A few short years after the fact, I think I can point to the exact moment my father went crazy.
It was before dinner at his house, and he had descended the stairs to the refrigerator in the garage to fetch back a bottle of wine. He had just come home after a barge trip through the inland waterways of France, where he had consumed food and wine that was touted as some of the best in Europe. I naturally expected comparable stuff to be hauled back from the garage.
Seconds later he appeared, beaming gleefully, with a bottle of very modest domestic wine. He sipped it during the evening--while we swapped stories and enjoyed each other's company-- and laughed and called me a wine snob when I made gagging noises.
I shook my head and marveled all the way home. This was not the father I remembered from years past. I could not recall seeing him ever truly abandon himself to such silly caprices. Every action had a reason. Every eventuality was planned for. Every choice was logical.
My mother worked as diligently at her job as a homemaker as my father did at his as an attorney, but she would let her practicality slip more often and would act on some appealing impulse, which could be refreshing. Friction developed, however. They divorced 10 years ago.
His was a planned life, at least during the time I had known him. No bad investments. Money in the bank. Nothing COD. Practical cars, and never let the needle get near empty. Buy for quality, but make it last. Always a safety net, always a Plan B.
And he was smart. Brilliant, I used to think. He had a fine, linear, scientific mind, shaped by his degree in chemistry, and an argumentative yet logical streak--he later became a patent attorney--that could slap any whining adolescent argument neatly to the floor. But he had an easy and quick laugh, and when he laughed, everybody laughed.
He was provider, oracle and shield against the world to me in my childhood, and the worst discipline I could think of was his disappointment. Of course, one of the greatest forms of affirmation was his approval. I always wanted him to be proud of me.
So his transformation in recent years from paterfamilias to fun guy and confidant has given my head quite a turn. During the last seven years, he has given up his Volkswagen for a 260 Z, let his sideburns grow (more than a decade out of fashion, but what the heck) and gone winging off on a series of trips to Europe, the Middle East and the Orient, returning with grandiose ideas about captaining a barge through the Burgundy country and buying a ramshackle farmhouse in Provence.
Several times, we have discussed embarrassing moments, shared confidences, revealed past histories. I now know that he and his Navy buddies used to occasionally exceed the bounds of condoned behavior while on liberty at a certain Long Beach dive. I now know that during one blissful Christmas in my childhood when the presents flowed as usual, he was temporarily out of a job. I now know that he was crazy for a girl before he joined the Navy but felt lucky when he came home to find her married and drastically changed.
I'm sure he would have thought that such mild excesses and confidences would have confused me when I was younger. He believed, as I'm certain most fathers of his generation believed, that a father's great duty to his sons lay in providing a role model, an example from which to draw the basic patterns of their own emerging lives. If the model sometimes became more idol than man, if the strictures sometimes became more confining than instructive, it was from a desire for the sons to see the best. And, certainly, fathers want their sons to be proud of them, too.
All of which makes this newer image of my father, this relationship among contemporaries, an unexpected pleasure. For it is not the result of the tearing down of a facade, but an emergence of mutual understanding. I respected my old father. I like the new one. It is, at last, a relationship we have both earned.