“My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way”
Actually, my birth story’s quite harrowing. Dad, like most mid-twentieth century men, wasn’t even in the room. Mom was in labor for fifteen brutal hours. Far from “usual,” I’d say.
But as you’ll see, cutting mom out of the family portrait is an ongoing issue.
“But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away”
One doesn’t learn to walk in a day. Yes, dad was gone for the specific moment I took my first step, but it’s not like he missed my early mobility entirely. I have grainy home movies of me shaking diapered booty in every imaginable way. Dad’s very much there.
Also, what’s with him portraying himself as some sort of jetsetting Don Draper burning up the Pan-Am miles? My father was an insurance salesman. He went on maybe two planes a year, at most. Usually to visit aunt Clara, not to pay bills. But I digress.
“And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say ‘I’m gonna be like you, dad’
‘You know I’m gonna be like you’”
Others I was “gonna be like” at age three: Stretch Armstrong, Grimace, and Lassie. Toddlers’ expectations are famously untethered from reality and not in any way predictive.
“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
‘When you coming home, dad?’ ‘I don’t know when’
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then”
Pop’s really hung up on this “when you coming home, dad?” conceit. To be fair, I did ask it a lot. Like when he went golfing. Or to the bank to deposit that bill-paying money. Or sometimes just to the backyard. It’s actually a really mundane thing for kids to ask. Dad makes its sound like I was in belabored agony longing for patriarchal security. In truth, I just wanted to know how long I had before he commandeered the TV with tedious Bonanza reruns.
“My son turned ten just the other day
He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw, I said, not today
I got a lot to do, he said, that’s okay”
You know what I don’t remember, like at all? My tenth birthday. Nine is memorable because I had one of those sweet ass seventies McDonald’s parties with orange drink and Happy Meals and dangerous playgrounds. Eleven is family lore because I embarrassingly vomited all over my Carvel cake. But ten? Total blank. I trust I did get a ball, if dad says I did, but I’m 99% sure I knew how to throw said ball before reaching double digits. Isn’t that a kindergarten skill?
“And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
It said, I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him”
Really, pops? My smile spoke to you? That’s a thing that happened? Guess you took fuller advantage of the seventies than I realized!
Honestly, this whole story makes me sound like a damn idiot. Here I am at ten, unable to throw a ball but apparently with a smile like a crystal ball. And then when pops steps away to clean the garage or perform some other man-chore, that’s the catalyst that leads me to attach my life’s aspirations to him? What? Why?
I am, however, happy to know that after this one, apparently hyper informative day, nothing happened during the next eight years to trigger dad’s guilt. I myself remember adolescence as a bit of a roller coaster, but for dad it seems to have been smooth sailing. He went through an early ‘80s yoga phase, so maybe that’s it.
Fast forward to college.
“Well, he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while?”
Now this I do remember. School was hundreds of miles away, and I drove a really crappy VW with no air, no stereo, and only about half an engine. I walk up to my doorstep after this exhausting drive, massive bag of laundry in tow, and before I can even ring the bell, dad’s immediately—and I do mean immediately—all up in my face like, “hey son, whatdya know? Like our new furniture? Want to sit on it? Have some Tang?”
But I couldn’t do any of that because I had an errand at a store that closed in twenty minutes. Or as dad chooses to remember it:
“He shook his head, and he said with a smile
What I’d really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please?”
Yes, with my shitty car basically busted, I did ask to borrow the family wagoneer. And where was I going, you ask? That would be to the bakery to pick up an anniversary cake. Because ya see, dad had again forgotten my other parent, as he’s wont to do (but I guess that’s another song, eh dad?).
I was back in ten and spent the rest of this weekend at home. If anything, it was a little too much in the father/son bonding department.
Years then pass without incident, until one arbitrary phone call eventually re-triggers dad.
“I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day”
“I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
Note that he didn’t ask to see me. It’s all about him. He’d like to see me. I’ve been summoned.
Nevertheless, I’m polite.
“He said, I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”
Cue another self-centered pity party.
“And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me”
My god, what a narcissist! I mean, I love him and I’m glad he’s taken up the retirement hobby of songwriting, as it keeps his mind sharp. But seriously, why the unrelenting solipsism?!
Sorry your grandkids had the flu, dad (they’re fine now, by the way). Sorry I had a hard deadline. Sorry I politely reminded you how nice it was to hear your voice. Sorry I didn’t realize my entire life was under a microscope built by your own guilt or that one lone phone call would serve as allegory for our relationship. Sorry I couldn’t call you back until the very next morning.
But mostly, dear father, I’m sorry you’re so hard on yourself. While you were a good dad who taught me much, the most important lesson you’ve given me is to not define either my parenting or my children by my own selective memories from a tiny handful of days.
Rest assured that I’m not gonna be like you, dad. You know I’m much more like mom.
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A longtime political activist, Jeremy played a role in the major LGBTQ fights of the 21st century’s first two decades. Parenthood shifting his focus, as parenthood is wont to do, Jeremy now focuses his writing on making people smile, with a particular emphasis on children’s literature.