Manhood 101: Having Your Masculinity and Your Marriage Too
When it comes to macho, you can’t get more manly than my father. Air Force fighter pilot, Air National Guard Hall of Famer, Golden Gloves boxer. Kind of a cigar-smoking cross between Robert Duval in The Great Santini and George C. Scott in Patton, except that he’d never be cruel to his children, nor would he have suffered fools gladly enough to make general.
He’s actually more like the late Paul Newman, happily married to the same woman for sixty-six years, still willing to match anyone drink for drink and insist on picking up the tab for the whole bar. He has a gruff voice, refuses to mince words, and radiates an atheletic energy that’s served him well throughout his life.
So far, so good. You’re with me.
But here’s where the story goes off the beaten track. When the going got tough, he didn’t go shopping, precisely. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what happened.
My father was stationed in Alaska when he mastered the art of braiding my sisters’ hair, changing my brother’s diapers, doing laundry and even cooking a mean set of pancakes. No, it wasn’t some early version of Wife Swap, but a much grittier reality show, one you’ve not seen on TV.
He and my mom had been married for seven years and had four children, aged six years to six weeks. One minute Dad was bringing his squadron home for dinner at three in the morning (surprise!); the next he was being told that his lovely wife had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and would be quarantined in the hospital for an indefinite period of time.
When he tells the story, it’s with characteristic self-deprecation. “I didn’t have a clue. I remember Celia wanted a clothes dryer. ‘Are you kidding?’ I asked her. “Do you know what those things cost?”
A few weeks into Mom’s illness, he saw the light – or was it a Whirlpool? – in the rivers of wash created by four sets of snowsuits, wool scarves and mittens and the cloth squares that were – in those days – not an alternative but rather the only barrier standing between him and much less pleasant overflows.
Diaper delivery wasn’t an option, not even a gleam in an eco-marketer’s eye. Deliverance came in a large steel box that rendered clotheslines obsolete and turned my father into a walking-talking spokesperson for the plight of the unsung housewife.
When not hunting for perenially lost socks, he prayed. He began – as we recovering Catholics might say – to “offer things up.” First candy, which he loved, then cigarettes. As he tells it now, it was touch and go, because the next thing on his list, when my mother was transferred to the hospital that cured her, was going to be wine. “Just in the nick of time,” he laughs.
He is generous of heart and confident enough that he doesn’t need to resort to posturing to prove his worth. I never once heard him brag. While some of his contemporaries blathered in bars about their exploits in World War II, Dad would be home with Mom. They often had dinner guests who stayed on into the evenings, talking about religion, or politics or literature but I never once heard him talk about shooting down planes or the courage it took to keep flying even when his buddies were killed. In his late eighties, and only after coaxing from all of us, he began to tell us about the war, but even then, his stories were about other men’s heroism, not his own.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s not touchy-feely and wouldn’t know therapeutic lingo if he stepped in it. Nevertheless, he is profoundly sensitive to the wounds of others, visible or not. In his gruff way, he welcomes a guest to our house, or hands a beggar a twenty, teaching all of us by example his central creed: Love One Another. This extends to seeing the best in people, an attitude that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. He is rich in true friends, young and old and among his most ardent admirers are the children he raised with an eye towards their possibilities, even when circumstances might have begged to differ.
I remember being a self-aborbed teenager, caught up in my own world, and dismissive of the treasures by which I was surrounded: the siblings I would come to cherish, the parents I assumed all children had. We’d finished eating dinner and doing dishes when Dad asked me to take out the trash. “But that’s not my job,” I protested. For some reason, he held onto his patience. “Consider it a labor of love, Sheila. If you do it, your mother won’t have to.”
That’s all he said. A labor of love. I probably grumbled all the way to the garbage can about unfairness, but the words left their mark. It may have been my brother’s chore, but by sending me instead, he reinforced two points. One was a longstanding rule that we weren’t allowed to ‘tell’ on one another. This was a policy rare in those days, rare even now. Its intention was to promote unity among the ‘troops’ as my father still calls us. We certainly fought fiercely, pinching, hitting and snapping at each other. Nevertheless, we remain exceptionally attached, both to one another and to the parents whose fondest dream was the creation of a happy family. When I think about it now, all they achieved, that happy family is right up there with military honors and the Ph.D. he earned after ‘retiring’ at the age of forty-five. That he did it with ten children is almost as amazing as the fact I never heard my mother complain about the uncertainty such a move meant for her or for the family budget. Rightly so, she considered his accomplishments her own. So did my father. They were a team. He’d learned the hard way just how much her labor at home allowed him to excel in the world at large.
What I’ve learned from Dad’s example is that the honest work of love, the real ‘manning up,’ involves putting yourself, whoever you are and whatever you do, into your spouse’s shoes. The reason marriages thrive is that both partners break through their inexperience and empathize with the other’s challenges, whatever they may be. That’s the real lesson at the heart of my father’s heroism. He can shake his head at his former self, bare his soul in unflattering light, be humble enough to admit when he was wrong, and imaginative enough to remember, long after my mother had returned to the kitchen, that love’s labors – unlike socks – are never really lost, just tucked away in a place it takes a brave heart and eagle’s gaze to notice.