My youngest daughter was lamenting the dating scene in Manhattan. "Do you think maybe they just don't make family men anymore, Mom?" she asked a little wistfully. "You know, like they used to have in the '50s..."
Family man. The lovely old-fashioned phrase evoked visions of my own father, long gone and sorely missed. Love, comfort, protectiveness, understanding... all tendered in two simple words from a simpler time.
Papa was the family-est of men. He laughed a lot and taught me useful things: how to hang storm windows, how to recite poetry with passion, how to love every minute of being alive.
He had a way about him... a kind of gentle poetry of being. Not a namby-pamby-Ashby-Wilkes gentlemanliness, but the sturdy, stalwart kind that men of The Greatest Generation seemed to have. The 'protect the family, save the world for democracy, go to church on Sunday, play pinochle with the men in the family, roll up your sleeves, fix the toaster or your skinned knee' kind of benevolence that makes you feel safe and loved.
He came as close to loving unconditionally as anyone I've ever met. Not that he didn't hold me accountable for my actions -- he did -- but he seemed to have a handle on human frailty and the notion that if a person failed a test, but was willing to try again, that's what counted.
There was softness and hardness in his nature... a hard and fast code of honor, a soft kindness and nurturance. And a practical, no-nonsense attitude toward life that said "roll with the punches, love the hell out of the good stuff, endure the bad without bellyaching, and try to keep the balance." His bottom line was, I think, goodness, decency, integrity and kindness. And a lot of laughter. My father had the gift of laughter.
He liked to fix things... the lawnmower, the window broken by a local baseball game, an aching heart... he always seeming to have a gentle, sensible something to say that put the brokenness into a larger context. He was a tinkerer with a workshop (I think all dads had them back then) where things went in broken and came out fixed, a potent metaphor. ometimes they came out a little funny looking -- not perfect and shiny -- because he didn't believe in throwing things away until you'd done your level best to get them on their feet again. Another useful lesson.
Dream No Small Dreams
He came from The Great Depression, a time when every penny counted, but there was such generosity in his nature that it pervaded his every action. He always gave money to beggars on the street and when I once asked him if he didn't worry they might be con men, he laughed good-naturedly and said, "Oh, I don't have to worry about that. I just give in God's name and He sorts it out."
He loved his family with a sense of old friendship... the ones he'd loved and lost and the ones who still remained, equal comrades on the road of life. He loved to laugh, to dance, to talk politics... loved books and learning, all sorts... took unmitigated joy from simple pleasures. He read me Oscar Wilde's Selfish Giant a hundred times and said we should plant trees, so if any passing deities should stop by and need a branch to rest in, we'd be ready for them. When I was 6, he managed to find a recording of Puccini's Madame Butterfly in English, so I could learn the words to Un Bel Di, my favorite aria, and in a time when women weren't supposed to aspire to greatness, he told me I could grow up to be anything I dreamed, and told me to never dream small.
Are there still those who aspire to be such a man, I wonder? Is 'family man' on this generation's list of hoped-for successes? I hope so. For the sake of little children and the future good of all humankind. I really hope so.