No Man's Land

Traversing the rough terrain between a father's expectations and a son's aspirations

In April my father flew me and my family out to Maine for a week to look over any items of furniture we might want to claim as he downsized into the smaller space. Aside from some nasty weather, it was a surprisingly laid-back, blissfully uneventful trip. On the next-to-last night of our stay, as both sibling families and our father sat down to dinner at a restaurant, he ordered a martini from the waitress. Lest anyone miss the point, he added, "I think I'll have a little truth serum." Somewhere in the middle of his third martini, the topic turned to the oceanfront property in a godforsaken corner of northeastern Maine that my father bequeathed to me not long ago. Mocking my paucity of handyman skills, I noted that I probably wouldn't even to be able to erect a serviceable lean-to on the land. For the rest of the meal, my father devoted himself to the topic. "Oh, you'd do fine," he said enthusiastically, animated by the idea. "You wouldn't need much, and besides, it's getting in there and figuring it out, finding out what you can do, having fun with it." From there he went on to talk about getting to know the townspeople and enlisting the help and cooperation of surrounding neighbors to protect it from vandalism.

I was struck by a couple of things about the conversation: that my father kept saying you could do this instead of we; and that what he was really trying to convey and encourage in me was the infectious joy he derives from the process, as opposed to the product, of his efforts. Normally he would have returned to the subject once we got home, in the form of a Robson talk. Instead he spent the time before bed playing games with his grandson.

 

By my lights, Father's Day, like too many American "Days," is a cynical scam to invoke ersatz sentiment for the sake of commerce. Yet for this year's model, it has been as good an excuse as any to sort out the welter of emotions my father and I have produced in each other. He has loved me, and what I represent to him, with a consuming force that at times has intimidated me with its strength. On balance that's not a bad downside; if anything it has produced more heartache for him than for me.

As for the upside, my father's love, encouragement, and example have provided me with the self-confidence to assume I can interact with anyone on an equal basis--an invaluable, self-fulfilling expectation that continually enriches me. At least in part because of him, I have a nuanced understanding of human nature and cherish my wife for the right reasons. Most of all, because of the adventurous way he has lived his life, and the restraint he has exercised in allowing me to live mine, I have the courage to trust change and embrace spontaneity.

Right now, at the age of 73, my father is caught up in the process of refurbishing a lobster boat to take out on the ocean and dock at a marina--a ready-made social setting to assuage his loneliness. He is living in a home he built himself, and so is his youngest daughter.

Every now and then he will say to me, with genuine concern, "Do you know how proud I am of you?"

I do. And it helps to sustain me, every day.

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