Who Abides?

The Dude abides

That’s a line from the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, which has achieved almost cult status.  The dude in question is the main character in the film, Jeff Lebowski—played by Jeff Bridges, and based on Jeff Dowd, a real-life friend of the moviemakers, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The significance of the line has evolved over time, from a simple declaration that the character exists, to a more profound interpretation that he endures the many perturbations in his life and survives them.  In other words, he not only is who he is, he is cool with it.

I, however, have always taken a slightly different meaning from the line, one more in harmony with the archaic meaning of the word abides—to remain, to continue, to stay—as in the old hymn, Abide With Me.  Under my interpretation, the Dude is defined by those traits and attributes that constitute his individuality, the personas he inhabits, and which remain a part of him to the end.

In the film, we see the Dude as he was at the age of forty or thereabouts, over a period of a week or so in 1990, a small sliver of time in what we might assume was a lengthy life.  We do not see him as he was in his formative years, nor do we see what he might have become in his dotage.  Thus, the character abides in our memories only as a sliver of his entire self.

By contrast, if I look at myself, I see a more complete range of the personas I have occupied from childhood to present-day, many of which have overlapped.  These include son, brother, student, friend, employee, husband, homeowner, father, investor, player-of-games, writer-of-books-and-blogs, singer-of-songs, traveller, retiree, and grandfather, to name a few.  Over time in these various guises, I have journeyed from self-centredness to a broader awareness of the world around me; from a laissez-faire perspective to a questioning of the status quo; from near-certainty in my thinking to more patience for countervailing arguments; from confidence in my physical prowess to a reluctant acknowledgment of my increasing frailty; from a blithe belief that life would last forever to a comfortable concurrence that it won’t.

As Gibran wrote, Life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.

Several months back, I wrote some haiku verse about the link between boyhood and manhood, influenced by Wordsworth’s statement, the Child is father of the Man

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

now well beyond my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

While the sentiment is true in many ways, it is ultimately false, for I have had to abandon more of the incarnations I have lived than I’ve been able to maintain.  And many of those that abide are more passive now.  I am a father still, but not one who is actively needed on a daily basis by his children; I draw from my investments now, rather than adding to them; I am a player of far fewer games than during my halcyon days, and those that remain are much gentler; my travels are more curtailed, even in non-pandemic times; I roll creakily out of bed every morning—gratefully to be sure—but no longer bounding into each new day.

If, as the haiku verses claim, the man is still the boy, and if that boy is looking out unchanged, he must surely be exclaiming, What the hell happened?

Despite that, however, this tract should not be construed as a complaint, as a railing against the coming of the end-times.  It is intended, rather, as a wry observation of the inevitable decline that accompanies the march of time, to the accompaniment of  gentle, knowing laughter at the conceit that it could ever be otherwise.

The question does arise, though, as to who exactly I will be when I eventually cross the bar.  Which of these many personas will still be present to accompany me out, and how many more will have already taken their leave?  The answer, which matters to no one but me, lies partially in the list above; and I know it will not be I who will decide.

Still, I wonder.  I have been so many people over my almost four-score years—some of whom I liked, some I regret being, some lost to the fog of time, and some still a part of me.  In spite of my years, I remain convinced that I will continue to grow, to adopt new personas even as I shed longstanding ones.

Is that what we might have seen happen with the Dude if that long-ago movie had allowed a broader viewing of his life?  I like to think so.  And had that been the case, the opportunity might have helped me to find an answer to my own ultimate question.

Who abides?

Making Babies

“Gramps,” says she, almost absently, “you and Nana made babies, right?”

“Ahh, that’s right,” says I, a tad taken aback by her question—out of the blue from an early-teen granddaughter.  “Two of them, beautiful sisters.”

sisters

We’ve been sitting on a swing-chair in the lanai, each of us tapping on our phones, together yet apart.  I turn my attention from mine, but she is still engrossed in hers.

“Like Mum and Dad did with us, right?”

“Exactly,” I reply, wondering where this is going.  “Like they did for you and your sister.  But we did it first.”

She smiles to herself.  “Did you ever make babies with anybody else?”

I shake my head.  “No, the only one we made babies with was each other.  Your mum and aunt are the only babies we ever had.”

“Did you ever try with anybody else?”

Another shake of the head, this one to clear the surprise I’m feeling.  “Nope.  I didn’t want babies before I met Nana.”  I’m trying hard to answer the questions as asked, without offering anything extraneous.

“Was she your first girlfriend?”

“No, I went out with other girls before we met.  But she was my last girlfriend,” I say with a chuckle.

steady

Eyes and thumbs still on her phone, she smiles at that.  “How did you guys know you were the ones you wanted to make babies with?”

I pause, gazing skyward, taking myself more than fifty years back.  “Well, I guess it was because we sort of clicked right off the bat.  After going out with her a couple of times, I didn’t really want to date anyone else.  Lucky for me, she felt the same way.”

“Yeah, but how did you know that?”

I laugh quietly again, buying time.  “I’m not sure we really did know, not right away.  I think it was something that grew slowly, the more time we spent together.”

“And that didn’t happen with any other girlfriends?”

I shake my head yet again.  “It was different with Nana.  She had a wonderful smile, and I guess she liked mine.”  I flash her a Cheshire grin for effect.  “We both loved sports and played a lot of them, so that helped.  Plus, we knew a lot of the same friends.  After a while, we just didn’t want to be with anyone else.  And before we knew it, we figured out we were in love.”

 “But you didn’t try to make babies?”

“Okay,” I say, screwing up my courage, “you know how babies are made, right?  Sort of?”  I pray that she does.

conception

She nods and blushes slightly, looking at me now.

“Well, Nana and I both wanted to graduate from university, meaning we wouldn’t be able to get married for a few years.  Back in those days, most people didn’t have babies before they were married, and birth control—you know what that is, right?—wasn’t available the way it is today.”

“Lots of people have babies today without being married,” she says.

“They do,” I acknowledge.  “But think of the enormous responsibility that can be, being a mother or father of a baby.  It’s like a full-time job, so any plans you have for school or a working career could be delayed a long time.”

“You think it’s wrong to do that before you’re married?”

I pause again, thrust without warning into the role of a reluctant life-coach, caught unprepared for this conversation.  But not disposed to dodge it.

“So-o-o,” I venture, “I wouldn’t call it wrong or right in a moral sense, like a sin or anything.  Not if two people are sure they love each other.  But I do think making babies could be an unwise decision for them, depending upon the circumstances.  If two people consciously want to be parents, if they know what that will entail, and if they believe they’re equipped to raise a child, then at least they’re going into it with their eyes open.  But even then, I think there’s a problem with that logic.”

“Which is?” she says, all in now.

“In my limited experience,” I say, smiling self-deprecatingly, “making love with someone is an emotional act—as it should be probably.  But emotions can often push common-sense aside in those situations, so people might end up doing something that seems exactly right in the moment, only to realize in retrospect that it was exactly the wrong thing to have done.  And if their actions result in a baby coming along, the consequences of that one mistake can be life-altering.  Especially if they’re young.”

lovemaking3

She nods, brows furrowed.  “How many girlfriends did you have before Nana?”

I’m tempted to reply, jokingly, that the number was in the dozens, but her manner is quite intent now.  “Boy, that’s a long time ago,” I say.  “I think there were probably three or four girls I really liked before Nana.  We’d tell everybody we were going steady, meaning we couldn’t date anybody else.”

“But you did, though, right?”

“Yeah, eventually,” I concede.  “With all of them except Nana.  She’s the last girl I went steady with.”

“And the only one you made babies with,” she affirms.

“Yup.”

She leans close to plant a kiss on my whiskery cheek.  “Okay, Gramps.  Thanks for telling me about you and Nana.”

And off she goes, phone in hand—curiosity apparently satisfied—leaving me alone on the swing-chair in the lanai, wondering if I’d answered her questions wisely, thinking I might know the reason for them, and hoping her innate common-sense would prevail.

It’s all so long-ago for me, and so achingly right-now for her.

My Old Man

In all the sixty years I knew him before he died, I never referred to my father as the old man.  Despite being acceptable in many households, that phrase always seemed a tad disrespectful to me.  And besides, my mother forbade me.

When I spoke directly with him, I called him Dad.  When referring to him in conversation, he was my father, or my dad.  He was never my old man.

I had no problem with others who used the phrase, though.  My friends always seemed to have a loving relationship with their fathers, regardless of how they referred to them.

But there was no denying one fact; during the last decade of his life, which ended in his 92nd year, my dad definitely became an old man—a state of being I am now coming to understand.

old man

We were different, he and I, in so many ways—temperamentally, emotionally, and physically.  From my perspective, he seemed a placid soul, tending to take life as it came (although often expressing frustration when it wasn’t to his liking).

I knew he loved me, but he wasn’t one to say, “I love you,”; in fact, when I would say that to him, his usual response was, “Thank you.”  Genuinely pleased to be loved, but unsure as to how to express it to his son.

He was a bigger man than I, and stronger, although he was not particularly active in his later years, save for a daily walk.  As I grew up in the family home, I never got big enough to wear his clothes or his shoes (although, given our discrepant styles, I probably wouldn’t have, anyway).  When I inherited his cherished Omega wristwatch, I had to have three links removed from the bracelet in order to wear it.

As a child, I think I mostly took him for granted.  He was always there, he was dependable, he was predictable—a benign, constant presence in our household.  Not until after I had become a father myself, dealing with adolescent children, did I begin to think more about our relationship.  Not until then did I begin to reflect more on our similarities, rather than our differences.

By then, he was in his seventies, the decade I now inhabit.  His hair was thinning and graying, his gait was slowing; and I’d often see him lost in apparent reverie, a thousand-yard stare in his vivid blue eyes.  I used to wonder what he was thinking about, but I never asked.  I wish now I had.

He’s been gone for fourteen years almost, and I still see him in my mind’s eye—but always as an old man.  For images of his younger self, I have to look at family albums, where I am always struck by how youthful he was.  I just don’t remember him like that.

Billy-Boo at 32 2

The clearest memories I have, however, are counterfeit, in the sense that they are channeled through me.  For example, I used to notice how graceless he looked when he bent over to pick his newspaper off the floor—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach low enough.

“Bend your knees!” I’d silently tell him.

At my age now, of course, I realize bending one’s knees can be quite a problem if one expects to rise again.  So, I bend from the waist, too—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach the floor.  And alas, I see my father in my ungainly pose.

He used to sneeze—not demurely, but prodigiously.  A-roo-pha-a-!  A-roo-pha-a!  we might hear.  Or A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  Sometimes A-chintz-ish!  A-chintz-ish!  There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take.  But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop.  I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.

“C’mon, Dad,” I used to say to myself.  “That’s not necessary.”

Now I sneeze, too—not decorously, but colossally.  They come upon me at the most inopportune times, and I’m unable to control them. A-roo-pha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-chintz-ish!   And to my chagrin, I hear my dad all over again.

I had my childhood heroes as a boy, but my father wasn’t one of them.  Not then.  He was too old, too square, too conservative.  And sometimes (to my shame now), too embarrassing.  But in adulthood, I came to appreciate that his stolid, almost-Victorian demeanour was comforting, that his sly sense of humour was refreshing, that his love for his family was unending.

As my daughters grew up, they called him Grandpa, or more often Gramps.  They didn’t think he was square; they thought he was cool.  Now that I’m Gramps to my own grandchildren, basking in their attentions, I’ve come to appreciate how much my kids’ love must have meant to him.  Which makes me very happy that I appear to have, at long last, become my dad.

As another Fathers’ Day approaches, I give thanks for one of my heroes, that old man who was my father.

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