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Old School

My dad was old school. As cliched as that sounds, it was true. Born at the tail end of the Silent Generation, my dad came of age in the 1950s. Based on the stories he told me, he fancied himself as a James Dean wannabe cloaked in a teenage body. In the rare pictures I’ve seen from those days, Dad wore rolled-up blue jeans and a white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes twisted into one sleeve and he liked to slick back his hair (he had wonderfully thick, wavy hair that he kept until the day he died). He drove old clunkers faster than he should have and had more than his fair share of trouble and the occasional fisticuffs.

Like all teenagers since the beginning of time, he rebelled. He always hated school, so he dropped out around the tenth grade as best as I can tell. He never talked about it, and my mom has a loose grip on reality, so I really don’t know the exact timing. Whatever the timing, he never graduated high school or obtained any trade training, which pretty much condemned him to a life of hard-labor jobs that required minimal skills, a fact that would come back to bite him over and over.

For his time, especially in the South, he got married later in life tying the knot just before he turned 25. My mom, who was five years his junior, moved from her parents’ house to living with my dad, and they bounced around from one rental house to another until they bought a trailer and put it on a small plot of land my paternal grandfather gave them. My parents had the traditional relationship – Mom stayed home and Dad worked. He came home and expected a full-on meal to be served before he went to bed and started the whole process over again the next day. His contribution to the household was the money he brought in to pay the bills. He expected my mom to handle the rest.

Three years after they were married, I arrived on the scene. Despite the new responsibilities, I imagine my dad’s life continued as it had been before I was born given what I know. He expected breakfast, a packed lunch, and dinner every day while my mom took care of me all day. I doubt my dad ever changed a diaper. He’s the type of guy who’d yell for his wife once he realized the baby soiled its diaper. Those first few years of fatherhood were probably pretty boring for him since babies and toddlers require so much unrequited attention, and that was my mom’s job.

I don’t say these things to make my dad look bad. He was a good father. He loved us, and he showed us in ways that only a father can. We all learn how to be fathers from our own dads, and back then, all of the examples he saw around him were rather uninvolved and emotionally detached. I only saw him cry a handful of times in my entire life and two of the most memorable times involved the deaths of his parents. As much as it annoys me to say this, it was just how things were.

Five years after I made my unspectacular debut, my brothers arrived seemingly one after the other. Dad had a full-on brood, enough to drive any hard-working man insane. Shortly after I turned nine, my mom found a job, more out of necessity than desire to be a working mom. Despite all of the rumblings of the 1970s, my mom had no interest in anything but the traditional family setup. Had Dad not lost his job, I doubt she would have ever gone to work. She soon found herself working full time and taking care of three boys. Dad still expected her to cook his meals and take care of the house and kids, an expectation that would land a man in divorce court nowadays.

My brothers and I often laugh about how ridiculous all of this was. During his multiple layoffs in the early 1980s, I did see Dad wash dishes a couple of times, but by then, I was old enough to do many of the chores that Mom no longer had the time or energy for, and soon, my brothers were learning to do them as well. I never saw my dad do laundry or vacuum or clean anything around the house other than his car. As for my brothers and me, we learned to cook and clean, and while we were messy like any other boys, we took those lessons to heart. Now, all three of us are fairly obsessive about cleaning, and while my cooking skills are barely passable, my youngest brother developed into quite the cook.

We all grew up and moved out, and soon Dad retired from working, while my mom continued to work for a few more years. Back then, I called him almost every day since I knew he’d be home (he never went anywhere), and I had begun to recognize a connection that would soon be lost. He had never cared much for phone conversations, but after his boys moved out, in one of the few instances where he adapted his behavior to the new reality, he would talk on the phone for a good chunk of time since he didn’t get to see us much. Sometimes, when I asked him what he was doing, he’d tell me he was waiting for my mom to get home from work to cook him some dinner. He sat home all day while she was at work, and he still expected her to cook him a meal when she got home. I’m guessing he wasn’t doing any housework then either.

The world had moved to a different place, and my dad hadn’t left the 1950s. Neither had my mom. To be fair, she didn’t put her foot down and force him to be more self-reliant and helpful around the house, especially after he retired. She had grown up taking care of her siblings, and that was what she did. I’m not sure she liked it, but it was like a reflex for her. My dad was never going to change in that regard. That much was clear, and she accepted that. It made their marriage work. As our parents got older, my brothers and I secretly worried what would happen if Mom died first. Dad was basically helpless or at least refused to learn to take care of himself. That never came to pass.

Living like my dad today would get you eviscerated in most circles. You’d get declared a Neanderthal and a misogynist, but I know that was not my dad. He loved my mom and his boys. He was a product of his time, and you can’t change history no matter if it’s good or bad. In today’s toxic cancel culture, men like him don’t survive, but it wasn’t all bad. Sure, he could have evolved and understood that things had changed around him. It didn’t lessen his stature as a father, at least not in our eyes.

Each successive generation improves on the last, but we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Let’s not forget that. My brothers and I have been very involved and engaged fathers. We haven’t been perfect, but that’s an impossible standard (even our wives, none of whom dawdle in the illusion of the 1950s, know that). I’m proud of the fathers we’ve become. I think our kids will look back on their years at home and remember them fondly, not just because they have wonderful mothers, but because their dads played a big part in shaping who they are. Just like our dad did. No father is perfect, but being there is half the battle, and our dad was always there. Today, he seems like a relic from another era, but we loved him and we miss him every day. Happy Father’s Day.

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