For 19 years I was lucky enough to celebrate Father’s Day from both sides of the holiday. Like a lot of things in life, I do not think that I appreciated how special that was until it was gone. I was a bridge between two generations, both shaping the man that I am today. Through that bridge flowed the lessons of the past and the promise of tomorrow.
“Take This letter that I give you,
Take it sonny, hold it high
You won’t understand a word that’s in it
But you’ll write it all again before you die”
- Brian May, “Father To Son”
When my ex-wife and I were expecting our first child we did not find out the gender in advance and I have to admit feeling slightly relieved when the doctor announced that I had a daughter. I am not the type of guy who watches football on Sundays, plays basketball with his buddies or participates in other types of “guy” rituals. It was bad enough worrying about the fragility of this little human, I did not want to also have to feel responsible for instilling his masculinity.
I settled easily into my new role as dad. My daughter was an easy going baby who grew into a tenacious, confident child (and then a strong, independent woman). As her personality developed I saw a lot of myself in her and we enjoyed a close bond. Ironically, she became the jock of the family.
My father and I had vastly different personalities, but sharing the title of “Dad” brought our similarities into focus. I always knew that my dad had a way of calming babies as our extended family’s growth can be traced by pictures of him next to sleeping babies. The effect was mutual. He was a man who was always on the go, but in these pictures, he was always asleep. On a trip back to New York to visit with my Parents, my dad and I watched the baby as our wives ran errands. They came back to find all three of us asleep.
As easy as it was to settle into his role as a grandfather of a baby, he faced challenges as my daughter grew. He would jump almost automatically into a disciplinarian role, even when her mother or I were around to correct her behavior.
My dad and I had vastly different parenting styles and I am sure that he did not trust me completely to get the job done. It was an uncomfortable conversation when I had to remind him that he was the grandfather and he should just enjoy his grandchild. But by the time his second grandchild was on the way, he had grown more comfortable in his role.
We knew before my son was born that he was going to be a boy. With the confidence of already having one child, I was not as intimidated by this prospect. That confidence was quickly called into question as my son was the exact opposite of his sister.
Apparently, stubbornness is a trait that runs in the males of our family. This manifested itself shortly after my son was born when he had a crying fit so bad that he actually popped out his belly button. His mother freaked, but a call to the pediatrician assured her that it was relatively normal. Our sanity was in more danger than his health.
This streak continued as he grew. As the youngest in the family at the time, my son did not like going to bed first. I do not think that he liked the fact that life was still going on without him and he would put up epic fights. One time I came home from night classes to find my ex-wife holding his door closed, crying and pleading for him to “just go to bed.”
My dad was spending more time with my family at this time because we were building a new room in my house. He was present for some of these bedtime tantrums and in every case, he stayed out of the fight. I could sense his eagerness to intervene, but he resisted. He had succeeded in becoming “Poppy.”
During these trips, my son became my dad’s little buddy. He would come home from preschool, go right to the refrigerator and grab a beer for my dad. They would then sit and talk about their days as my dad would actually take a break. All day, my dad and I would struggle to maintain a conversation, but the two of them with days that had nothing in common talked with ease. I was content just listening in and being happy for them both.
In my dad’s retirement years and especially through my divorce, my dad and I did grow closer. Conversations were no longer forced and we found that we had more in common than those days working on a room had indicated. I did not share his passion for the New York Giants, but we both ended up being very passionate about politics. It also turned out that negotiating divorce court required skills that were not too different from the ones he excelled at in his corporate life.
When I married Nicole, I not only found my soul mate but also became a father to bouncing eight-year-old triplets. With these new grandchildren, my father showed that he had perfected the art of being Poppy. The patience and calmness that was once reserved only for babies were now extended to full-grown children; this was definitely not the man I remember from my childhood. His journey was complete, even if I was not ready for it to end.
“What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end”
- Trent Reznor, “Hurt”
Uncharacteristically, my father had become a fan of Nine Inch Nails when we dragged him on a three-generational outing to Woodstock ’94. Therefore, it seemed natural to ask my son to play the song “Hurt” on the piano for my father’s memorial service. He was unfamiliar with it but I was amazed as he learned and perfected his performance within a day. Up until this part of the service, I had been rather numb as I listened to people talk about my dad. However, listening to my son play filled me with such pride that it brought the moment into clarity. My fears of having a son were unfounded.
Carl Petersen is a parent and special education advocate, elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, he was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” His past blogs can be found at www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.