I guess I’m a dinosaur. Or some kind of outlier.
Lately I’m combing through my social networks to find an explosion of media about fatherhood, specifically dad-hood, that’s not especially concerned with parenting so much as the notion of "dadding". It’s a tricky thing for someone writing Daddy-Daughter Movie Night to opine on, I guess. But, as I said, I’m a dinosaur, so I grew up long before dadding was a thing. My own experience allows me to appreciate even vague attempts at fatherhood, and to call BS on the idea of the super-dad. Let me tell you a story.
Every year we watch It’s a Wonderful Life, along with half of America. We tried to watch it with my daughter last year and remembered very quickly that it’s a much darker film than its legend implies. Pretty much everything that happens in the “what if…?” version of Bedford Falls has tremendous Fast-Forward potential for youngsters, especially for our 3 year-old.
But that’s the version of life that’s most real. In real life, your old town goes to pot. Or you lose your money on the way to the bank counter. And if a mob comes to your door, it's not to sing songs and pitch in. More simply put, the dads we dinosaurs have known in our living, breathing, worlds didn't parent us so much as (I'm going to use a dirty word now) babysit. Grudgingly. And we’ve been sitting down to watch this film only to surgically remove any trace of reality from it for our daughter.
It’s a Wonderful Life probably played a few times on the old black-and-white tube console we had back in our Bronx high-rise, over the air, likely on Channel 9 or 11. It was probably played in 1969, the Year of the Trees.
I'll get to the Year of the Trees.
I have only two winter memories of my father. In one, he pulls my sister and I on blue, polyurethane roll-sleds across the snow and slush in a very uncharacteristic bout of playfulness. Of course we ended up at the bar, tucked into a booth while he had a quick one (or five) with the boys, but the ride there is a cherished memory that’s lasted fully half a century. Those sleds were Christmas presents, so our happy jaunt took place just after the Holiday. And that means it was just after the incident. Dad was probably trying to make up for it, with all this sledding and good cheer. The incident was pretty bad. Nevertheless, his brief stab at dadding was our Christmas miracle that year.
In that time and place, you didn’t get your Christmas tree the Friday after Thanksgiving, or even soon after. You got it late in the week leading up to Christmas, even on Christmas Eve. Decorating it was left to Santa. My sister and I were tucked off to bed that Christmas Eve, and then Mrs. Claus (Mom) worked the phone trying to get the bartenders downtown to admit "Santa" was still there, as the clock ticked down to when all the tree lots would close. Now that I’m a parent, I can only imagine her frustration. He’s done it again. At the bar, family forgotten, primed to stumble home at any hour. By all appearances, we were very likely not going to have a tree when we woke up.
And in 1969 or so, you wouldn’t be arrested for what Mom did next. It was nobody’s business, and I’m sure she didn’t want to do it. She left her kids alone and went out on the streets, on foot (we didn’t have our first car yet) and found a raggedy, left-over Christmas tree in a lot that was just about to close, and she dragged it home through the snow. She was maybe gone an hour. We never noticed.
Then she sat up late and waited for Santa to return, to show him just what a monster he’d become.
Now, a raging alcoholic is still a human being. It’s just hard to notice while they’re raging. But they do know, somehow, when they are about to fuck up, and they learn, some of them, to set up for success before they go down that road for the evening. Somewhere after two a.m. there as a schlump at our apartment door. A bristly schlump. Then a few moments of quiet, followed by a jingling of keys in the locks.
Then, a last awkward silence.
Dad had fallen asleep against the door after the supreme effort of undoing the locks. One must take these things in stages.
Finally, Mom turned the knob and Dad fell in.
That’s when we kids became aware that something was amiss in our living room. Nothing is louder to a child than the hushed sounds of marital venom at three a.m. We were informed that Santa was here, and Mom and Dad had to help him set up and there would be no peeking, no matter what we heard. Santa worked hard that night. He broke a few things. He slammed the windows on his trips in and out to the rooftop. Eventually, we fell back asleep.
In the morning, Dad was sleeping it off. Mom was tired, but she got up to give us our Christmas. Our tree was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. It was huge. More huge, in fact, than any of my friends’ trees that year. I knew because (it dawned on us slowly) it was really two trees.
Dad had bought his tree before heading to the bar, and he was such a good customer they’d let him lean it in their foyer for several hours while he drank. When he fell in, the tree followed on top of him, and my mother stared in disbelief as he struggled under it before their fighting could even commence. So now they had two trees. Neither would admit any wrongdoing or drag theirs out.
To make, perhaps, the defining image of their marriage, they’d jimmied open the courtyard window and cut down our clotheslines to tie the two trees together into one gangly, disheveled, though to us, entirely magical tree.
The divorce was not long after.
I can’t help but recall how my mom laughed to tell this story, years later. I’m glad she got that much out of it.
Back in the present, I’m looking forward to my daughter’s first full screening of It’s a Wonderful Life, without skipping the truest parts. It may be a few years on yet. I hope I’m alive for it. Because we filter out those real, sometimes ugly parts of parenthood, or even just adulthood, for our kids so much now that I can’t help but think we also leave out some well-earned laughter, too. We deny our humanity to the people we're training to become little humans. And I want her to know there are no super-humans, only humans doing their best, even sometimes pitifully so, in parenting and in living. If very broken people try just a little bit to work around their own frailties, trying even vaguely to be some kind of positive parent, they are adding something in those moments that might linger for a lifetime.
That's not an excuse for absentee parenting or raging alcoholism. It’s just an appreciation for each giving according to their abilities at the time. And it's the closest I’ll come to absolving my father for being such a dinosaur, because, as I started out saying, I guess I’m coming up on being one, too.
And that's okay. So are you.