Friday, June 17, 2005

This Sunday, the day of test

This Sunday is Father’s Day. Most people already knew that, and the ones who didn’t know, probably didn’t care much. It’s either a big deal, or an embarrassing moment one suffers at the hands of children and greeting card companies, and then it goes away for another year.

In our house, as I was growing up, Father’s Day fell into the latter category. My dad has never been big on this sort of celebration. He’s the sort of guy who says, “If you didn’t appreciate him the other 364 days -- 365 in leap year -- what makes this one day of any use?” I want to remind him how much he has always meant to me, and I have the excuse of a day set aside for me to do so. And, yet, if I buy him something, not only am I buying into the holiday thing, but I remind him that I’m his kid. Not the sort of thing that a sane, rational man wants to have pointed out to him. It leaves one with a sort of Catch-22.

Of course, we started out with one of those Catch-22s, when we were kids. Remember, “Dad, c’n I borrow some money to go buy you a present?” Some of you may be young enough to have had Mom provide you cash, from her independent source of wealth, but many of the baby-boomers -- and their predecessors -- got trapped in the ritual of cadging money from Dad to buy something he would never have considered getting for himself. A bag of brightly-colored water balloons and a plastic paratrooper come to mind, for the serious man with the skinny tie and the slide rule in his pocket protector. Things haven’t changed much since then, except that he ditched the slide rule, and sometimes doesn’t wear his tie in public. (Hmm. He might have fun with the plastic paratrooper, now that he doesn’t have to maintain his workplace gravitas. Or, maybe not. Aargh.)

I have never understood how normal people deal with this day.

Father’s Day, for me, is what New Year’s Day is for most people. As the day approaches, I begin to reevaluate my life up until now. My forebears are intelligent, practical, and all-around good people. My father is one of the few men I have ever known who can carry on intelligent discourse on anything from Beatles’ tunes to Betelgeuse, from wormholes to Warhols, from aircraft carriers to zebra swallowtail butterflies. He’s a man of science and an artistic gardener. He also rides his bicycle and swims every morning, builds and repairs furniture, paints house trim and hangs wallpaper, and, at over 70 years of age, still stands ramrod-straight, perpendicular to the earth. For over forty years, I’ve harbored a suspicion that, beneath that buttoned-up shirt, there’s a caped red-and-blue suit with a big “S” on the chest.

Having that sort of example can lead to serious self-doubt. Not being able to leap tall buildings, one is apt to demur when facing low steps. And, much as I hate to admit it, I’ve demurred far too often.

Therefore, naturally, a day set up especially to honor our fathers has the potential for being a day of great significance, great expectations, great trauma.

And so, every year, the Great Day dawns, and I make my way over to my folks’ house. I tell Dad, “Happy Father’s Day,” and he nods. No big deal, he seems to say. But the underlying current I imagine is that is is something of a deal. If I really wanted to do something to make him happy... getting and keeping myself organized might be a good start. Sadly, I’m not good with the miracle-making. So I present him with a cactus, a singing fish on a plaque, a batch of crumpled cookies, a battered hand-crafted card, a tie with a hula dancer whose coconuts glow in the dark. I sit in uncomfortable silence, knowing that the man who impresses me every day with his brains, his charm, his wit, his vitality, his strength of character can hardly see much in me that impresses him. Then I resolve to do better, so that next year I might come closer to measuring up.

So, now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few thousand books to read, a house to scour, and a garden to weed to extinction. When I’m finished there, I have a car to repair, and then I’ll finish the paintings I’ve always intended to do while writing both the Great American Novel and my generation’s Leaves of Grass as I teach myself classical guitar and hammered dulcimer. I’ll let you know when I’m caught up to expectations.

Or maybe you can tell me to ease up on myself just a teensy bit when Dad is shaking his head in exasperation. I know there’s love in there, after all, and that’s what all our efforts are really for.

No comments: