Monday, March 06, 2006

Be All That You Can Be ...

This isn't an entreaty to live up to some whacked-out societal ideal.

It's just what popped into my head after reading "The Cook's Story," a chapter out of Po Bronson's latest book, "Why Do I Love These People?"

Po writes terribly interesting books about real people in real situations, looking for their life's calling or trying to understand the relationships around them.

"The Cook's Story" is about a woman and her father and the gulf between them. I read it online, choosing that particular PDF because cooking is the other thing I do. If I wasn't a writer, I'd be a chef. But that's another story. The cook in "The Cook's Story" is a father named James. The subject of "The Cook's Story" is his daughter, Jennifer.

Relationships between fathers and daughters are often fraught with confusion. James and Jennifer didn't understand each other. My father and I don't either.

But I have to stop expecting and start accepting. He is who he is, shaped by a lifetime of chances, taken and missed. And I am who I am, shaped by the same rules, but also shaped by him. I've internalized a lot of my father. I see him in my behaviors every day. I did not inherit my mother's patience or self-assuredness. I have inherited my father's fear.

On Sundays, my mom and dad come over for bagels and coffee. Yesterday, as I was lying in bed, reading, I saw him pull up in front of my house. An hour before I expected him.

Maybe the plan changed, I thought. I pulled on clothes as he walked to my door.

He rang the bell and as he stepped inside, I said, regretting it the moment it left my lips, "You're here an hour earlier than I thought you'd be."

"Well, mom is going to her bible class," he said. "Was I not supposed to come yet?"

"No, you're welcome to be here," I said. "You just never come over early."

And that's one of the hallmarks of my father: He waits to be invited to join in everything. He doesn't insert himself into situations, believing that he has an equal right to be in them, that he's welcome. He hangs back. He's always hung back. I do the same thing.

But yesterday, as I walked into the kitchen to put on coffee, what I was thinking was, "What are we supposed to talk about for more than an hour?"

My father doesn't talk to me. He never really learned how, I guess. My mother was the one we talked to. At night, if he happened to be home for dinner, I would tell him something about my day at school and was almost always met with silence. "Fred," my mother would say, "your daughter's talking to you."

"Oh," he'd say, and turn to me. "What?"

To this day, I cannot stand when people don't listen to me. It is my biggest of pet peeves, tied only by people interrupting me. Both behaviors say to me, "What you're saying is not important." Maybe that's why I became a writer. Holy shit. I never thought of that before. Well, there's a big hunk of something to chew on.

But in those days, I never wanted to tell the story again. The moment had passed. My enthusiasm was spent. So mom always got the news of my life, because she was home and because she listened. And my life followed an artistic bent, which is all from her. And we could relate to each other more simply because we shared our gender.

And as time passed, the chasm between my father and me grew. He could talk to my brother Paul about cars and fishing and guy things. But when it came to my brother Brian and me, the artists in the family, well, what was there to say?

And so on a snowy Sunday morning, without my mother in common, what would we talk about?

It wasn't entirely painful, but it wasn't entirely pleasant, either. There were long pauses, the conversation, while not inane, lacked substance. Maybe it was enough that we were actually talking, that we managed to fill up 75 minutes of space. I, thankfully, had tasks. Putting on coffee, setting the table, plugging in the toaster, washing dishes, drying dishes, slicing apples, slicing pears.

Mom finally arrived. Dad, as he always does, got quiet. As he gets older, I wonder if it's because he can't hear our conversation well because he refuses to wear his hearing aids. But he's never been chatty around us.

At parties, he can be a different person. He doesn't do well around strangers, but settled at a table with people he knows, he'll talk as much as the rest of them. The stories are often the same. I wonder if he knows that he's told them before. But everyone is polite enough to listen. Or maybe they don't remember that they've heard them before. Maybe small talk does register in most people's memories.

But what I learned from James and Jennifer is that daughters don't often see their fathers as men. There is so much wrapped up in the father-daughter dynamic that we find it hard to step outside our roles and see each other simply as people. We overlay our expectations and then are disappointed when the figure beneath doesn't match, instead of simply seeing the figure as it is, plain, honest, and real. People will show you who they are, but we see what we want to see.

I don't contemplate my father's childhood often. I don't consider all that I know he endured. I am petulant and childish and want him to be an extension of me, rather than recognizing that I am an extension of him. I need to value what he is able to offer.

And I need to just be who I am and know that that is enough.


Anonymous Ethan said...

Wow. This is one of your best posts EVER.

Just wow.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto. I reached for the Kleenex.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Hi, Beth,

Po and I just wanted to thank you for your moving story. We are so grateful to hear responses like yours.

Also, I just wanted to let you know that there are other chapters of the book on Po's website,, which you can download, forward, post, etc. Oh, and we just started a blog of our own to talk about family issues.

Thanks again for your post.

Ashley Merryman

9:43 AM  

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