I wonder if we might step away from the hustle and bustle of the daily news cycle and talk a bit about fathers. I hear there’s a holiday coming up.
I don’t know if it’s fair or not, but I’m pretty sure I know why Father’s Day isn’t as big a deal as Mother’s Day. Mostly, dads don’t seem to care.
Maybe that’s why most of us take our fathers for granted. We don’t seem to appreciate them as much while we have them as we do when they’re no longer with us. That’s when we realize how wise they were, even prophetic. Maybe that’s because we’re a little older and a little wiser ourselves, or maybe we men have become more like our fathers than we ever imagined we would be.
Dads are like having a miniature college education in your own home. The University of Dad. They have their ways, all of them analogous to college classes and textbooks: a nurturing style that’s more like playful roughhousing. They have their “dad jokes.”
And they especially have their words of wisdom.
I use that term loosely. It’s like growing up with Socrates, only more cynical, blunt, and much easier to understand. There’s no pondering, no contemplation. Things are expressed matter-of-factly. Either it is, or it isn’t, and that’s that. It may sound like nonsense when they say something, but they’re so assertive when they say it that it has to make sense. Sometimes, you just have to become a dad to finally figure it out. As Frank Pittman, a psychiatrist and early pioneer in family therapy, famously said, “Fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man.”
Every father has a collection of aphorisms, pithy sayings and paternal witticisms that he passes on. Many of these quips are mangled, largely because many fathers deliver these adages at a peak moment of frustration.
My father had sayings for everything. You heard them often at our family dinner table, and, in my family, presenting yourself for the evening meal was an almost absolute requirement. You would need a permission slip signed by the president and counter-signed by the pope to get out of it. Dad presided over such gatherings.
If you were fooling around, as younger kids especially like to do, Dad would say, “Stop it. I said, stop it!”
Of course, we would not stop it. Then, a glass would get spilled, and the room would go deathly silent. Then we’d all turn to the head of the table to look at Dad, and Dad would always intone the very same thing: “If you would only listen to the words of wisdom, these things would not happen.”
In my dad’s world, his words of wisdom were the only ones that mattered. Despite being a high school dropout whose English was often fractured in that Brooklyn accent of his, he had great intuitive intelligence. During any spirited family discussion, if he exclaimed, “I ain’t sayin’ no more,” we all knew we were in for about an hour’s worth of Dad’s opinion on the subject of which he ain’t sayin’ no more.
When Dad thought someone was cheap, he’d say, “That guy is so tight that when he holds a quarter, he makes the eagle squeak.” No, an eagle does not squeak, but to my dad, that certainly sounded better. Especially at the head of the dinner table.
Dads are often quick with a comeback, too. If mine happened to catch a fly buzzing around your head on a particularly hot day, he might conclude, “Well, they say a fly always likes a horse’s ass.”
“I’m no horse’s ass,” I’d respond.
“Try telling the fly that.”
Dads are always good for phrases to characterize people or situations. If someone was particularly incompetent, a complete mental dud, or a person of such low character that he was beneath contempt, my father would describe him with four words that said more than the loftiest paragraph of prosaic vitriol. He would say that person is “made with a finger.”
For years, I never understood quite what that meant, but I never questioned it because it just sounded perfect. “That guy’s made with a finger!” Whatever it meant, it definitely wasn’t a compliment.
I never asked him to explain that phrase until I was well along as an adult. With typical bluntness and sarcasm, he looked at me as if I were an idiot and said,
“Ya know how to make a baby?”
“Yeah.” I still wasn’t catching on.
“Well, that guy is made with a finger.”
Suddenly, all those people he said over the years were “made with a finger” came flooding back to me, and I understood. And you know what? He was right. It not only sounded perfect; it was perfect.
When it comes to discipline, moms often use dads as a secret weapon. “Wait till your father gets home,” or “Don’t make me tell your father!” And fathers were always good for a threatening phrase or three.
In my neighborhood, my friend Al’s father was a strict disciplinarian who used tough language to keep us in line. He would often say, “One more word outta you and you’ll be spittin’ chicklets,” an old-school word for teeth. Sometimes he would also say, “Your teeth will be at Parade Rest,” a military term that, even if you weren’t familiar with it, didn’t sound good. At least not for your teeth.
Some threats came with perhaps too much imagery, which could make the point even more. When Dad said, “I’ll turn you inside out by your tongue,” the end result seemed more gruesome than the pain you’d have to endure to get there. Even at 6 or 7 years of age, you knew he wouldn’t do it, but the image alone was enough to stop you dead in your tracks.
Frustration often yielded colorful words that made no sense but still delivered impending doom: “You are makin’ me pestifurious,” he would yell. Apparently, something about me being a pest would make him furious. In our minds, we would say, “What?!” and laugh, but only on the inside.
That’s another thing: You couldn’t laugh. You would wonder with bemused exasperation because whatever Dad mangled was far funnier than what they intended to say, but if you laughed out loud, you were in deep weeds, to be sure.
Politics were a popular topic at our dinner table. Believe it or not, there was as much controversy to discuss then as now.
One day, my father finally got so fed up with the current mayor of New York that he announced, “That’s it. I ain’t votin’ for another incumbent ever again.” It didn’t matter who they were, or what party; he refused to vote for them. “If they can’t do the job, they don’t get another shot. I’ll vote for the new guy.”
In what became a running joke at the table, my brothers would say to him, “But dad, if you vote for the new guy, it’ll take him eight months to figure out how to do the job.”
“Good!” Dad would say. “That’s eight months he won’t be able to steal from me!”
It was a burst of wisdom for which there was no counterargument.
He was practical, even to the end. At the hospital, lying in what would eventually become his deathbed, my brother explained the DNR — do not resuscitate —form to him. Pop had never heard of it. If this, then that; if that, then this. Signature, etc.
“Do you want me to sign it, pop?” my brother asked. Dad didn’t blink. He signed it and said, “Pull the plug. Everybody take a drink.”
He wasn’t suffering. He wasn’t in pain. He was quite lucid. But he was deteriorating and, after having lived such a rich life, it made no sense to him to spend the money on expensive medical procedures — even though he was on Medicare — just so he could live what he figured would be another few months. He was 90.
Dad didn’t have dad jokes, but he was funny in his own way. He’d answer the door in his boxers and my mom would say something about the neighbors seeing.
“Don’t worry, honey,” he’d say. “If they look, they have to pay.”
He had these Yiddish expressions that made no sense. I’m not even sure they were Yiddish. “Kak shteyendik,” literally means “stand shitting.” And he said it all the time, often at the end of a phone call. Not goodbye, but “Kak shteyendik.” At work, if you can imagine the pushcart days of immigrant enclaves with row after row of street vendors on a busy shopping day you told the boss you had to go to the bathroom, he’d tell you, “Kak shteyendik.”
“Auf gepege de phelen, kaken flgn!” “On a dead horse, the fly shits.” As in, don’t be a lazy bum your whole life, or else the fly will … That isn’t the right Yiddish translation, but that’s what he said, that’s what he said it meant, and that was that.
Where do fathers get these sayings? Even if they didn’t make sense and you asked for an explanation, Dad would give you short shrift and say, “Why do you ask stupid questions like that? That’s just things I say.”
Fathers have a great way of putting you off. It could be the most important thing in the world to you, but when Dad says, “In a thousand years, it’s not gonna matter,” it not only dismissed your comment, you almost felt inclined to dismiss it, too. After all, it’s not like you’d be around in a thousand years to prove him wrong, and even then, he probably wouldn’t care — because what he really was saying was that whatever didn’t matter in a thousand years was his way of saying it wasn’t important to him now.
A child pestering for a new toy would often be told, serious as can be, “You’ll get it when George gets back.”
“George who?” you’d ask.
“But he ain’t comin’ back; he’s dead.”
“Now you’re catchin’ on,” he’d say, and that would be that.
Or he might say, “Yes, you’ll get that toy next week, Tuesday.”
Therein lies the great wisdom of fathers who knew very well that by next Tuesday you would forget that you’d ever asked him. But it satisfied you when he said it because it was a definite promise, done with such conviction.
They’re all great actors, fathers.
Some of Dad’s phrases are universal, like “Who died and left you in charge?” That’s a father favorite. When you’re a young kid and they say that, you actually stop and think about what it is they’re asking without realizing they’re being as totally flippant as they can be.
“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” was one that made no sense to kids. It couldn’t possibly hurt him, since you were the one being punished, but perish the thought if he bothered to explain the emotional pain he was referring to as if it really hurt him. By the time he was done explaining, you’d just wish to take your punishment and be done with it.
Or, a variant that made plenty of sense to kids: “Remember, I brought you into this world and I can take you out, too.”
Truly a universal for all fathers, and probably mothers, too. A favorite ploy of kids is to point to other kids. If they got to do something, why couldn’t you? And Dad would say, “If that other kid jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump off, too?” That one comes right out of the parent handbook, except Dad would often add, “It’s too bad I’m not their father, too.”
The variant or addendum often came with a humorous snark. It’s common enough to teach empathy for another with the advice to “walk a mile in their shoes,” but the cynic in all fathers is passed along when Dad adds, “That way, you’ll be a mile away from them and you’ll have their shoes.”
Another universal phrase for many fathers: “There’s a bus in five minutes … ” as in, you were metaphorically being told to get on the bus and get lost, beat it, take a powder, scram!
Not Dad. His postscript: “There’s a bus in five minutes … be under it.” I still use that phrase today, always to the delight of anyone within earshot.
Dad’s been gone for some years now but he’s always there, his voice lurking in my head as I catch myself doing just what he used to do with a turn or twist of the language. And my daughter doing what I used to do, staring at me sideways like the old RCA Victor Dog listening to “His Master’s Voice,” probably wondering how it is that her dad can make no sense and still be so wise.
Happy Father’s Day to all dads out there.