Friday, April 06, 2007

My Daughter's Gift to Me

Uncle Don was my father's only sibling. When I was growing up, he was a shadowy figure, shrouded in legend. Don was the one who told off my bitter, miserable grandparents, left his wife and son, and ran away to Mississippi. He remarried, fathered a couple of other kids, divorced again, and moved to Orlando. I met him years later, when I was in my early teens. He looked like Kenny Rogers, with a grizzled beard and eyes that were constantly laughing. In his relaxed, laconic style, there was nothing of the grim restraint that characterized my Long Island family. In fact, the only similarity between my grandparents and my uncle was that he was a (mostly) functional alcoholic.

Once Don came back into our lives, we started to see him every couple of years. He and my father could never truly be friends--my grandparents had hardwired hatred and competition into their sons from birth--but the two brothers also understood each other, and there was a genuine love that underlay the fist fights and drunken insults. For me, it was incredibly sad: even as a kid, I saw that, if they could ever get past their compulsive need to attack each other, the two men would be an unstoppable force. I also knew that this would never happen. The Watson boys would always be the best of enemies.

When my father died, Don came to visit. My sisters were convinced that he was sniffing around in search of whatever money he could scam off us. This might be true; he disappeared pretty soon after the funeral. I still like to give him the benefit of the doubt, though. He had his own life and family in Cincinnati and he needed to get back to work. Regardless, he did me a pretty big favor. Shortly after my dad died, I found myself completely overwhelmed. I had to arrange to have Dad's body shipped from the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville to the Everly Funeral Home in Fairfax while I was also planning for his funeral, dealing with visiting relatives, trying to get a job to support my family, writing an obituary, and making sure my sisters were doing well in school. In the middle of all of this, the well pump broke, and we found ourselves without water. Realizing that I was a hair's breadth away from a total meltdown, Don put his wife Trish in charge of the well and took me out for a beer. One beer turned into many, and I found myself unable to feel my toes. For the first, and only, time in my life, I had gotten wasted in a mall bar.

As we were draining pitchers, Don got me talking. We discussed all the responsibilities that I had to face, and my plans for the future. In the process, we got on to his relationship with Dad and the fact that they'd never been able to move beyond the hatred that their parents had so carefully cultivated. In the middle of all of this, Don said something really amazing. He told me that I'd completely changed my father. According to Don, Dad had always been taciturn and agressive as a child, and had never really been able to tone down his brutal, cruel intelligence far enough to deal with mere mortals. After I was born, Don told me, my father had finally allowed his humor to emerge, and had become a really funny, lovable person.

All my life, I had enjoyed my father's wicked, keen wit and incredible personal warmth. It had never occurred to me that these were not permanent parts of his personality, much less that I had had anything to do with them. Of course, I realize that Don might have been buttering me up, but I don't think he was. I think he was simply acknowledging a part of my father that he couldn't help loving.

Years later, I came across an interview with my mother's father, Maurice Kramer. Maurice was a health fanatic. He worked out a few days a week, swam constantly, and only ate "natural" food. What's really bizarre is that he followed this regimen in the 1940's, when "healthy lifestyle" could be roughly translated as "only smoking three packs of Luckys a day." At any rate, Maurice stated that he had performed his first handstand in his forties. I had always thought that Maurice was born in a gym, and it floored me to realize that he began working out only after the birth of his first few children. I began to glimpse how much fatherhood had changed even that unchangeable man.

I found out that my wife was pregnant in January 2005. Since then, I quit smoking, gained 20 pounds, began working out three times a week, started doing cardio exercises every day, watched my diet, and dropped 35 pounds. I got a tattoo. I started writing a blog. I began preparations for moving my family to New York. Within the next few months, I will leave Southwest Virginia and teaching and will begin a new life and a new profession in a new city. I have dropped friendships that stressed me out and cultivated relationships that make my life more meaningful. I have, in a very real way, tried to become the person that I always wanted to be. On the other hand, I have also been worrying more and laughing less. I find myself desperately trying to preserve my own sense of humor, even as my sense of self completely changes.

I have not gotten on this self-improvement kick for shits and giggles. Unlike my parents, I want to live to see my children graduate from college. Like my parents, I want to show my daughter what it is to be successful and self-actualized. I want my legacy to be one of joy and fulfillment, not bitterness and disappointment. I want to give George the best of my childhood, and demonstrate the best of my adulthood.

Thinking about my father and my grandfather, I wonder if this is something that every parent goes through. I have heard people whine about how having children forced them to give up their dreams, or cramped their lifestyles. It seems to me that George is making me pursue my dreams, and is forcing me to expand my lifestyle. Because of my daughter, I'm becoming the adult that I always wanted to look up to.

I can't help but think that our children are, at least to some extent, put here to remind us that our dreams are still attainable.

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  • Wonderful piece, crankster. This is exceptionally well written.

    With my childrearing years now about over (son is 22, daughter, 18), I can tell you that being a dad has been the single best part of my life.

    And the time passes with unbelievable swiftness, so enjoy every moment of it.

    Sure, your kids will sometimes disappoint you, and will sometimes make your life unbelievably complicated. But at the moment when death beckons, it will be the knowledge that my kids are moving ahead, that I've done a pretty fair job of sending them off into the world, that will allow me to smile and relax into eternity.

    By Blogger Mercurious, At April 6, 2007 at 9:18 AM  

  • Very nice and thought provoking. It is hard to imagine what our parents were like before we were born.

    By Blogger Deb, At April 6, 2007 at 11:10 AM  

  • Good lord man, now I have to worry about your blog making me all misty at work! That was a touching piece.

    In other news, I am SO GLAD you are going to be in NY. Just be careful that your brain doesn't exlpode with the opportunities the city provides.

    By Anonymous Joey McD, At April 6, 2007 at 12:37 PM  

  • Ah Crankster, beautifully expressed, well reasoned, and insightful. Good to have you back.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At April 6, 2007 at 1:06 PM  

  • That was really beautiful and well said. Only after I had my boys (3 under 6) have I really grasped the concept of "the future" and that my "present" does play a part in their individual "futures". Sounds elementary but there is a shift that occurs when either you experience an epiphany or have kids that puts everything into perspective.
    Right on such a great note to start the weekend off right.

    Wishing you well

    By Blogger Danielle, At April 6, 2007 at 2:03 PM  

  • AWW. It is a shame that your dad and uncle could never quite get over their issues. It's great that you could maintain a relationship with your uncle and that he was able to help out and be there for you when you needed it and give you some insight into your father!

    By Blogger Claudia, At April 6, 2007 at 3:07 PM  

  • You're doing fine! The water glass is more than half full. Good news, it's not water, it's beer. And rye shooters!

    By Blogger The CEO, At April 6, 2007 at 3:17 PM  

  • Mercurious-
    Thanks for the feedback. I really like that idea that our children are the permanent part of us, the piece that we send into the future. Thanks for dropping in!

    What's really bizarre for me is imagining my parents dating and getting into all the "what ifs" that branch off from that idea.

    My brain is bordering on explosion every time I visit. I think I'm just going to have to overload and deal with the repercussions.

    BTW, have a great anniversary weekend!

    It's great to be back. Of course, I'm just trying to keep up.

    I know what you mean--kids give you a concept of the passage of time, and your role in that process.

    That's exactly it: he had some good points and some bad points, but Don was there when I needed him.

    Rye shooters, eh? Why do I think I'm in trouble?

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 6, 2007 at 4:19 PM  

  • It sounds like you have everything under control in spite of the emotional time-bombs that were planted in your younger years. It seems that few people escape their youth without significant damage being done. In my limited experience, fewer still discover the source of their misery and actually do anything about it. I’m happy for you and even happier for your children.

    By Blogger slaghammer, At April 7, 2007 at 3:00 AM  

  • My husband is a pretty amazing person, isn't he?

    This one was full of a whole bunch of beauty and truth.

    If anyone ever wonders why I married him, I'll just point them to this post.

    By Blogger misanthropster, At April 7, 2007 at 7:48 AM  

  • Not too much makes me cry, but this touched my heart. A world without my three wonderful children would be unimaginable. I have learned life's lessons from them while I thought I was teaching. Nothing I have given up, money, time, aspirations, or love has not been rewarded ten times over.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At April 7, 2007 at 8:22 AM  

  • What a beautiful post. My exhusband has made me face how parental behavior will affect my children as they become adults. It's heartbreaking and somehow, also, enlightening for my boys. They will face this world much better prepared than I was. In a way, he has also made me step up to the plate.

    By Blogger Lee, At April 7, 2007 at 12:31 PM  

  • Wow..Crank....You mean the guy I met wasn't really you, but the you your daughter has made you? Sweet.
    Its a nice thing tho, to go back and look at how things came to be. Lots of us don't dare to but I do believe it puts a log of things in perspective.

    By Blogger Odat, At April 7, 2007 at 6:10 PM  

  • Beautifully written. You continue to give me something great to look forward to while having my morning tea.

    PS: sorry for being out of touch lately...I too have been trying to do a few things for myself. Good luck with the move! I'll be heading out to the states and making a stop in New York to see you this summer!

    By Blogger Omar Rawi, At April 8, 2007 at 2:12 AM  

  • What an incredible post and extremely engaing one. Thanks for sharing!

    "I can't help but think that our children are, at least to some extent, put here to remind us that our dreams are still attainable."

    I agree with the above statement completely. Most living things are hardwired to think that way.

    The best part that I liked was,

    "Because of my daughter, I'm becoming the adult that I always wanted to look up to."

    Right now I can say that about my wife. May be later will say about kids.

    And by the way, if you find that sailor in that pic, send him my way!

    By Blogger ramo, At April 8, 2007 at 2:31 AM  

  • What an amazing post. Having children certainly made me change quite a few things in my life. At first I was overwhelmed on how I was going to accomplish everything. Being a parent has made me slow down and enjoy the journey more than finding an end result from the journey. I'm blabbering here. My point is you are eloquent as usual and clearly state that having children can refocus a person and make their life better. Crap, more babbling. I hope you understand what I'm saying here.

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At April 8, 2007 at 6:41 PM  

  • Slaghammer-
    Thank you. Now, of course, there's the matter of sticking to my goals!

    Thank you. I hope I can always remember to keep that attitude of openness to my daughter.

    I'm impressed that you can find a way to learn from the problems with your husband, and a way to turn them into a useful tool for teaching your children.

    "You mean the guy I met wasn't really you, but the you your daughter has made you?"

    Well, to be honest, I can't put all the blame on her!

    I know what you mean, though--it's so important to occasionally consider how we got to where we are!

    So good to hear from you! I look forward to seeing you this summer!

    I'm always amazed by how much my wife has taught me! As far as the sailor, I'm pretty sure my dad didn't get his name, but I think the Russian Navy's full of Seamen!

    Pickled Olives-
    Thank you for the response--I got the point. For me, I'm learning from the refocusing, but might need to learn how to slow down. Thank you!

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 8, 2007 at 10:38 PM  

  • I just happened to swing by from Slaghammer's and found this to be a wonderful read.

    The best thing I think a parent can give his child is the feeling of being comfortable inside their own skins.

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 9, 2007 at 3:07 PM  

  • What a beautiful post. I think that people who whine about children cramping their style don't deserve to have them.

    Parenthood forces us to be our best selves more often, hopefully, because our children deserve no less. The responsibility is awesome but also the most rewarding thing we could do with our time and our breath.

    I raised my own best friends, and while I miss the little people they used to be, I am constantly thrilled and amazed at the adults they became. I wouldn't have missed all of it for anything.

    You are well on your way toward giving George that legacy of joy and fulfillment.

    Note to Misanthropster: Yes, he is quite a guy. You're lucky to have each other.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At April 10, 2007 at 9:04 PM  

  • Scott-
    I agree--it seems to me that that's the most important behavior to model.

    Thanks for dropping in!

    You express your thoughts so beautifully! You're right--our children deserve no less.

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 11, 2007 at 6:43 PM  

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