TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Doing Better Than Our Fathers

I sat under a partly sunny sky on Father’s Day contemplating fatherhood. I awoke to a text and Father’s Day greetings from Dylan who started it all for me nearly 25 years ago. He was on vacation in the Black Hills. India was still snoozing after a bachelorette party at Green Lake. She was pretty chipper when she went to bed at 4:30 a.m., leading me to believe there was nothing overly nefarious that took place at the lake cabin.

The air smelled of fresh rain. We got a meager 0.03 inches, enough to nourish the crops another day, though.

I remembered my own father, gone some 28 years now, into the ether at 55, so every year I have past that mark, I count myself lucky. I thought about the rare times we went fishing together and the more frequent times he hit me fly balls and grounders behind the Methodist Church until I became a competent center fielder.

Dad tried to be a disciplinarian — the keyword is “tried,” because he and Mom had planned to have a large family, and when I, the oldest, turned out to be a renegade, the strategy was to rein me in because can you imagine six outlaws!? After about a dozen years of that fruitless tactic, I think they decided to let me be me. I’d run amuck, get grounded, and then do it again two weeks later.

Because I was a born observer and student of human psychology, a born writer, I suppose, I reasoned that every child is born pretty much being who they are. Some respond to discipline, some to finesse and some are no trouble at all. As I contemplated these things while incarcerated in my room, subsisting on bread and water (hey, this is my story), I realized that all the things my father was were passed down from his father and grandfather and generations lost to memory. There’s a natural evolution and there should be. Every new father should be better than his own at the best job in the world. I don’t think that’s sacrilege.

I know Dad was proud of me, the risks I took that he couldn’t understand, my willingness to reach beyond my grasp. Once, when he was having a drink with my buddy Gare Bare, he told him, “One thing about Tony, he decides to do something, and the son-of-bitch does it!” Now, he never told me that, but I heard it all the same, and I don’t think he ever spoke sweeter words. I had him for 3½ decades, but we were just becoming friends, equals, when I lost him.

What did I learn? I understood quickly that Dylan wouldn’t respond to “Because I’m your Dad” orders. Sure, I could have been a drill sergeant, which is what I would have been had I been a young father, but I was seasoned enough to understand him. He was what the Lakota call Heyoka, a contrarian. He crawled backward, for cripes sake! Dylan would do the right thing but you had to explain why it was the right thing.

Now, India was a stubborn little anarchist (still is), so I employed humor and charm when I could and direct orders when I had to, to which she would insolently grunt before stomping like a three-foot bull elephant to her room.

But it’s simple really, if your kids have good hearts, you’ve succeeded.

One of the best things I learned about parenting is that a good hug solves just about anything, but we weren’t huggers. With our Russian and German blood and ancestors who spent their time either invading or being invaded, it doesn’t come naturally. But genetics can be overcome. To a point. I’ll still never dunk a basketball. The hugging component came from my brother, Joel, who would come home from Denver with big bear hugs and it just sort of caught on. Turns out, Joel’s a pretty good daddy, and now, a wildly enthusiastic grandpa.

It’s evolution. We were grounded in ethics and loyalty with a willingness to stand up to and even get knocked down by bullies by the example Dad and Mom set, a firm foundation upon which we could build. Upon which our sons and daughters can build. That’s really who I wrote this for, but it’s for fathers, too. You can teach an old Dad new tricks.

© Tony Bender, 2021

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