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PERSPECTIVES ON FATHERHOOD : Time Doesn't Ease the Weight of Sons' Worries

June 20, 1993|PAUL O'BRIEN | Paul O'Brien lives in West Covina.

While on a recent walk with my sons, ages 11, 4 and 2, I could not help but reminisce about strolls I took with my own father a quarter of a century ago. The course we followed was identical, for my wife, sons and I now live in the house in which I was raised. The neighborhood looks virtually the same. A few of the saplings are strangers to me, but middle-aged elms and maples stand as old friends. Fences of spruce and pine have been replaced by walls of wrought iron and cinderblock. Houses I knew as gray may now be beige; assuredly, though, stucco is stucco.

The memories of my youth weren't prompted by the physical familiarity. It was the conversation with the eldest boy that rattled my recollection. We all know the old saw about the more things change, the more they stay the same. To this I say, "baloney!"

A sampling of the questions I was asked on our walk:

"What would you do if a car stopped and some men got out and took the babies and me and put us in their car and took off?"

"Do you know that the boy who lives there and his friends gave each other tattoos in the garage?"

"Is it true that more teen-agers die from AIDS than from car accidents?"

"Do you think that David Koresh started it, or did the FBI start it?"

"Let's say I snuck up on somebody and caught them with a straw up their nose, could I just kick them and then tell the police?"

Whew! That's enough for now. I had no real answers for him. Each new question took my breath. Each hem and haw, each cough, each sigh was met with his forlorn stare, as if to say, "Papa, I want some answers."

They don't teach us this parenting stuff in school. I am not sure any longer that they teach it in life. I learned from my own father. I have his pat answers down pretty well. If Matthew asks me how to spell a word, I say, "You have a dictionary. Look it up." If he asks what my thoughts are about a book I read at his age or a new television show we both have seen, I say, "Well, what do you think?" and go on from there.

A backward glance at the burning questions I might have broached with my dad would resemble the following:

"Is Juan Marichal a bad person for hitting Johnny Roseboro over the head with a baseball bat, or was he just bad for a minute?"

"Mr. So-and-so drinks beer in his front yard. Is he an alcoholic?"

"Is Little League better for you than scouting, or is scouting better for you than Little League?"

"If I missed school because I was sick, but I really wasn't sick, is that something I have to tell the priest in confession?"

I suspect that I enjoyed the benefit of a father who is wiser than my sons' father. Still, I believe I could handle these sorts of questions. But, of course, they were my own. How easy was it, I wonder, for Dad to answer them?

The questions I asked my father seem more innocent. Perhaps they were only more subtle. Perhaps by extrapolation one could have predicted how they would have evolved into my son's more dramatic interrogation.

I just had to know.

"Hi, Dad. Yeah, I'm at work. I was just wondering: Did you ever find it difficult answering my questions when I was a kid? No. I'm not exploring my inner self, I am not going New Age on you or anything. I'm concerned, though. Matthew asks me the most distressing, depressing sorts of questions. I don't know how to answer them."

I gave my Dad a rundown of the perplexing issues my boy had brought to the fore on our walk.

"Easy? What do you mean, 'easy'? . . . Just ask him what he thinks? . . . And if his answers sound reasonable, don't worry? . . . Well, yes, I guess kids do ask questions they know the answers to, that they've probably worked out the problem in their own heads and want confirmation that they're on the right track. . . . I guess my hope is that even though Matthew's questions are more frightening than mine were, it doesn't mean that his life is more frightening. Just that the things he hears about are. . . . It matters more that he resolves the problems rationally than what the problems themselves are. That way, it's more likely that he'll be able to cope with problems in his own life. Am I on the right track? . . . Gee, thanks Dad."

It's a good thing I called him. I feel relieved--for now.

My old neighborhood is pretty much the same as when I was a boy. I'd bet it will be pretty much the same 20 or 30 years from now. Today's saplings will be middle-aged then, and newer coats of paint will reflect the fashion. But stucco assuredly will still be stucco, and my father's wisdom will still be vital to me--and to the grandchildren I hope to have in tow.

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