Helping Hand, a support group that has raised large sums of money for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, recently gave my wife and me their annual Parents of the Year Award at a luncheon for 800 people in the Beverly Hilton.
Coming from such a responsible group, it was indeed a gratifying honor. But in my acceptance talk I said that I felt compelled to deny that I deserved it. I was not, in fact, a very good father.
Both of our sons, however, turned out to be excellent men. They are in their 40s now, both with families of their own, and both good fathers. They were both in the audience, with four of their five children.
If Helping Hand was basing the awards on an examination of our sons, I cannot argue with their choice. But, as I said, I think the way our sons turned out was mostly luck, except for their mother's role. (She deserved the award.)
Probably I should just have accepted the award gracefully and not tried to disown it. But I knew my sons knew I wasn't a great father, and I didn't want them to see me accept the award without demur.
I pointed out that my shortcomings were of omission, not commission. I said that I had never abused the boys physically. On the other hand, I did not teach them how to fish, not caring for the sport myself. I confessed that as a young reporter, I had loved my work and my colleagues and sometimes came home late.
I sensed that my audience was suspiciously quiet, but I was compelled to go on. I pointed out that I had not given the boys any religious instruction, thinking that if they wanted a religion they could choose their own. The silence was unnerving.
Hoping to repair my spiritual image, I noted that I now receive guidance from Rabbi Alfred Wolf, who had introduced me eulogistically. This revelation was not greeted with applause.
I pointed out that both of the boys had dropped out of UCLA--one to join the Air Force and one to follow his French girlfriend back to France. But I neglected to say that both returned to college and got their degrees. (Now that takes character.)
Feeling myself sinking in an abyss of my own making, I sought to bring out one or two of my virtues as a father. If I had been a good role model at all, I said, it was only in that I had always worked hard, I was honest and I cherished the English language.
It was probably too little and too late. My wife was to follow me at the microphone, and I whispered to her, "Try to say something good about me." I realized I might have overdone my mea culpa.
She did. She said that in lieu of religious instruction we allowed the boys to watch those splendid television morality plays, "Gunsmoke" and "Have Gun Will Travel," both of which were imbued with the moral precepts of the Old West. From those shows they learned to be honest, chivalrous and brave.
She also meant to say, she told me later, that I had taught the boys to have independent minds, not to go along with the group just to be one of the guys, but she forgot it. (If indeed I taught them that, then I feel exonerated.)
Of course, nothing I said in self-abnegation should reflect on my wife's role as a mother. She was a rock. She never lost her optimism nor her spunk during the worst of times. And she had three boys to raise, not two. I was an adolescent until I was 40.
Of course, in judging myself as a father I have to compare myself with my father. He wasn't as bad as he might be made out to be. He abandoned my mother and me for two or three years during the Depression, but when he reestablished himself, he insisted on sending me to college. It wasn't his fault that I dropped out in my second year to work on a newspaper.
My father also taught me not to go along with the group. He was not a joiner. Also, he was a nonbeliever. He read Robert Ingersoll, H. L. Mencken and Bertrand Russell the way Christians read the Bible, and, naturally, he passed these intellectual leanings on to me.
My father liked poker, women, fast cars, work (he was a promoter) and liquor (though he was not a drunk).
I have no disdain for any of those entertainments, though I never had my father's felicity with them.
I will say one thing for me, though: My sons turned out better than I did.