Dad, do you ever get scared?
I remember asking my father that question one evening before bedtime. My world was scary even without the constant news of inflation and the threat of nuclear war with the now-dead Soviet Union. I had an upcoming test for which I hadn’t studied and there was a Neanderthal who made my life hell in the school hallway. My gut was twisted and I dreaded bedtime because I knew that it was followed immediately afterward by the start of a stressful new day.
My own father seemed to be made of an iron core that nothing shook. He took surprise with great steadiness and acknowledged the constant mantra of doom with equanimity. I might see him dance on the bed to Motown – a surreal sight – but I never saw him scared. He might be concerned perhaps, with his face set in a taut mask when something major happened but I never saw him scared. I was surprised when he answered that question with, “Yes, at times I am. Everybody gets scared, but I think that things will be alright.” He talked about fear as something that everybody – everybody – had but he then added that if you stepped back and considered it, the fear was generally overstated. It was one of those conversations that you afterward look back upon and consider as special.
You had to live in the 1970s to really appreciate what a time that it was. Rising prices and job losses that struck repeatedly. School thermostats turned low enough that I routinely wore my coat to classes and occasionally gloves as well. In the midst of all of this, I asked my father if we would be alright or if we would lose our home should he lose his own job. His response was that we would be fine and come through this, so you take care of school and let me worry about the rest. I went upstairs that evening feeling relieved and reassured that things would indeed be alright.
It wasn’t until my adulthood that I learned and understood more about my father. Of the nightmares that awakened him for decades, a Chinese infantryman charging him with a foot-long bayonet aimed at his stomach, of moving in with his grandmother after his family was evicted from their home after his own father’s heart attack during the Great Depression; of wrapping himself around a Scotch bottle provided by the Army dentist who removed all of his teeth in pre-painkiller days.
It’s especially during times like these that I miss the old man and what he taught me. It’s fine to be scared and okay to even admit it to the kids. But it’s imperative to master ourselves and reassure the kids because they deserve and need to feel secure. Part of that is because they’re our children and we love them, and part is because what we teach them by our behavior , our response to adversity, will be absorbed and passed along to their children.
Shortly after the birth of our eldest child, my wife and I took her to visit my folks at our old house. Dad excused himself from the kitchen and reappeared several minutes later carrying a bundle wrapped in a blanket. He deposited it with a clank on the kitchen counter and unwrapped it to reveal three 100 ounce silver bars that he’d purchased in the 1970s as insurance in case the economy went to hell. It never did and the bars sat in the attic until he figured that there was a good need for his own grandchild. And that was the final part of the lesson: after admitting the fear and reassuring the kids, work to offset the problem as best you can.