My mother calls me and says, “We need to figure out what to put on Daddy’s headstone.”
“How about beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather?”
“No, that’s so ordinary.”
She’s right. It doesn’t begin to capture who he truly was.
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“Can we think about it for a couple of days?”
“OK, but keep in mind, the funeral home said that inscriptions cost $15 a letter.”
Fifteen dollars a letter. With the meter running, I try to think of as few words as possible to capture my father’s life story.
He was a 6-foot-tall, bespectacled, bald-headed man with an extraordinary spirit. He died from a heart attack, just six months ago, while playing poker in a south Florida casino. Adjusting to a world without him unnerves me in unpredictable ways.
Just the other day, as I was rushing through the aisles of the grocery store, I automatically steered my cart toward the Father’s Day cards – and stopped cold. It hit me hard. For the first time, I would have no need for one. I would no longer have to choose between funny and sentimental or worry about mailing it early enough to get there by Sunday.
I miss the things I knew I’d miss – his love, kindness, wisdom, steadfastness and ability to see humor in the mundane. I smile remembering the time he jumped up, flapped his arms and danced in sync to the song of the cuckoo clock hanging on our living room wall.
I often think of him in his sporting goods store, where I would help out. He put out a basket of batteries by the cash register with a sign, “33 cents each or three for a dollar.” Whenever a customer said, “I’ll take three,” he would nudge me in the side with a conspiring nod, paying homage to P.T. Barnum.
What I didn’t realize I’d miss are the parts of him he never shared. He was not a “do what I say not what I do” parent. He took his patriarchal role seriously and modeled the values he demanded from his children: hard work, integrity, responsibility and optimism.
And now I wonder – what are the feelings and qualities he didn’t show? How wide was the gap between who he was and who he allowed us to see? Did he experience guilt, jealousy or fear? Did he have secret joys or hidden pleasures?
Were there bits of sadness behind the stoicism? Did resentment piggyback on responsibility? Like so many men of his generation, he kept his feelings to himself and loathed excuses and complaints.
Right before his 80th birthday, I asked him to write about his life. A few weeks later, he sent me a one-page sheet chronologically listing the bare facts: when he and my mother were married, the births of me and my siblings, and his career highlights.
I wanted more. I knew he was too content to have demons – but too human not to have vulnerabilities. Did he simply sweep away doubt, like an annoying gnat, and redirect his energy toward achievement?
As a parent of adult children, I sometimes wonder how much of ourselves we should expose to our kids. What are appropriate boundaries? We want them to know they need not be perfect, but is it advisable to expose our own warts and blemishes?
We urge them to “find their passion”; is it necessary to disclose if we are stifled in a tedious career? We extol the importance of savings; must we share if our credit cards are maxed? We tell them to marry for love; do we divulge if we settled for like? How do we balance authenticity with responsibility?
I know there is not a simple or correct answer. Some fathers are comfortable sharing feelings and emotions with their children, and through the years they develop healthy, friendlike relationships with them. Other fathers, due to aging or illness, have no choice – the parent becomes the child.
Still others, like mine, are firmly planted in patriarchal roles, revealing only that which they wish their children to emulate.
In the end, I am grateful that my father stood steadfast on his pedestal. That he was always strong allowed us to sometimes be weak. There was comfort in “father knows best.” He gave us gifts of consistency and predictability. His sense of responsibility and generosity would never allow him to burden us with his own angst.
I just need eight letters: $120.
Laura Black (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Baltimore-area community leader, attorney and businesswoman. She is the author of “Big Butts, Fat Thighs, and Other Secrets to Success” (Cazco Press, 2012). She wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.