I've been reading up lately about how parents are supposed to project strength and firmness and get away from this palsy-walsy stuff.
Parents are supposed to be icons to learn from and obey, according to the new "get-tough" experts. Parents are not supposed to have any flaws or vices, or at least not show them.
My father must have read an early version of this stuff because, for a long time, I believed that he was virtually perfect. This man makes Ward Cleaver look like Sid Vicious. He makes Bill Cosby look like Johnny Rotten.
He is neat, hard-working, always on time, disciplines decisively and never gives a wrong answer to any question.
Granted, he says "I don't know" a lot, but they don't figure walks into batting averages either.
Early on, he was right on all the Big Questions, such as, "Why are there girls?"
Answer: "To keep us from ever getting the idea that we males are faultless creatures."
Or, on a car trip: "When are we gonna get there?"
The realization that he was not superhuman came courtesy of some incidents that taught me principles I now employ with my own offspring.
One day, we were driving north from Maryland to New York, and we happened to pass a small city on a river. We asked him which one it was, and perhaps owing to the fact that an 18-wheeler was wheezing and snorting right on his bumper, he answered in a distracted way, "Oh, Philadelphia, I think."
It had happened at last. Dad was off . And not just by a little bit, either. How could he mistake little Wilmington, Del., for a great metropolis like Philadelphia? From that day on, whenever we pulled into a sleepy little town and someone wondered out loud where we were, one of us would poke the other and say, "Aw, I don't know. Maybe Philadelphia." We always found this hilarious and laughed like hyenas. Try as he did to be a good sport, my father's thin smile and appreciative chuckle soon gave way to the glazed look of a bailiff on the 87th day of an embezzlement trial.
What's the matter, Dad? No sense of humor? Ha ha.
But that's a bum rap. The man has a terrific sense of humor, just like the experts say parents are supposed to have. In fact, he has such a sense of humor that he was willing to risk the whole family's lives for one of his jokes.
It was a hot summer night, and we were sitting in an ice cream parlor parking lot in our car, eating our cones. Suddenly a car pulled into the lot, and was nicked by another car backing out. The man whose bumper was dinged got out of his car, slowly, theatrically. He was young and strong and mean and had sleeves rolled up over his massive biceps. He looked at his bumper, up to the heavens, back to the bumper and so on. Then he held his arms up to the sky and kept mumbling while he slapped himself on the forehead as if to say, "Why me? Why me?"
This became too much for my father. He rolled his window all the way down, and began applauding loudly. "Fine performance! Academy award!" he yelled. I don't know what had got into him, but it looked as if it were going to be a fist in the face. The man turned slowly and walked toward our car, glowering.
Now, in this particular New Jersey neighborhood, there is a tradition that anyone responsible for creating orphans is required to take them into his house and raise them as his own. As this thug walked toward my father, I began to have visions of what it would be like in the future, sitting down to breakfast with my new little "brother" Bluto, who would be using an electric shaver on his stubble while he gobbled down his zwiebacks. He would chew with his mouth open, of course, and make horrible sucking sounds. I was wondering how fratricide fit into the social scheme when Mr. Fender Bender reached our car. Just as my father was about to accuse him of having no sense of humor, my sister shrieked, causing Mr. Fender Bender to look into the back seat, where we sat, covered with Play-Doh, ice cream and catsup (left over from the burgers we had eaten for dinner). He took a long look at us, shook his head and turned away.
In this way, my father taught me to mind our own business, at least in parking lots. But he had many other lessons as well, and his method was to teach by example.
In the realm of table manners, he has no equal save maybe Queen Elizabeth. To this day he eats cupcakes and other finger foods with a knife and fork. No kidding.
To teach us manners, he did Fellini-esque imitations of our transgressions, such as taking spaghetti off the fork with our teeth. Grabbing a utensil and waving it around like a hockey stick, he would load it with food, viciously rake it across his teeth and make grotesque facial expressions. To punctuate it, he would often say with dripping sarcasm, "Why don't you put your foot in it?"