The legacy of fatherhood


My dad's lessons, his second time By Dan Weissmann

Clockwise from left: Bennie and Martin Currie; Father Bruce Wellems as a boy with his parents; Dan Weissmann as a baby with his father; and the Scofield family at home.

I was in a staff meeting when the call came, a room with a few dozen people. Toni, the receptionist, came up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. "Your mother called," she said quietly into my ear. "She found your dad unconscious. They're at the hospital." My dad died just before Sept. 11, 2001. He was almost 84, so his death wasn't a complete surprise, but it was a shock. I'm still sorting through my memories of him, and I still have a small box of his stuff---a scarf, a pair of red suspenders, some shirts, a book or two, and a very old light meter--sitting in my living room, waiting to find a place. Someday, I want to have kids of my own, and as I look at the jumbled lesson of my dad's example, that box of stuff looking for its place, I find myself thinking about my dreams and his legacies to me. Sometime in the last 10 years, I started seeing my dad more as a guy than as a dad, someone whose life might give some clues about what might be in store for my own. And someone whose choices I could learn from--both the positives and negatives. At his memorial, I found myself talking about my dad's relationship with food: Dad loved food. It's an unwritten rule in our family that you can't really trust anyone who doesn't. Not fancy food necessarily. As a cook, Dad had two signature dishes. One was something called "Joe Mazot": some ground beef, some sautŽed onions, some elbow macaroni, some tomato paste and grated cheddar. The other was scrambled eggs--satisfying, good, transporting scrambled eggs with lots of butter. But for the last 20 years of his life, he lived by a no-fat, no-salt diet--the kind the late Dr. Atkins made his fortune denouncing. Since this regime started when I was in junior high, I lived by it too, for a while. Boneless breast of chicken became the staple of our family's existence. Shredded wheat with skim milk and raisins replaced scrambled eggs. When I got to college, I called home and raved about the cafeteria food. Dad had sacrificed one of life's big pleasures--with occasional cheats--and I think it was to take his best shot at living long enough to see me grow up, to see my older siblings start having kids, to be with my mom. He picked up that bowl of shredded wheat and never looked back. And when he died, I saw his decision as a lesson that has become a big part of his legacy to me: Life does not offer perfect choices. Life decisions are not SAT questions, with one right answer and three or four obvious duds. I don't know exactly when Dad made the transition from Dad to Guy, but it was in full swing about four years before he died, when I asked him to take a trip to New York with me. I wanted to see the places where he'd grown up and lived as a younger man, and I wanted to hear what he had to say about them. My dad lived in New York City until he was about 40 years old, except for stints in the Army and grad school. He grew up, went to college, got married, and became a dad for the first time there. Then, in the middle of his life, about age 40, he divorced his first wife and took a new job as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's medical school. My half-brother David wasn't yet 10 years old. Talk about imperfect choices. I wouldn't be here if not for that choice, so I'm glad. But my dad never managed to be the father to David that he wanted to be or that David deserved--not even before he left New York, in his days as a workaholic in an unhappy marriage--and I don't think he ever stopped being haunted by it. So when I was born, Dad's run as a father had seen some rough patches. He wasn't a perfect dad to me either--he had a short temper that could sneak up on you, but by the time I came along, some of the sharper edges had been rubbed away by experience. It's also clear that he appreciated the chance to take another shot at fatherhood. For his memorial, I went through old family pictures to put together an album, and the pictures of him with me as an infant are striking: It's like the sun is shining out of my eyes for him. There was lots about him to admire, be grateful for, learn from. He had a dry but warm sense of humor, always there. Reading was as vital to him as sleep. He was the toughest editor I've ever had. He knew everything--literally; ask any question, and you'd get more answer than you might have the patience to hear. He was honest to a fault. And, at least when I knew him, family was a big priority. There was also stuff to just love about Dad. He was a pack rat, but an organized one. Dad was a scientist, and I think he loved the elegance of things being used fully. When we got a VCR and cable TV, he learned to use the timer and taped hundreds of movies. My mom--who just can't throw anything out, which is different--is still trying to figure out what to do with the boxes of videotapes he left in storage, all of them neatly numbered, labeled and cataloged. He left files full of screws, thumbtacks, transistors, microcassettes and pencil erasers--all sorted into those tiny drawers, with a neat label on the front of each one. He sometimes said that the best Father's Day present he ever got was the day I took him to the Village Discount Outlet with 10 bucks in my pocket. He got four or five of the flannel shirts that he liked to wear, but what he most appreciated was being introduced to the joy of thrifting, which is a certain kind of a pack rat's dream: You don't just keep your own stuff, you get to glom onto things that other people were fool enough to part with, prevent perfectly good--or at least still usable--stuff from going to waste, giving it a second chance. My dad wasn't perfect, didn't make perfect choices, and no matter how much I want to be a perfect parent myself, I won't be either. But he didn't give up on himself--he even went through decades of boring food to keep giving himself a second chance and stay alive for me. I could do worse.

Dan Weissmann is a Chicago freelance writer and for 11 years, wrote about Chicago's public schools for Catalyst, an independent news-magazine about the city school system.

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