On Being a Better Dad Than I Had

I didn’t have my pops around growing up. That’s why I’m doing it differently.

Photo: Kali9/Getty Images

YYesterday, it hit me again how I have probably spent more time with my son in a day than my father shared with me in his lifetime. And the thought came to me thanks to a very simple act: I took my son to shop for boots for the first time.

Not a big deal, but it made me flash back to when my father took me shopping for boots years before. I was maybe 12 years old, and my mother — a single parent of six kids — had complained to my uncle that I was “acting mannish.” I had started talking back a little more than my mother liked, and following her instructions a little slower than she’d wanted. I’d stopped mumbling under my breath and started questioning her decisions out loud. I was the oldest of six from a total of four different fathers, but somehow became the “man of the house,” and resented it.

I had also recently announced that, although I could not stop her from whipping me with switches from the scrub trees that grew between our house and the corner gas station on the far South Side of Chicago, I would no longer be cutting them myself. Providing the means to whip my own ass had just become too much.

My uncle promptly declared me to be “smelling myself,” and offered to let me stay with him for the summer. Maybe he was right, but I was also just getting older, and he wanted someone to help him complete a painting contract for a small apartment building. I was old enough to help, but I just needed a few pieces of gear.

It wasn’t a conversation of any real importance. I imparted no great truths. I was just a father sitting in the car with his son, telling lame jokes to make his son laugh. And yet, what else is there?

So my mother reached out to my father — a good family man, just for another family down the street — to buy me what I needed to work with my uncle. That included steel-toed work boots. Usually, I’d see my father every few months when he’d drop by with a hundred dollars or so for my mother. For me, I guess. These drop-offs usually lasted five or 10 minutes, with him and I often just sitting in his car catching up with some surface-level conversation. We never talked about anything of consequence. So him taking me to the store was a big deal.

Since it was the ’80s, we went to Sears. And during our trip, I’m sure that he encouraged me to respect my mother and work hard for my uncle, but I can’t even remember the conversation. That awkward get-together couldn’t have been easy for either of us. It’s hard to make small talk with people you don’t know — and so much harder with people that you should know, but don’t.

The only other time I remember us driving anywhere was to the tavern that he owned when I was maybe 10 years old. It was less than two miles from my house. My father was an entrepreneur. To this day, I still don’t know if he also had a regular job, but he took me to the bar, and a woman served me a soft drink. I still remember that there was one of those giant jars of pickled pigs’ feet on the counter, hooves slowly rotating in the brine. Next to them was a display of small bags of peanuts stapled to a large panel of cardboard. It was that kind of place. I used to wonder — and still wonder — who he told people I was. Did he say I was his son? A nephew? Did he claim me? Even then, I knew that people were walking around thinking that their mother was their sister or that their father was just a family friend. Did I have a cover story, too?

Fast forward a couple of decades. My Chicago neighborhood caught almost eight inches of snow yesterday, which happens all of the time. But this was the first time that my 10-year-old son helped me shovel, and he did a pretty good job — despite the fact that he had to shovel in a pair of gym shoes because he’d outgrown last year’s boots. I probably hadn’t noticed because the boy has never had to walk an entire block in his cushy-ass life. We drop him off at the schoolhouse door and pick him up from the schoolhouse door. He doesn’t sleep in the house at night alone (the way I did) because his mother has to working the night shift (the way mine did). He’s never walked to the store by himself, or to the park. We have two cars, and we wear out both of them driving this young prince around.

But I digress.

We drove to the mall to grab some boots. I would have taken my little man to Sears, but it’s no longer around. Our world was still blanketed in snow, but it was a beautifully sunny day. We listened to music, and he asked whether I’d rather be rich and have everyone know or be rich and have only a few people knew. I chose the latter and he agreed — otherwise people would harass us all the time. We talked about fame, and I said I heard that the best kind was to be “writer famous” — enough so that you could get a table at a popular restaurant, but not so much that people would constantly interrupt you while you were eating.

It wasn’t a conversation of any real importance. I imparted no great truths. I was just a father sitting in the car with his son, telling lame jokes to make his son laugh. And yet, what else is there? I look back and think, sure, it would have been nice for my father to talk to me about girls, or how I could follow in his footsteps and start a business someday. But it also would have been nice to be able to think back on a simple joke or laugh we shared. I hope my son will remember ours.

On the way home, we stopped for giant quesadillas at a place I’d always wanted to try but hadn’t found reason to visit. My son searched the salsa bar for chipotle sauce, and I told him that I liked chipotle sauce too, but that I hadn’t known that he did. Then I remembered that the year before, he’d helped me dehydrate spicy chili mac that we’d made for one of my backpacking trips. The recipe called for chipotle peppers, and I’d had to stop him from eating the whole pot. Wouldn’t it be wild if my father liked chipotle peppers, too? He’s long since passed, so we’ll never know. But my son knows that his father likes them, and I know that my son enjoys them. And that’s something.

It was a great day with my 10-year-old son, and it wasn’t the first one. But it may have been the first time I realized that my father’s absence hadn’t just been my loss, but his. He’d missed out, too.

Sorry you missed out on me, Dad.

I write about masculinity, fatherhood, family, and relationships.

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