My dad is a big, serious guy. Or at least he was when I was growing up. He worked for almost forty years at the same corporation. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what he did at work, only that when the company said, “Go,” we went: from the Midwest to the west coast, to Europe and back again. About mid-career, when I was in Jr. High, he landed at corporate headquarters and there he stayed for the next fifteen years.
I remember him during that time as a grumpy presence at the dinner table. He got home at six every night, took off his suit coat and tie, and had a bourbon with my Mom while watching the evening news. After dinner, he’d settle back on the couch to watch a few shows on TV (Magnum P.I. was a strong favorite), often dozing off before heading upstairs. In the morning, he grumbled at the newspaper while we got ready for school, and left without saying much other than a gruff goodbye. Weekends, I was busy with my own thing, but on the rare occasion I found myself alone with him, whether at home or (god forbid) in the car, I’d feel vaguely uncomfortable. I’m a talker who dislikes silence. Taciturn doesn’t seem like quite like the right word for him, but uncommunicative is too strong. I guess he just had no idea how to talk to me, his youngest daughter, who liked being in plays and reading books and giggling with her friends. He was reasonably affectionate towards me. I knew he liked me okay. We just had nothing in common.
When I went off to college, we communicated even less. I called home once a week at most. My mother complained that I was impossible to reach (which in those days, pre cell-phone and internet, I was) and that I had to call her if I wanted to talk. There were stretches when I actively avoided calling my parents; once because a roommate debacle and a failure to sublet my apartment was costing them way too much, and I felt guilty and embarrassed by my failure to resolve something that I’d promised them I was mature enough to handle. Another stretch of silence arose when I was dating a guy whom my father refused to call by name. At some point in every one of our few and far between phone conversations, he’d say, “You’re not still dating That Asshole, are you?” and things would deteriorate from there.
In short, for the first twenty or so years of my life, my dad was an important presence, a good provider, the kind of disciplinarian who needed only to threaten disapproval if we kids didn’t fall in line. But he was, largely, a stranger. I loved him, but I didn’t know him. I didn’t have the slightest idea who he really was.
One evening when I was home from college, during the luxurious days between finals and the start of a summer job, I was lolling on the family room couch when my dad got home from work. I was the youngest, my sibs long gone, and had only been home for a day or two. My parents weren’t used to having anyone around. Dad came in the door from the garage as he always did, and walked right past me into the kitchen, where my mom was making dinner. He gave her a kiss hello and turned to go upstairs.
“Honey, do me a favor while you’re by the fridge, will you?” my mom said. “Reach into the meat drawer and…”
“I got your meat right here!” he interrupted.
I can only surmise what gesture might have accompanied his remark, and I thank god I didn’t see it. That’s the sort of thing that can be burned on a kid’s retinas for life.
My mom laughed and shushed him, cutting her eyes at me. Dad looked my way, where I was partially hidden by the archway between the family room and kitchen. Then, he let out a loud guffaw, “Buh HUH!” and headed up the stairs to change.
At the time, I was probably as grossed out as any just-out-of-her-teens kid would be. But in retrospect, I have a strange affection for that moment that grows as my own marriage ages. In that small exchange, I saw my parents’ marriage for perhaps the first time. They were seldom demonstrative in front of us. To this day, I have never heard them tell each other they love each other. Moreover, my dad never struck me as a particularly playful guy. In fact, that’s probably the last adjective that would have come to my mind to describe him, especially during those numbing late-career years, when he was slogging away for a company that didn't always reciprocate his loyalty. He had been paying college tuition for close to ten years straight. By his early fifties, he was cuffed, and it was clear only years later why he seemed so dull to me, so humorless and stern.
That instant showed me a different picture, though. It showed me that he and my mother still had fun together. That they had a private life that was probably healthy and hopefully satisfying. That they had a partnership that existed for more than the purpose of raising their four children and seeing that our needs were met. That they not only loved each other (which I knew, despite their lack of verbalization) but that they liked each other.
That was a long time ago. My dad has been retired for fifteen years; I've been married for twenty -- not to That Asshole, but to a man whose striking similarities to my father were invisible to me long ago, and have surprised (and delighted, and horrified) me as they have materialized. Today, my dad is a different man. He loves a party, laughs easily, and is generous and affectionate. He can still be gruff. He doesn't always know the right thing to say, or more accurately, how to say the right thing diplomatically. But as an adult, I appreciate him and enjoy him in a way that I never did before. I'm not sure he's changed, exactly; rather, it seems to me that for many years, his true self was buried under layers of obligation and responsibility that have finally been eased or stripped away. It took some time to realize that the guy flirting with his wife in the kitchen was there all along.