Tag Archives: father

To my father and father-in-law, with all due respect

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.

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Where have all the station wagons gone?

I’ve never paid much attention to fashion; not for clothes or hairstyles. I’m not particularly mindful of trends when it comes to restaurants, or music, or vacation spots. And I’m only vaguely aware of what’s on the New York Times Best Sellers list. I shouldn’t be surprised then, that when I set out to buy a new station wagon it turned out I’d missed an automotive trend.

I was still driving a station wagon, a 1998 Subaru Legacy. The fact that it needed struts, at twelve years old, was compelling enough to convince us to finally replace it. There was spirited discussion about whether or not we needed a station wagon (if we ever truly did). When we bought the Subaru we didn’t know how many kids we’d have, or what kind of sports they’d be into. It seemed logical, if not inevitable, that we add a station wagon to our transportation mix. Now here we were, twelve years later, parents of an only child whose soccer cleats never required more than the space her feet occupied. Nonetheless, we couldn’t ignore the desire to have a car with enough room to bring home purchases from the occasional trip to Ikea.

Our other car is a Prius. During its peak cruising season it can hit fifty miles per gallon. The only way to get that kind of mileage in a second car was to purchase another Prius. We agreed that our second car should have more cargo capacity than the Prius, with the best possible mileage. I subscribed to Consumer Reports online (a blog post for another day) so I could research our options. Searching for good gas mileage and cargo capacity, for under $25,000, produced a short list with nothing that they considered “station wagons.” As a result, we are now the somewhat abashed owners of a 2011 Subaru Outback Crossover Wagon.

A crossover wagon is, apparently, more than a station wagon, but not quite an SUV (a trend I couldn’t have missed if I were blind). The industry can call it what they want, but when we stood in our garage, trying to admire our new Outback, my husband looked at me and said, “I think we just bought an SUV.” We’re vaguely embarrassed, and a little ashamed of our new car. We drive our Prius proudly and feel a little hangdog in the Outback. However, on our recent trip to Lake Placid, the Outback averaged 33 miles per gallon, which is better than some of the smaller cars that Consumers liked. It’s a good thing, because we’ll be driving that Outback for a long time.

My father taught me that a car should be driven until it dies under you. And even then, there can be life after death. When the engine went on my old Chevy (oh, pardon me, Chevrolet) Duster on the Mass Pike, it wasn’t dead enough for my dad. He insisted it would be fine once we had a new, used engine put in it. I let him manage that, and subsequently sold it to my younger sister for a grand, so I could move up to a used Toyota Tercel.

My father is still driving his beloved 1988 station wagon. I don’t remember the make or model. It doesn’t really matter because whatever it is, they don’t make it anymore.

Call your dad

Another Mother’s Day has come and gone. Hallmark and its ilk made out like bandits; FTD is still recovering from the onslaught of last-minute, guilt-ridden orders for flowers; and even restaurants that don’t normally offer Sunday brunch are licking their chops over the land office business they did. But what of the mothers, I ask? Are the recipients as pleased with the attention as the businesses are with the cash infusions?

Mother’s Day too often functions like a maternal Yom Kippur. On that Jewish holiday you’re either deemed worthy of being sealed into the Book of Life for the following year, or not. Once you’re in, you can pretty much relax for another year until it’s time to take stock and atone for your sins just in time for the next round of the Days of Awe. Taking Mom out for brunch once a year, however, doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for the next 364 days.

There’s a generally accepted rule in business that there should be nothing in an employee’s annual review that will come as a surprise to them. If you manage someone who does not perform to your expectations it behooves you to meet with them regularly to try to help them improve. If they’re not making the desired changes at least they’re not surprised when you tell them that something drastic may have to happen.

If you are in the habit of telling your mom you love her, and showing it in little ways throughout the year, I’ll bet she’d excuse you for not contributing to Hallmark’s coffers on Mother’s Day. Conversely, if you treat your mom badly all year, do you honestly think that one gesture is going to make up for it?

And what of the mother who is also a daughter, and a daughter-in-law? Which title takes precedence? As a daughter, are you obligated to spend time with your mother rather than taking your rightful place as Queen-for-a-day within your nuclear family? Is it acceptable to be the honoree at brunch while your own mother sits alone in the dark saying, “No, no, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine here all by myself.”

As a daughter, I could do without one more obligation on my calendar to worry about. I could probably ignore Mother’s Day and not lose my place in her affections; my mother knows I love her. I would, however, like my daughter to make at least one positive gesture in my general direction each year and if Mother’s Day facilitates that, count me in.

And just when we mothers have successfully navigated the emotional waters of Mother’s Day, it’s time to pass the baton to dad for Father’s Day. I think I’ll call mine today and tell him I love him, just to get a jump on the holiday.

Sometimes fat is good

Passover and Easter were earlier than usual this spring but like clockwork colleges all over the country sent out their admission’s decision letters right on time. This annual rite of spring doesn’t affect my house this year, we have four years to go, but it’s easy to get caught up in the drama when you know someone whose child has been wrestling them to be first at the mailbox for the past week.

I remember my own experience like it was yesterday (and in my case this yesterday was over thirty years ago). I know firsthand that the failures and triumphs of admission’s week will trail these seniors for the rest of their lives (or until they’ve completed twenty years of therapy). I was a lack-luster high school student (as you may recall from last week’s post, Memory lane is a lonely road) and my father despaired of me getting in anywhere respectable. While my friends were grudgingly adding UMass as a “safety school” just in case there was an act of G-d and they didn’t get into the more prestigious universities, my dad was strongly advising me not to waste his money applying to anywhere other than UMass. I ignored him and applied to half a dozen or more schools, none of which was UMass.

I knew from all the seniors that had come before me that a thin envelope was not even worth opening since it signaled defeat; you wanted the fat ones. On April 9th, my father’s birthday, I got my first envelope, and it was fat. I’m sure I was happy that I was now assured a college education, but that paled next to the pleasure I took in waving that big, fat letter in my dad’s face and saying, “So there!”

The real victory that week was that I was accepted by a school that had rejected my straight-A, over-achieving, older sister. (In deference to her, since I’m sure this must still be a painful memory, being bested by her academically inferior little sister, I won’t name the school here but do email me if you’re curious.)

At the gym today, my neighbor on the next elliptical was shaking her head over the fact that her daughter had gotten into Oberlin, but not Tufts, but that her daughter’s friend had gotten into Tufts and not Oberlin. We agreed that there must be a capricious element to the whole process that no amount of extra-curricular activities could defend against. That knowledge, however, does nothing to take the sting out of receiving a thin envelope from the school you have your heart set on.

Even though I know it’s long past time for me to define myself by which colleges I was accepted by, I won’t be giving that up anytime soon. My other sister, also a straight-A, over-achiever, tells me that there’s no way we’d get into those colleges today. I say that’s the opinion of someone who didn’t have to buck the odds in the first place.

Memory lane is a lonely road

My parents finally kicked me out of the house. Okay, technically they kicked my stuff out of the house. It’s true that I bought my first house over twenty years ago but I’ve happily continued to use theirs as my off-site storage facility. The recent rain flooded their basement which in turn prompted them to start throwing things out. Years of experience has taught them that it’s unwise to pitch things that belong to me without asking first so they skipped that step and appeared at my house with a large box which they unceremoniously dumped on the floor. Dad said, “This is yours. You decide what to do with it.”

The box was labeled ‘Judy’s school stuff.’ I left it where it had landed in my front hall for a couple of weeks while I worked up the energy for a long trip down memory lane. The smell of the box, which had spent multiple decades in a musty basement, finally compelled me to explore the contents so I could decide what to do with them and air out my hallway.

As labeled, the box contained school papers and other treasures from elementary school through high school. A selection of notable finds included a ticket to a production of ‘Lil’ Abner’ that we did in Jr. High that had a bit of Mark V.’s fake mustache taped to it; a letter I wrote to NBC in 1973 protesting the cancelation of Bonanza which, along with letters to Save the Children and the local Board of Selectman, was apparently a school project not evidence of my precociousness as I originally thought; a tenth grade World Civilization paper marked ‘C-, barely’; and a paper where the teacher wrote, ‘Where’s the argument? I know you like controversy. I see it in class all the time.’ I was surprised to discover that I was not as bad at math as I remembered, or as good at everything else.

Over the course of several days (memory lane is a long road) I tried to engage my daughter in the review of my early years but she was singularly uninterested. I had her intrigued for a minute when I undertook an explanation of mimeograph machines but she wandered off when it became clear that I didn’t actually know how they worked. My husband lit up briefly when I gave him a printout from an early computer which we were teaching to play blackjack (or maybe it was teaching us) but mostly he nodded and said, “That’s nice, dear,” sounding exactly like his own father. I finally resigned myself to the fact that my cherished mementos are never going to become anyone else’s. Down the road when my daughter is cleaning out my basement she’s not going to stop and read my old papers, she’s going to toss them out. I guess I’ll save her the trouble. I kept a few representative things (all the papers that got A’s) and recycled the rest. I’ll have to remember to tell my parents that if they come across any of their school papers while they’re cleaning they should feel free to throw them out.

Mind you, this applies only to items found in the basement. When it’s time to clean out my room I’d prefer they not touch anything without asking me first.