Family Time: My son and my father
I just got back from my family's weekly lunch with my father. Every Wednesday, we meet him near the university where he works, walk to Chicago (a restaurant featuring pastrami, burgers, pizza, and sausage accompanied by blues music), and top it off with coffee at a locally owned coffee shop while my son runs off the food he just ate. I know today is Friday, but this week our Wednesday meet got cancelled, which brings me to this article on my son and my father.
My son was very upset on Wednesday because he would not be meeting grandpa for lunch. This weekly ritual is very important to him, almost as important to him as it is to my father. Both are at separate ages, and for separate reasons, unwilling to miss a single day. My son doesn't like missing a day because at five he lacks sufficient experience of repetition. Instability seems omnipresent, and every missed opportunity could be the last such opportunity. He doesn't know, or rather doesn't feel the reality of, the repetition that will begin to bore him by the time he is thirty. My father, on the other side of sixty, knows that time is running out, and that every missed day is irretrievable and that he does not have time left to make them up anymore.
Now, my relationship with my father has not always been good. In fact, until a little over ten years ago it was awful. He divorced my mother and married a younger woman, having with her a son, after earning his doctorate on my mother's hard work and financial support. The divorce was traumatic for both my mother and I, and for a time I became her confidante and protector at an age when I was not suited for the role. This, along with some actions of his own apart from the divorce, made me bitter and angry with my father. The anger and bitterness were extreme and seemingly insurmountable, at least during my adolescence and early adulthood. As time passed, I was less angry and bitter than I was disinterested in both him and his new life/family. He and I had nothing to do with one another, and our lives had gone on without each other for long enough that we had become unnecessary to each other, or at least so I thought. My father, on the other hand, still hoped for his abandoned children's return. He did not expect they would return to him as they had been before, or that he would be again what he had been when the family was whole, but he hoped something would be allowed to develop between him and them as adults, in the new worlds both parties had created. My wife convinced me to talk to my father again. I did, and something did develop.
First we both had to get some old business out of the way, however. I needed to know why he had done what had been done, if he had an answer. He didn't. My parents divorce was, I think, the final act in my father's nervous breakdown. He was not good at being alone. He has always needed a family, people around to support him, to need him, to help him remain firmly in reality and out of his own head. When he was pursuing his doctorate, it was best for various reasons, some of which I think now were mistaken, for him to go and for us to stay behind. He didn't make it. Our family didn't make it. I have accepted that. I have moved on, and since I have, I can now build a relationship with a man who is not the father I grew up with, but a similar, related creature. Sometimes the differences between the man I know now and the man I grew up with surprise me. Sometimes it is the familiar that sneaks up on me, the bits of character and speech that have always been a part of him.
After I got my answer, which was his confusion mirroring my own regarding what had happened all those years ago, he and I had to get to know one another as adults, with all the connections, flaws, and conditions of our maturity. I got to know my half-brother, a strange boy, a generation behind me and therefore to some degree incomprehensible. I met my father's new wife, and saw how much she resembled my mother, and how very different from my mother she was. I will never be very close to his wife. I have my mother to consider, after all, and she strikes me as false in many ways, as a woman who tries very hard to be appropriately intellectual, appropriately liberal, and appropriately an artist at all times.
Slowly, with some stumbles and times of awkwardness, I grew to know my father again. And I found that I liked him. I found that I had missed him. I missed having someone to talk to, whose mind sometimes traveled the strange paths my own did and whose wit was as wicked, who was not overfond of socializing and meaningless conversations, who read and thought talking about books and ideas and observations was as exciting as talking about football. We also bonded over football, too, however. We're in Texas. We don't go to church. We have the NFL and college ball. Football, The Sopranos, and Deadwood. It was in this period that the ritual of Sunday dinner began, with my wife and I going over weekly to talk and to share time with my father and his family. Without the sharing of time, the commitment to one another, the relationship would never have developed at all, and this is what my wife's father misses in his attempts to be a part of our family. He sends e-mail missives and unrequested advice. He sends jokes and political manifestos. However, he has no interest in giving his time or his presence to the effort, and so it always fails and ends, when he does visit, with everyone feeling uncomfortable.
Then, five years ago my wife and I had a son. It was the most frightening, wonderful, universe-altering event in my existence, even more so than my parents divorce, and that had previously held prime of place. My father was at the hospital with us, as was my half-brother. My wife when into labor suddenly over a month early. The baby was fine, though, and he still is. She was fine. It was all fine. But it did not feel at all fine at the time.
My son sees his grandfather at least two times every week. There is lunch on Wednesdays and dinner on Sundays. My father is informed about everything my five year old thinks important. Today, my father was entertained by a fight between Captain Kirk and the Gorn Minimates. They have their own jokes, their private rituals that do not concern me or my wife. My son has to walk grandpa to Chicago's, so that the old man doesn't get lost. He is very serious about it. My father lets himself be protected and guarded. It works for them. My father learned how to make gravy because my son prefers his chicken dunked in it. Almost every Sunday, there are deviled eggs, because my son loves them. We used to have to wait for special occasions for my dad to fix up a batch, but not anymore.
There are virtues my father developed in the years after his breakdown that I did not see before, and that I see now only because of my son. He is far more patient and at ease with himself than he was when I was young. He is more gentle now with children than I remember. He also worries more, though. When I was a kid, I played soccer, football, and other violent sports, and he thought it was great that I was strong and athletic. However, now, he worries that my son will be hurt, and not only by violent sports. By running in the hallway. Or jumping onto the couch. Or somersaulting for no good reason, only he is a boy and he feels like it and after all he just figured out he can do it without any help at all, thank you.
There are things my father just cannot manage, even for my son. He cannot summon up any admiration for Star Wars. My kid, like me, is a fan. Darth Vader, the Emperor, Yoda, the whole menagerie. My father would rather dig out his own eyes with a spoon. My father thinks all modern children's cartoons are stupid and insipid. Probably they are. But they're cartoons. For kids. I live by the rule don't expect too much. If they make me laugh even a little, I count it as quality programming. The boy and I watch a lot of Phineas and Ferb, for example, but I will not allow some shows to appear on my tv at all: Spongebob, Yo Gabba Gabba, etc. It is a fragile, slender thread, the boundary between what entertains my son and I will allow and what entertains my son but drives me absolutely insane.
I have watched my father and my wife's father both interact with my son. I stay out of the way in these situations unless I am needed. Whatever relationships are going to form, they should form without me in the middle of them and really exist between grandparent and grandson. My father pays attention to my son. He listens to him, he explains things to him, he engages with him in the play my father is capable of and my son finds enjoyable. My wife's father tows my son with him on a scheduled list of "fun" things to do. Often these things have nothing to do with a child's sense of fun or time, but they are things my father-in-law wants to do and has decided my son should want to do. I have to step in and stop the fly-by-night intense grandfather date in my son's interest with him sometimes. I have to explain to my son that his grandfather is not a bad man, he just doesn't listen all that well and he doesn't stop to think. My son doesn't deal with this often, though. My wife's father is off finding himself in Thailand. We see him when he needs a visa or some other legal business brings him back to the states.
I love my son. He doesn't give me a choice. My understanding of my father and the strength of our new relationship has grown through the presence and involvement of my son in both our lives.