing were dashed the first weekend I spent at her place. I remember looking around thinking, “She has every piece of furniture someone who is single would have.” It didn’t occur to me then that she had clearly been planning this, if not actively setting it in motion without anyone knowing it, for quite some time and was planning on it lasting more than a few days. I also saw a pack of cigarettes sticking out of her purse. So far as I knew, both she and my father had quit smoking years ago, so this was (also) a new development.

But, “visiting” your parent is awkward. There I was, a pre-teen and a middle-aged step-parent stuck inside a nondescript apartment for two days. No money. Nothing to do really. And frankly, if we were at home, we wouldn’t have much day-to-day interaction anyway, so suddenly being forced to interact just because it’s “your weekend” made for some awkward moments. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end.

Back at home; after a couple of weeks of my having to come up with meal ideas for my father and me, not to mention that I’d not had anything to pack for my school lunch in days, a grocery-run was unavoidable and so I broached the subject with my father one Saturday morning. He was not enthused.

Now, I had no idea of my parents’ financial situation; not really. We had a comfortable house, but there were little things that led me to believe we weren’t doing all that well. So, I was very cognizant of money. Much like the children of the Great Depression, still today I’m a saver “just in case” and I’m confident much of my tendencies stem from the lean times of my youth when I spent my school lunch period pretending to study in the library so I didn’t have to explain to my friends that I wasn’t eating because my parents always “forgot” to give me any lunch money. And other small financial crises.

We drove to the store together. I’d shopped with my stepmother enough to know the drill. I grabbed a cart and headed right. In truth, I don’t remember much about the actual grocery store, but one particular selection impressed itself in my memories, again further cementing the fact that money was tight and this whole “on our own” thing was not going to be easy.

With “mom” gone, I had picked up the bulk of the housekeeping duties. I lightly cooked and cleaned up the kitchen. I dry-mopped the downstairs floors and vacuumed the carpets in all but my parents’ room. I did our laundry. In short, I did most of the housework.

I remember that the dustpan we had, had seen better days. The edge was chipped and dulled and it was difficult to get fine dirt and debris into it and so as we passed the aisle with household cleaning supplies, I told my father we needed a new dustpan. Of all the things we needed, why a dustpan? It’s one of those things. One of those battles upon whose hill you know you will die on while defending. But it needed to be done.

The dustpan selection ran the gamut from a super-cheap aluminum pan, similar to the crap-tastic plastic one we currently had, to a more expensive glossy white plastic unit with a small brush attachment. I picked up the latter and my father immediately said, “Why do we need that one? This other one (the cheaper alternative) is just fine.”

l remember making the argument that the cheap one is just going to get brittle and break like the one we already had, so we should buy the more expensive, but durable, one. I remember the look on my father’s face before he put the dustpan in our cart. For a brief moment, a pained expression passed over his eyes. I remember seeing him about to argue and then immediately change his mind. And I remember the resignation that fixed itself on his expression as he placed the shiny, white dustpan with the attachable broom into the cart.

That day, upon that hill, I’d won and he’d given up. Maybe that was why my step-mom left. Maybe at some point, he got tired of fighting and just stopped trying, or caring. And I guess she did too.

Like the dad in my recent shopping experience, my father was just as uncomfortable playing the homemaker. Back in the present, while watching the dad at the grocery, I experienced a momentary pang of empathy for what he was having to deal with. Whatever situation led to him being there, he was doing what he needed to do despite his inexperience and discomfort. For that, I gave him credit. Maybe, like my father from long ago, he too was going through something in his relationship. Or maybe his wife just had other plans that day and asked him to do this thing he didn’t normally do. I hope for his kids’ sake that’s what it was.

I don’t know what all happened between my father and stepmother back then. She did eventually come home, but it was six months or more later. When I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, less than a year later my step-mother divorced my father, and once again, he claimed complete ignorance of any issues and was completely taken by surprise by the whole thing.

She will tell you she divorced because he ignored her despite her trying everything to get him to pay attention to her. If the never-opened bottle of Jack Daniels that sat in the back of their closet my entire teen years, or the nearly-pristine, lone Playboy I found in the back of my father’s dresser drawer, which surely my step-mother knew about, are any indication of the lengths she went to, none of it worked.

My dad was many things. And he was NOT many things. But of this about him I will admit, he was loyal. Perhaps too loyal. Once he committed to something, it was a done deal, for better or for worse. At 40, he adopted two young boys–one with documented mental issues–and when he and his young wife, who was 11 years his junior, divorced a few years later, he took us with him and did the best he knew how.

But my father’s Achilles’ was women. So far as I can tell, he never told a woman in need, “No.” The bigger the hard-luck story, the harder he pursued them. Lord knows I wish he hadn’t. I’ll never stop regretting the last time he couldn’t stop himself from getting involved, and never walking away, even as the relationship cost him quite literally everything. But he was loyal.

Not too long after his death, we found out something that turned everything we thought we knew about my father on its ear. And the more I think about it, perhaps that is the reason he turned out to be so loyal later in life.

Maybe that’s all any of us can or should ever try to be. Even when life goes sideways and things aren’t ideal, maybe the best you can be remembered for is having always being there for the people who needed you most. Even if it ends up costing you your own happiness.

Gender Roles and Gift-Giving in the 80s

The 70s were a confusing time for kids. The culture was changing and like all culture changes, while there’s always the revolutionary group moving forward with new ideas and new challenges to entrenched thinking, there’s also the stalwart holdouts plodding forward and pretending their sky is indeed, not falling.

But the 80s…well, the 80s made the 70s look like Hilary Farr on Love it or List it would look if she had a three-hundred-thousand-dollar budget to spend on an 800 square-foot house (I’m saying the 80s were crazy and excessive). But, in ’79 my dad got re-married to a woman eighteen years younger than him and if you think that wasn’t bound to cause problems no matter what the decade, you’d be very, very wrong.

Continue reading “Gender Roles and Gift-Giving in the 80s”

When You Wish Upon a Star

ImageIt’s Spring and that means one thing around my house – baseball! With two boys playing ball, one in “Select” league, it also means that I’m lucky if I’m home two nights during the work week. It also means that CareerMom, who works out of the house, is stuck doing the bulk of the schlepping back and forth. She called me yesterday and–you know how this works–asked if I planned on going to my son’s game last night. I could tell by the sound of her voice that there was an undercurrent of hope that I would not.

What happened was that we had an early game last night, which meant getting there really early (coach wants them there 45 mins early), which meant my wife had to either pick my daughter from DayCare early and be late to the game, OR drop off my son at his game,  and then drive ALLLL the way back to get my daughter.

I made it easy on my wife and skipped the game and picked up my daughter and went home. Throughout the evening, my wife kept me updated via text messages, so I got all the benefits of being there, with little of the nervousness.

But a great thing came out of that–I got to spend quality time with Baby Girl. She’s four now and she’s a talkative spirit. After she fell asleep on the couch and then woke up again around 7:45, we spent 45 wonderful minutes on the back porch, under a blanket, watching the stars and airplanes, and making wishes. With three kids (did I mention my friend has five?) that kind of quality time doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, you have to squeeze every moment out of it.

When we found out we were having our third child, one of my fears was this very issue of spending quality time with that many different children, plus keeping a marriage healthy, plus keeping my career going. I wish I could say that I was wrong and it’s easy to do, but it’s not. Then again, maybe it depends on your definitions of success. All I know is that last night was a success. The first thing she said to me this morning was, “Daddy, do you remember making wishes on the wishing star last night?

I sure do Baby Girl. I sure do.

 

Remember when…

1. Being sick meant you felt quasi-bad for a day, but by the end of the day, you were second guessing whether or not you actually had felt well enough to go to the gym?

2. A million dollars sounded like a LOT more money than it does now when you really break it down in your head (taxes, mortgage payoff, etc.)

3. The one child that you had seemed like the hardest job ever.

4. You weren’t going to be one of these people who never travels overseas. After all, there’s plenty of time for that…

5. Vacations actually felt like vacations? Mostly because someone else was paying for it and you could just relax rather than busily trying to ensure the kids make a memory.

6.  Sex was REALLY exciting.

7. Your current job was simply a means to an end, and not a definer of you as a person to everyone else

8. You could stay awake at night (in bed) through an entire prayer.

9. Aerosmith was a fairly young band (you can also insert “U2” here)

10. Cold weather didn’t bother you and the beach was NEVER too hot.

11. You had friends that you could spend time with.

12. The cost of gas for your car was the most important expense you had.

13. You could eat an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts and not notice the result the next day (uh huh, you know who you are)

14. Choosing between getting some sleep, or staying up and watching THE most important sporting event of the year on TV was a no-brainer.

15. You didn’t get mad when the fireworks went off on New Year’s Eve and July4th (thereby waking you and the kids up)

16. You thought reading a story to your kid(s) at night was going to be a wonderful and precious thing, rather than just another chore you have to do before you can get some quiet time.

17. You had time to actually cook…using knives and other fun utensils.

18. ANY alcohol at all–even cheap-o Mad Dog 20/20– tasted good to you.

19. Your parents looked young(ish)

20. You felt young(ish)