Fathers and sons

A son builds a family - (right rear) Kevin Hershfield, son of writer CK Wolfson, and his wife Debbie, with their children (front, from left) Emma, Hannah, and Jack. Photo by CK Wolfson

By CK Wolfson - June 15, 2006

For me, father meant someone who smoked Herbert Tareyton cigarettes, read every single word of the daily paper, was fair, reliable and had a wry sense of humor. A father was a practicable and soft-spoken man who knew the answers to math and French homework questions and probably everything else. My father was my definition of father - the standard, not subject to judgment.

So - a father pretends to be surprised about his birthday cakes, holding his hands up in mock amazement. A father dresses oddly, wears a variety of British-style caps, and never thinks about how he looks, only about what is appropriate.

"Thanks for the shirt," a father says, "but I already have one."

He is a hero who ages - although he isn't supposed to - and doesn't seem bothered by it. "I'm getting to be like a used car," a father says, laughing about his parts wearing out.

A father doesn't change when time and life slide him into other roles. He is constant in the role of grandparent: quiet, patient, and willing to change his voice to suit the characters in the picture books he reads out loud.

But I have changed my mind. My concept has gradually shifted as I've observed the boy who sulked when he had to walk his younger brother home from school, being a father.

The boy who got nauseous whenever he waited in the lobby of a hospital became the father who put his hands through the openings in the incubators to stroke his newborn twins as they received nourishment through tubes. The boy so delicately tuned he gagged at the slightest aroma of liver and onions became the Daddy who changed all manner of messy diapers two at a time. The boy who had to be nudged to get up before noon became the father who took over the 3 to 5 am feelings.

It is wondrous to watch a son become a father. It is as if some sort of mantle has passed when I glimpse the expression on Kevin's face as he watches his own home movies of his and his wife Debbie's three children.

I've seen him chew on his thumb from the sidelines as nine-year-old Jack scrambles up and down the soccer field with his team. I've memorized the image of Kevin and Jack watching a televised baseball game; Jack stretched full length on top of his father on the couch, the nestled two muttering their reactions to each other in proprietary tones.

Like a movie I can play in my mind, I see Kevin standing over a towel-wrapped toddler waving a hair dryer over her wet hair. She is occupied with other things, a charm or hair clip, or the shouted lyrics to an improvised song. She doesn't look up as, with no apparent concept of the contour of a head, he holds out a brush full of fine, dark blond hair and sends it flying around her head with the comfortable nonchalance of fulfilling a task he knows is a privilege.

And he wears a father's smile. Kevin, the beautiful son who came in first, got elected, and made wishes that came true, had the smile of someone who stood in the center of a very small universe meeting his expectations. But the father's smile is not about him at all. It's about a piano recital in which Hannah has somehow remembered what she couldn't play an hour before the show began; about Emma's successful dance performance, Jack's short but compelling essay printed in pencil on the fat blue lines of a sheet of newsprint.

Most of the time his smiles bloom unconsciously: every Sunday when he makes fruit-concocted pancakes for everyone's breakfast; when he receives a home-made greeting card; when it's "Joke Night," and everyone tells "what-did-the-something-say-to-the-something" jokes. He smiles without knowing it when he hears the girls sing country-western songs, or when Jack comes out with a remarkable bit of deduction.

I am proud of the definition my son brings to the concept of father. A father is fallible, but someone you can always count on. He cooks, cleans, does laundry, and rolls around on the floor with the dog. When a father says, "Enough," he means it. A father is tired and falls asleep on the couch before he goes to bed. A father is a mother's partner. A father is a promise kept; someone who loves; and the best of his own parents. A father is forever.