Our family has a lot of birthdays in March. My dad and my aunt were this past week and my Big Brother, my sister and Baby Brother are all in a row next week. Today, being the Saturday in the middle, we're all going to cram ourselves into the minivan (or as many as will fit, anyway) and journey to my aunt's house for a family celebration.
Big Brother is going to be turning twenty, a fact that just boggles my mind. It seems, literally, like just a few days ago he was that cute little newborn cooing up at me in his crib. With Big Brother officially leaving his teens behind and planting both feet on the shores of adulthood I'm watching in wonder at the man emerging from my boy. More and more I'm seeing signs that the man he has patterned himself after is his Grandpa, my dad. Big Brother loves his father, no doubt about that, but his Grandpa is the man he looks up to and admires most. Grandpa is the one who has spent time with him, talked to him about right and wrong, always believed in him and encouraged him to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
My dad has a million stories about youthful misadventures, most of which just happen to come slipping out around the edges of some other conversation. Big Brother does the same thing. My dad takes the longest shortcuts known to man. Big Brother inherited that trait, too; He never drives in a straight line if he can find a twisty turny way to go instead. My dad can swear like a sailor (which, in fact, he once was), but never, not ever, did he do it at home with his family. Home and family were sacred and to be respected. I see big brother doing the same, reading his friends the riot act before he'll let them in the house. Some friends, who he knows might not be respectful, he won't allow to come in at all.
My dad is a family man, through and through. As a teenager I have to admit, I thought of him as a bit of a tyrant. My friends always said "your dad is so strict!" because on weekends he had us all weeding, painting, digging, hammering, vacuuming - always doing something around the house that took up a lot of time and energy. He was utterly impervious to eyerolling and teenage consternation. We got frequent lectures about "not hanging out on the street corner," not that we really knew what he was talking about. If he thought we were straying from the straight and narrow we would get up in the morning to find he'd left us long manifestos on the dinning room table, letting us know what we were doing wrong and what we needed to do better (He once wrote one on the back of my homework, which my teacher graded along with my assignment). But now I find myself being the same kind of tyrant. I've got my kids doing chores every weekend, even the toddler, and I drive Big Brother crazy stalking him, as he calls it, and insisting that he be in the house at a reasonable hour on week nights. I've even been known to leave the occasional manifesto in Big Brother's room.
Being a bit of a tyrant can be a good thing, I now realize. Just last night, Big Brother was telling me the sad story of one of his high school friends who has been in and out of legal trouble. "He didn't have anybody to stand up for him, like I did. All these parents these days, they all want to be their kids friends, that is their problem. I don't need you to be my friend, I need you to be my mom. I just wish more kids had that." As usual, Big Brother hit the nail on the head and it made me realized that I learned how to do that for him because somebody else did it for me. Yes, my dad was a little bit of a tyrant back in the day, but he never left us hanging when we got ourselves into something over our heads. He was there for us, he put the family first, and now all three of us kids are paying it forward, being benevolent dictators to our own offspring.
My dad has a very creative mind and a lot of imagination. Although he was an elevator mechanic by trade, he always had other ideas for businesses he wanted to start, and he always had at least one percolating on the side. Brooklyn born and bred, my dad decided he and my mom should move to the country and live a whole new way (it was the 70s, everyone was doing it). When the contractor they hired to build their house bailed on them, my dad picked up where they left off and taught himself to build houses by building ours. That was the first of many alternative careers my dad picked up along the way. My dad was always teaching himself how to do something new, listening to tapes or reading how-to books, everything from lock smithing to landscaping to selling real estate to painting pictures.
Not all of these ventures panned out as expected, and the recession in the seventies didn't help any, either. I remember, vividly, one Christmas during said recession when whatever business venture my dad was involved in had gone south on him and his partner. It was not a good time, and like so many others then we barely had a pot to piss in, pardon the expression. But dad's business partner was even worse off and didn't even have the proverbial chamber pot. My dad made sure that his little boy had a Christmas tree that year and presents under it, even though he was already struggling to do the same for us. I never forgot that and I've tried to emulate it ever since.
Today, as we are going to celebrate my dad's 75th birthday I can only hope that he knows how much his grandson and I both look up to him, admire him and have always both tried our best to live up to the values he modeled to us: hard work, family first, follow your dreams and live with integrity.
Happy birthday dad. We love you.