Dad, do you ever get scared?
I recall asking my own father that question one night before bedtime. My world was scary even without the constant news of inflation and threats of nuclear war with the now-dead Soviet Union. I had a test for which I really hadn’t studied and there was some neo-neanderthal who made my life miserable in the hallways. My gut was twisted and I dreaded bedtime because I knew that immediately afterwards I awoke to a stressful new day.
My own father seemed to be made of an iron core that nothing shook. He took surprise with great steadiness and simply acknowledged the ongoing mantra of doom with equanimity. I might even see him jump on the bed to Motown – a truly surreal moment – but I never once saw him scared. Concerned, perhaps, with his face set in a neutral mask when something really big happened. But I never saw him scared. I was surprised to hear him answer that question with Yes, at times I am. Everybody gets scared, but I think that things are going to be alright. He talked about fear as being something that everybody – everybody – had but he then added that if you stepped back and considered, the fear was generally overstated. It was one of those conversations upon which you later look back and consider as special.
You had to really be there in the mid 1970s to appreciate it. Rising prices and job losses that struck repeatedly. School thermostats turned low enough that I routinely wore my coat in class and even occasionally my gloves. And in the midst of all of this, I asked my father if we would be alright or if we were going to lose our home. His response was that we would be fine and come through this, so you take care of school and let me worry about this. I actually did go upstairs to bed feeling relieved and reassured that things would be alright.
It wasn’t until my adulthood that I learned and understood more of my father. Being forced to move in with his grandmother during the Great Depression when his own father had a heart attack and lost the house. Of the decades-long nightmares that routinely awakened him, a Chinese infantryman charging him with a bayonet aimed at his stomach; of having his full set of teeth removed by an Army dentist upon his return from a year in Korea and wrapping himself around a scotch bottle because there wasn’t adequate pain medication available. And yes, the scotch bottle was given to him by the same dentist.
It’s especially during stressful times like this that I miss the old man and what he taught me. It’s fine to be scared and it’s okay to even admit it to our own kids. But it’s our job to master ourselves and reassure our own children because they both need and deserve to feel secure. Part of that is because they’re our children and we love them and part is because what we teach them by our behavior, our response to adversity, will be passed along to their children.
After our eldest child was born, we took her to visit my folks at our old house. Dad excused himself from the kitchen and several minutes later, returned with a bundle wrapped in a blanket that actually went clank when he put it on the table. He unwrapped the parcel to show three 100 ounce silver bars that he’d purchased in the mid 1970s and kept stored away as insurance in case the economy went to hell. It never did and the bars sat in the attic until he figured that there was a good need for his own grandchild. And that was the final part of the lesson: after admitting the fear and reassuring the kids, work to offset the problem as best you can.