Wednesday, June 19, 2013

General Dad (Ret.)

It starts innocently, virtuously. “Don’t go near the street, sweetie.” Then, later, from where you watch beneath a big magnolia tree, “Don’t put your weight on the small branches. They won’t hold you.” I suppose from the way that one grinned down at me when I said that--Sorry, old boy, I don’t think you can reach me up here--I should have known my days of being in charge were numbered.

Still, I tried to keep up. I was protector-in-chief. It was a full time job. I wasn’t comfortable outsourcing it, especially to my charges. As they got older and more aggressively resisted my sage counsel, I became more insistent. One of Grant’s friends called me “The General.” I took it as a compliment.
At some point, I may have lost sight of the strategic objective and focused too obsessively on tactical victories. You can’t keep children safe, after all, if they don’t do what you tell them to (or do what you tell them not to). Obedience becomes the key. Generals must be obeyed. Everyone knows that.
Now they are all off at foreign postings: jobs, marriages, a last year in college. I don’t get to tell them what to do. When I try, they stop calling. The funny thing is—and this surprises me about myself—I’ve stopped (almost) wanting to. Maybe this is because I am so proud of the wisdom they have gained, of the smart choices I see them making. There is some of that, certainly. But something more is at play here, something I don’t quite understand.
My uncle used to tell the story about coming home drunk one night and, as he slipped in the front door, being greeted by his father’s fist. He said the next thing he knew he was looking up from floor at his father’s bathrobe fluttering down the hall. Later, when I was bumping along in my early twenties, I used to try to get advice from that same man, my grandfather. I could hardly pry it out of him. He was one of the smartest men I knew. He would have had great advice. He gave me twenty bucks for no reason now and then. I guess he figured that was what he had that I might actually find useful.
Maybe my grandfather felt guilty about decking his son. Maybe he was just tired of young men not listening to him. Maybe that’s what’s happened to me. I do feel guilty about all the too-harsh things I ever did to my children. It does get frustrating when they do something I think will be bad for them. But I don’t push them much anymore. It’s a nice change, one that is good for me and—although it's hard to believe that anyone could be better off without my advice—them.
My children are my friends now. I don’t tell my friends what to do. I listen to them. If they ask what I think, I tell them, but cautiously, guardedly. It’s almost like I’ve become afraid to influence them. They have to live with their choices, so they have to make them. What might be good for me, might not be best for them.
I wonder what that boyhood friend of Grant’s would think of me now. I imagine he would shake his head at my new-found reticence and pat me on the head they way one does an old dog with no teeth. He and Grant might sit out on the porch talking about old times while I nap in the sun, whimpering and kicking my legs as I dream of children I have chased.


  1. oh, I love this one, Mac! I really do. The "general" and war metaphors, and then that last wonderful image of the old dog with no teeth, dreaming of children he's chased. You capture -- seemingly so effortlessly -- the bafflement of earlier parenthood ("Why aren't they listening to me?") and the pride and bafflement of older parenthood ("How is it that I am able just to listen to them?"). I so agree, it becomes absolutely a relief and a consolation, to have the chance to rest a bit, and let it go, trusting that children, now all grown up, will do the very best they can, just as we have.

  2. I love the ending especially! So nice. And I will wait to see if it's true...