Losing Pop

This is a story that ran in our EDGE of the Lake Magazine

I was on a country highway I had not travelled in years. To my right, a road wound over a hill and then dipped away into a dense, green landscape. Something told me I had memories along that blacktop, right over that hill. I wasn’t sure what they were, only that they suddenly felt powerful and recent, not faded and lost. There was no time to turn back and investigate.We were going to my father in law’s bedside. He was dying.

His given name was Gerald. Depending on who you were and what he meant to you, you might also have called him Pop, or Counselor, or General.     

The first morning I visited his home as his daughter’sboyfriend I found coffee, toast and fruit in the kitchen. No one else was around, so I put some margarine on the toast. There is no word to describe how bad that margarine tasted. I checked the date on the container. It had been purchased three, maybe four boyfriends previous. 

Just after I spit the toast into the garbage my future father in law came in. He was wearing running shoes with no socks and shorts that looked like cocktail napkins strapped to his upper thighs. Most sweating men would reach for water. He poured a cup of coffee. Then he picked up a piece of toast and dug a knife into that margarine.

I try to tell myself there wasn’t time to warn him, but it was more than that. The front walk leading to his door had been worn down by the soles of many suitors. I said nothing because I represented a sudden change in the boyfriend lineup and had no idea where I stood with this man. 

When he crammed that toast and God-awful margarine into his mouth I waited for his eyes to pop out. I waited for him to run to the garbage can. But there wasn’t even a grunt. He just stared at me and chewed while a puddle of sweat gathered at his feet. Then he washed down that margarine plutonium with scalding coffee. His expression never changed. 

That sums up Pop nicely for me. Even when things weren’texactly right he wouldn’t let you know it. He knew that silence could be as powerful as words, although that rule was always dumped when the stories started flowing with dinner and wine. And, at least for that moment, I represented the enemy by way of a new boyfriend. Of course, he would never let me see weakness.

I don’t know, maybe that’s just me looking at it. Sometimes Pop intimidated me even after twenty years and four grandchildren. Not so much by who he was, but by who I wanted to be. He was a big man in many ways, with big appetites and a bigger heart. Not the kind of guy you heard say “ouch” too often. He adhered to a strict moral divide between right and wrong, and if something needed to be said, no matter how cringeworthy or painful, he would do it, plainly and right to your face. Sometimes he would stare at me and all the bad decisions I’d made in life seemed naked before him. And yet, I solicited his advice on numerous occasions and he never once told me what to do. He would listen, ask questions, listen some more, ask more questions, and then the answer I sought would suddenly be there.

I think that’s called wisdom. And grace. And generosity. And patience.  

Pop’s death was a terrible loss, but I try to see his life as a victory. He was married to the woman he loved for more than fifty years. Who wouldn’t covet what they shared during the time they had together? They raised a family, they travelled, they made a difference in the lives of people around them. And they did it all while they loved one another. I am sad only because Iwanted them to have a chance to make a few more memories, and maybe be with them while they did it.  

On my wife’s birthday we travelled home to say goodbye to her father. 

She grew quiet as we stopped at the town’s first red-light. Roads filled with distant memories were all around us. Memories that came alive as we passed. I had turned left on that street, sneaking to Pop’s office to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. (I was terrified. He made it easy.) I took a left on that road, then a right, to reach the house where he got to know his grandchildren and ate that terrible toast. Further down the same street to the left was the church where I married his daughter.

Those were some of my memories as we drove to the far side of town. To their final home. I know my wife was reliving those and many more.

We pulled up to their house. The rest of the family was inside. For more than twenty years I had been arriving at homes owned by this man, my children and pets and noise and chaos spilling out of the car. For the first time ever, this one time, I did not want to be there.

Birds and the Bees

Years ago, after my wife told me it was time to have the Birds and the Bees talk with our oldest son, I butchered the whole thing pretty badly. I over explained everything. There was a near fainting, and you could say that about either of us. Afterward, I couldn’t help but think about the time my dad had the same conversation with me.

I don’t remember exactly where we were; I just remember it was the two of us and he was acting like somebody had died and then he thrust a book at me. The title was something like “Little Timmy Learns How Mom and Dad had a Tickle Fight Under the Covers and Used Love and a Little Sweat Equity to Make a Baby.” I saw where this was going and how pained Dad was, and I tried to ease his discomfort. I said, “Are you telling me my sweet, dear mother was involved in something like this?”

My dad can be a tad proper. So with the book he said, “All right, son, it’s all in there. You know, read it. I don’t think you’ll have any questions. But if you do have questions, read it again, because I’m pretty sure the answers are somewhere in that book.”

Obviously when he went to the bookstore Dad was too embarrassed to browse through the sex books. I’m thinking he found this one in the comedy section. It was six pages long and based on the detailed drawings, it must have been written by a NASA engineer with some kind of doodle disorder. There were stick figures for visual aids and what should have been pretty simple personal hardware was flying in all different directions and in and out of things. It looked like rockets were blasting off everywhere.

After perusing this book, I immediately knew something was terribly wrong with me, since the male stick figure had an appendage long enough to wrap around the planet. And I really couldn’t get my mind past that. It all blurred before my eyes now that I knew, stick figure or not, that I would never be capable of having one of those tickle fights should I so choose to do so.

Some people say we all want to be like our parents. I know I do. But I also think, in many instances, we want to be for our children what our parents were not. It is a generational, parenting shift that all of us can see if we bother to look.

According to the stories they told me, my grandparents fed my parents bugs because there was no money for food. They did the whole “walking both ways uphill to school in the snow” thing. And they also made their clothes out of animal hides. I’m pretty sure that means Dad never had to learn about sex from some dumb book and instead figured it out from watching all of those naked farm animals that were apparently wandering around his dirty, bare feet.

Then my father showered his own children, us, with things he did not have growing up, and maybe he didn’t make us work as hard as he should have.

Please don’t think I am knocking my father. There is no one I respect more. He is an attorney, and did a little hard time in politics. If you are ever accused of a major crime, and you actually committed that crime, then I could not think of a better person to get you off. Don’t burden him with the facts. He’ll win in spite of your stupidity or your temporary moment of bloody passion. That’s because he can form a bond with a jury, or a political crowd, as well as anyone. I think it’s because he can figure out their own stories before he gives them his.

A lot of people talk about how quiet my dad can be. I don’t think he is necessarily a quiet person; I just don’t think he says much unless he’s got something to say.

So, at this stage in life, politics is long gone. Dad still practices law and has entered what I call his vegetable growing years. Maybe, for him, the ending will be a little bit like the beginning. Growing what you eat. Animals scurrying about underfoot.

Now my oldest son is probably closer in age to the time he could talk to his own offspring about how life comes to be. It’s just a thought, but maybe Dad could have taken me out to the old farm and let me watch the animals go at it, instead of giving me that dumb book.

42 things I will teach my teenage boys…

 

 

1. You have a penis. It comes with responsibilities.

2. Girls have vaginas. If you’re not careful, you can create responsibilities.

3. I don’t care who you love, as long as you try to love that person with your whole heart.

4. Read books; real books with words on paper and pages.

5. Everyone has the same insecurities you do. Some people just hide them better.

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