My father’s mind was a tidy place. As was his sock drawer; and his car; and his desktop, where the implements of his trade were meticulously laid each evening in anticipation of the next day’s feast. There would be memos to write, letters to open, correspondence to read. A file for everything and everything in its file. Organize, deputize, supervise – my father’s mantra.
He was enormously successful: successful as an attorney, and as an industrialist, and as a husband and a father and a brother and a friend. He employed hundreds of people in America and in Europe; and gave generously of his time and of his money, always ready and willing to give back to a world that had treated him very handsomely. He was an elegant man, in the truest sense of the word.
He was also quite a dresser, my father, and was no stranger to the fitting rooms of many of the finest haberdasheries in Manhattan.
Me, I only wear clothes to keep from getting arrested. The perfect crease, the total absence of stains – these are matters with which I’ve chosen not to wrestle. This was always a source of friction between us. This, and my seeming aversion to following in his footsteps.
Fathers build businesses with the hope that their sons will take them over. And had mine built a chain of luxury hotels, he might have found me not very far behind. But my dad had built a chain of metal stamping factories - loud, greasy manufacturing facilities where the most recent crop of huddled masses might flock to stave off starvation until such time as they could find that better life they had come in search of.
That a boy like me, who had grown up in the lap of significant comfort, if not downright luxury, would not be enthralled by the prospect of reigning over such an empire was a concept my father just couldn’t grasp.
“You grew up hungry, Dad. And you fought a war in which six million of your people were annihilated. To you, money meant security. But to me? I’ve known security since the day I was born. And I don’t have any desire to be an industrialist. I want to write.”
That may have been the single longest speech I ever made to my father. And it fell on deaf ears.
“No one’s asking you to make any decisions now,” he answered. “You’ll go to law school; and then you’ll take inventory.” He was big on taking inventory.
And this thing about law school was an idée fixe with him. Himself a lawyer, he viewed law school attendance as a necessary discipline if a man was to succeed in life. For my part, I was about as intrigued by the prospect of going to law school as I was by the prospect of going to Vietnam. So again we butted heads.
Looking back, I can see that he was right about pretty much everything. Computers were the wave of the future that he predicted when he told me to learn about them back in the Sixties; yes, the restaurant business was a very risky business with an unhealthy lifestyle; no, I’d never be able to support a family by writing stories. And yeah, I probably should have gone to law school. Might have been real good at it. Certainly would have made raising four kids a whole lot easier than the paths I chose.
He died a few years ago, Dad. He was eighty-five and had lived a full and rich life. We were always close despite our differences; but we grew ever closer during the last years of his life. I would attribute this to the fact that his mind was slowing down, which put us on a more level playing field.
But as close as we were, I don’t think that my father was ever capable of considering my life outside the context of his expectations for me. With the best of intentions, he always made me feel that I was not fulfilling my potential. That’s quite a burden to place on someone over whom one has as much control as does a father over a son.
Lately I’ve taken to behaving a lot like Dad – only worse. Here’s an example taken from a recent exchange between my oldest son and me. We had already covered my view that the job he had just taken, a low-paying position with very little responsibility, demonstrated a marked lack of ambition. From here we moved on to his prospects for the future with regard to his relationship with his girlfriend.
SON: Dad, I really love this girl. And I want to marry her. And I know she loves me.
ME: You think she’ll still love you when the trailer starts leaking?
Ouch! To my father’s flair for disapprobation, I had managed to add just a touch of cruelty. And to make matters worse, there’s no un-saying these things once they’re said. To measure their staying power would require carbon 14.
And if I had it to say all over again? How about: “the most important thing in the world to me is that you be happy. And I am in no position to judge what it is that will make you happy. This business of being judgmental appears to be an inherited trait, and, henceforward, I will make every effort to bridle it, as I am well aware of how detrimental it can be.”
It was only after rehearsing these words repeatedly that I picked up the phone and dialed. One ring… two… three… The machine picked up after the fourth ring. I waited for the beep.
“Get yourself a goddamn job that utilizes your abilities, and stop behaving like a &%#@*-in ostrich with your *#@ -in’ head stuck in the sand.”