Two sentences drastically changed my outlook toward being a parent of adult children. They are:
• “Dad ... it’s not my house.”
• “How’s that working out for you, dear?”
The first sentence came from my son Mike when he was a college student at home while he held a summer job.
I had asked him to mow the yard.
I had told him to mow the yard. In those days, I was usually stentorian. The decade or so when I tried in vain to stay ahead of the demands of six children evoked a persona something like, “Victorian-era Drill Sergeant,” or “Eau de Grizzly Bear.”
Mike had in fact mowed the yard. His shortcoming, in my view, had been not trimming along the fence in scrupulous fashion.
“Dad,” he said, calmly, patiently, resignedly, “it’s not my house. It’s your house. I live here, but it’s not my house. It’s your house.”
The lad had learned the rhetorical value of using small words and repeating them in cadence to drum them home.
My reaction was to get red-faced, open my mouth wide, and point toward him with upthrust fist and extended index finger — then stop, speechless.
The lad was right.
Do not expect non-owners to expend the same blood, sweat and tears that a property owner will devote to maintenance and upkeep. This goes for renters as well as for children.
I knew the difference. I had had it ground into my hide by rugged, muscular, factory-hand uncles during my teenage years. Dad had died when I was 13, leaving me and Mom to care for a large side-by-side duplex and a yard that, at the dawn of the gasoline-powered lawn mower era, took an hour or so a week to whack — if the mower started.
I knew it was difficult for Mom to horse that mower around, after she worked at a Sylvania Electric plant full-time on brain-killing “swing shift,” two weeks 7 to 3, followed by two weeks 3 to 11, then back to 7 to 3. Mom was chronically sleep-deprived for decades.
I did my best. But I was a kid, distracted by baseball, girls, baseball, girls, baseball, girls and, oh, yes, baseball and girls.
So my uncles adapted the Scriptural advice: If one among you errs, let the elders lay hands upon him and bring him to righteousness. That was Bonavita Scripture, punctuated with thumpings. I was never flat-out beaten. I was jostled into walls, bumped into trees, gripped and shaken by work-hardened ham-handed men (sometimes given extra enthusiasm via a few beers). They tore my focus right away from baseball and girls, at least for short periods.
The reality is, I wasn’t Dad. Mom and I both knew it. So after a bit, she accepted “good” in lieu of “excellent.”
When my children were growing up, I forgot that lesson until Mike’s memorable line: “Dad ... it’s not my house.”
Now, at age 52, he tells me he does not remember that conversation, but gleefully adds, “I was right, wasn’t I, Dad”? Sigh ... Yes, Mike. You were right.
The second lesson came decades later. All of the children were out of the house. I had remarried. Maryellen has three children, with whom she cheerily chats and texts. Either way, it is she who often contacts her children.
Before I learned the second lesson, I would sit and stew in self-inflicted dudgeon.
“I am the Dad. They should call me. They never call me. They are ungrateful savages,” I would complain.
She would wait until the decibel level declined, then speak calmly, patiently, resignedly.
“How’s that working out for you, dear?” she would ask.
Open went my mouth. Up went my arm. Outthrust went my index finger, stabbing the air.
And I stopped, speechless.
The lady was right.
Now, I call or text all six of them, usually each Tuesday, with one reversal. Greg, a son with Down syndrome, calls me himself each Tuesday, gleefully showing off his newfound skill with Face Time and an IPad. “I win,” he says, because he called me before I could call him. Hey, I just want the contact. Let him bask in the glory.
Another son, Matt, has meetings on some Tuesdays. When that happens, we chat on Wednesdays. Younger daughter Natalie has children aged 7 and 3. I call her in the mornings. I reach Mike and Chris in the evenings. Theresa’s nursing work schedule is frenetic so text messages suffice, but they get sent.
How is that working out? Quite nicely, thank you.
In fact, it is expanding across generations. Greg calls brother Matt on Sundays, Natalie on Mondays, me on Tuesdays and joins sister Theresa for lunches on Saturdays. He even calls sister-in-law Lorraine regularly on Thursdays, trying to sweet-talk visits to their house so he can be “on vacation,” which means Lorraine spoils him gleefully.
Natalie is starting to connect regularly with Chris, Mike and Matt.
How is that working out?
Just fine ... after my head got a bit less thick.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]