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.

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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.

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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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Is It Still?

Even at this late stage in my life, there are still so many questions and so few answers.

For example, is golf still golf if one doesn’t walk the course?  Since retiring, I have devoted countless hours to flailing away at a little white ball, following it down fairways that are too narrow, poking and prodding it close enough to the hole that I can pick it up—a gimme in golf parlance.

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But I almost never walk the course.  Instead, I ride a golf cart along paved pathways, across swaths of mowed grass, stopping too often by bunkers full of granulated sand.  The only exception is when I fail to hit a rider—more golf parlance for a shot that doesn’t travel far enough to warrant climbing back aboard the cart to ride to the next shot.

Golf is a game invented to test one’s physical, mental, and psycho-emotional endurance, and it has forever involved walking.  If one drives the course, is it still golf?

Another question concerns an issue that plagues me in moments of idleness, of which there are many.  Is it still okay for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady?  And if one does, should one expect a ‘thank-you’ as the lady sweeps through?

More often than not, I rush ahead when in the company of ladies to man the door.  Being not the most graceful of people at my advancing age, I frequently bang into someone in my haste.  Or regrettably, I approach the door from the wrong side, making it necessary to push in front of my companions to open it.  Once in a while, I’ve even been known to let go of the door too soon (usually because the strength in my arm gives out), which provides a none-too-gentle bump on the derriere of the unfortunate lady caught on the threshold.  I rarely hear a smiling Thank you!

A third example has recently become a concern.  Is it still acceptable for one such as I to look at pretty young women?  During a lifetime of doing so, I’ve gone from being considered precocious in my pre-teens, to flirtatious in high school; from admiring in my early working years, to bold in middle-age; from cute in my early senior years, to…what?  Lecherous?

Now, when so many pretty girls are the age of my granddaughters, is it still okay to appreciate their youth and beauty?

Despite the fact I’m a grandfather, I continue to be plagued by these questions.  For instance, there’s the matter of leaving one’s bed unmade after getting up in the morning.  You know, as long as no one is expected to drop by.  Or is one supposed to honour the teachings of one’s mother even now, so many years later?

Though she’s been gone many a year, I still imagine her tread on the stairs, coming to inspect my bedroom before breakfast.  The stripes on the bedspread had to be straight, from the pillow to the footboard; the hem had to be off the floor, and uniformly so, along the length of the bed; and, although I never had to bounce a dime off it in military fashion, the top had better be smooth, with no wrinkles showing through.

Is it still necessary to make one’s bed every morning?

There are so many questions!  If it doesn’t have a hole in the middle, is it still a doughnut?  Is it still correct to say one dials a number, now that there’s no longer a dial on the phone?  Is it still de rigueur to doff one’s hat in an elevator, when so many around us eat in restaurants with their hats on?  Is it still the Olympics with no truly amateur athletes extant?

I know there are folks who could not care less about such questions.  Political correctness has mandated the answers in many cases, anyway, and general indifference often covers the rest.  But how else might I occupy my time, except by considering such weighty matters?

Is it still Sunday if not everyone goes to church?  Is it still winter if there’s no snow?  Is it still cream if it’s made from petroleum products?  Is it still my car if I’m only leasing it?  Is it still democracy if hardly anybody votes?

I don’t remember having the inclination in years gone by to ponder these questions.  Or perhaps I thought I had all the answers back then.  Regardless, I now regale friends—those who hang around long enough—with rhetorical queries and enquiries, in hopes they’ll engage with me in the pursuit of answers.  I’ve chosen to interpret their glazed eyes and pained expressions as a devoted effort to help.

The greatest barrier to learning, I read a long time ago, is the failure to ask.  And so I do.  Endlessly. Repetitively.  Annoyingly, even.

Is it still okay?