I have a soft spot for well groomed older men. There is one I often see creaking along on my walking trail, dapper in pressed khakis and a crisp button-down, white hair neatly cut and combed. The sight of him always makes me smile, reminding me as he does of my Dad. As long as I’ve been alive my Dad has gotten up early, showered, shaved, and dressed himself well. This constancy gave me a sense of safety, of security. I didn’t like the rare times I saw Dad sick, reminding me that he is mortal, that life isn’t as predictable as his behavior suggested.
My Dad would be the first to admit that he made mistakes in life. He was from a generation of men who showed their love by working long hours away from their loved ones. At that time Mom was the glue holding the family together, driving to piano practice, buying the birthday presents. When I went off to college Mom made the weekly calls and put Dad on at the end for a few words.
Then they divorced.
On his own Dad figured out how to stay connected with his children. It turned out he was startling good at picking presents, the silver bracelet I eyed in a Nantucket jewelry store, the fuzzy blue sweater that went with my eyes. Picking a good present is a way of noticing, and Dad showed me he noticed who I was and what I liked. And then there are the Sunday night phone calls. For over 30 years he has tracked me (and my brother and sister) down every Sunday night. We talk about the weather and the grandchildren’s soccer scores. Nothing profound, but a comfort in the knowledge of each other’s days.
At the end of visiting him several years ago Dad got up at 5:00 a.m. to see me off. His hair was messy and his pajamas flapped around his skinny ankles as he insisted on wrestling my suitcase into the car. I even caught a whiff of morning breath. I drove away disturbed by this image of frailty, fearful he was getting old. Turned out he was fine, I just was unused to seeing him in an ungroomed state.
As a parent myself, struggling with the many ways we can fail our children, I am comforted by the thought that an unwavering constancy of attention and a refusal to give up on trying your best can overcome a multitude of other parenting mistakes. I may be three thousand miles away and over fifty years old, but I have never left my Dad’s radar screen. My Dad is the template through which every other man is judged, his effects, both intentional and unintentional, felt in every day. Not by chance did I marry a man who is passionate and hard working and has a constant presence like my dad. I’m trying to give him a break on the morning breath, though.