Keep Your Eye on Dad

Fathers teach what is important

I finally read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. I know I am a decade too late, but things don’t seem terribly different ten years later. I liked the men. I have enjoyed Wolfe’s men, especially the way they view manhood, ever since The Right Stuff. All the men in Bonfire — from the pimp-rolling young blacks to the mule-headed macho Irish detective to the power-hungry Jewish assistant D.A. to the pathetically snobbish Brit journalist to the narcissistic WASP bond trader and on and on — make their own fumbling attempts at being men, to the endless amusement of the reader, except that the reader had to make his own fumbling attempt and so ought to keep his laughter muted.

Wolfe has a keen eye for certain aspects of the male attitude; in particular, the ego-backed, testosterone-drenched, prolonged-adolescence, law-of-the-jungle aspects. But the following paragraph, relating a revelation that comes to the WASP Sherman McCoy, surprised me.

“And in that moment, Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers, sooner or later. For the first time, he realized that the man before him was not an aging father, but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own, and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps, love, adopted a role called Being a Father, so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important — a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life. And now that boy, that good actor, had grown old and fragile and tired, wearier than ever at the thought of trying to hoist the Protector’s armor onto his shoulders again, now, so far down the line.”

Wolfe’s vision of the particular is excellent, but I think he stumbled here in going for the universal: the discovery that fathers are boys playing the part of Protector. When I was young, it was Mom who assured me that if a monster ever came out from under the bed to get me, she would tear it to pieces with her fingernails. (This impressed me to no end; Mom is by nature such a peaceful person.) It was Mom I called for when I woke from a nightmare and stared at my bedroom window, certain that the horror from my dream was about to crawl inside. Mom was the Protector, the womb of security.

Dad, on the other hand, was the one forcing me to confront the world and all its “chaos and catastrophe.” Dad was the one who, when asking if I had done something I shouldn’t have, reminded me that if I had done it and admitted it, I would be punished, but if I had done it and then lied about it, that would be much worse.

Dad was the one who refused to allow me to fight with Marcus King, a fellow third-grader who publicly challenged me by saying, “Make me” to some demand I made of him. The fight was scheduled, the boys were talking it up. I thought I had a decent chance of winning. How easy to go in, trade some punches, and have done with it. My schoolyard honor would be preserved.

But Dad condemned physical violence. He insisted that I settle this thing with Marcus through discussion, expressing sympathy for how he must be feeling, assuring him that neither of us really wanted to fight. This was a more mature, if far more humiliating resolution than fisticuffs. He helped me come up with my rebuttal to Marcus’s challenge, delivered days later: “I don’t fight on a ‘Make me.’” I was certain, on this and other occasions, that my world would end, that I would never be able to show my face at school again. I was wrong, Dad was right, and I grew up a little bit each time.

It was Dad who made me turn myself in to the principal after he found out I had been drinking at a high school cast party, a violation of school policy as well as the law. The principal stared at me, bewildered. Here was this honor student, this two-sport athlete, who was up to his neck in school-related activities, turning himself in for a crime that would result in his suspension from those activities for one academic quarter — the first student ever so punished since the policy’s institution. Dad did relent on one point; he allowed me to not squeal on those who had bought for me and drunk with me. Still, my confession was chaos and catastrophe enough for a high school kid, and the only protection Dad gave me was the painful tonic of doing the right thing.

Growing up, I had a good life. Protection on the more elemental levels — food, clothing, shelter from carpet bombing — was never an issue. But I doubt it was ever an issue for the pampered Sherman McCoy either.

I wonder if Wolfe makes Dad the Protector because he doesn’t know what else to make of him. A while back, I slogged through a long story in the Union-Tribune about whether dads matter in family life. The only concrete effect that anyone in the story pointed to was that Dad provides some sort of order and discipline, as opposed to the more nurturing mother.

The first thing that came to my mind was a sign in my dad’s office that read, “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” I think I understand something of what that means. Deirdre gave birth to Fin; she breastfed him. From the very beginning, when he was aware of little else besides his belly and her breast, she has been there, the provider of good things.

However much attention I give him, Fin still spends the majority of his day with Deirdre while I am working. She is akin to the air he breathes, a blessing that envelops him so completely that he has trouble comprehending her absence.

I am more distant, biologically and chronologically. In some ways, I will never be as close to my son as Deirdre. To some extent, this makes me the one to watch. Mom he knew in his bones; he had to learn me. What have I to do with him? How do I treat him? And, as the sign says, how do I treat Mom, the chief good in his young life? The peer relationship between Deirdre and me is the first one he encountered. It is also the most salient, since he is personally, almost physically attached to one of us. Mom’s love for him may in some way be taken for granted, the way air is taken for granted. But my love for him, my love for Mom, gains significance through my more removed status.

A friend of mine once told me a story he had heard as part of a college lecture: “Every Sunday while I was growing up,” recalled the lecturer, “on our way to church, my mother would drop my father off at the golf course. As a result, I developed an intense interest in golf.” “People always laugh at that,” commented my friend, “but I think there’s something to it. I think it’s true that mothers teach what is common, while fathers teach what is important.” By “common,” he meant the everyday, the lessons that come from constant example. But if you want to know what is most important in life, watch the more distant parent; see where he places his heart. Is it with the family? Is it with the job? Is it with God?

Every morning for many years now, my dad has spent time in prayer. He reads the Mass readings for the day, reads a meditation from a book like Divine Intimacy, and prays the Rosary. The example is not lost on me.

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