My sisters and I have never been particularly kind to our father. One would scold him for his lack of interest in all things sartorial. The other would gasp if he called a cashier “honey,” as he thanked her, and accepted his change. And we all agreed that it was not acceptable to cross his ankles over the corner of the table, with, or without socks, at any time. It mattered to us not one whit that our father was a doctor of Internal Medicine, a smart, clever man who seemed to know something about everything, and who taught himself how to play the violin so he could recreate the music of his beloved Beethoven. None of that could compensate for the fact that he was raising three girls, whose experiences were as different from his, as his was from his Russian immigrant father.
While I was not vastly more tolerant of my father than my sisters were, I had a greater appreciation of his place in the world than they did. One summer, I worked in his office, helping his secretaries create bills and file insurance paperwork. I observed the deferential way the women spoke to him. I saw the way his patients thanked him on their way out. And I listened to their stories about how wonderful he was when I was introduced as, “the Doctor’s daughter.” After that summer, I couldn’t be quite as critical as my sisters.
In my husband’s family, everyone treats my father-in-law with great respect, except me. My husband gasps audibly if I chastise my father-in-law for using his fingers to rearrange the roast on the platter, or doing something I consider equally unacceptable. My father-in-law is also sartorially-challenged, and he shares traits of men of my father’s generation, that make women of mine bristle. There is a major difference in how my husband and I were raised, that informs how we treat our fathers.
My father-in-law is a physics professor of some renown. If you travel in scientific circles, with an interest in ultra-cold atoms, he’s a rock star. It was rare that a week went by in my husband’s childhood, that there wasn’t a visiting professor, a grad student, or an international luminary at the dinner table, all treating my father-in-law with the utmost respect, if not adulation. I, however, was not at those dinners. I was at my home, reminding my father that it wasn’t sanitary to open the milk carton by putting his finger inside the carton and pulling out.
This past weekend, my father-in-law received a Bicentennial Medal from his alma mater, Williams College. He also delivered the annual Fall Convocation Address, which this year coincided with the induction of Williams’ seventeenth president. Listening to him speak, I was reminded of what an amazing man he is, one of a rare breed of theoretical physicists who pursue their work for the sheer thrill of the intellectual chase, and whose success impacts our lives in ways they never even dreamed of. Surrounded by the faculty of Williams, the class of 2011, and the delegates sent from colleges and universities around the country to welcome the new president, I resolved to treat my father-in-law with more respect from now on. At least until I catch him using his fingers to serve the pie.