I can only remember snippets of memories with my dad from when I was a kid. Not because he wasn’t present. I just have a bad memory. I remember,
Wrestling and laughing on the living room rug
A bike ride through the woods in the fall when I was whining about my feet
The jokes we would tell around the kitchen table at dinner and his deadpan response (while we all, including mom, were crying with laughter).
I used to see these memories only through my lens as a kid. How larger than life he was and how strong I must have been to still be able to wrestle him to the ground. How far away everyone rode, leaving me behind while I stood there next to my bike and cried. How hilarious our jokes were and how crazy it was that he wasn’t amused in the least. I couldn’t see these memories any other way, until I sat across the table from my dad a few weeks ago. That’s when I came to a startling revelation.
We were gathered to celebrate my 33rd birthday. “Jesus Age” as I like to call it. I sat at the head of the table with the hand-crafted red-painted plate that my mom always used for us boys on special occasions. There was a cake for after the meal waiting in the next room and during dinnertime conversation I asked my father, “Dad, how old would I have been when you were 33?” I wasn’t ready for how the answer to that question would make me feel. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
When I was eight-years old, my dad was the age I am now.
To give myself some kind of context, I had to write out school years and figure out the corresponding ages to see that I would have been in second grade then. I was already liking girls and learning cursive. Mrs. Malone taught us multiplication tables all the way up to 12 times 12. Second grade was the year before I cheated on my book report, so I remember it as a pretty positive time in my life.
My kids are six and four.
Ella’s in first grade, my book reader and crafter. Pax is learning the sounds of letters and forgetting the numbers fifteen and twenty when he counts. Everything I’m experiencing now as a father, my dad experienced two years sooner in life. Earlier actually, because I’m the youngest of three boys. At 33, he would have had an eight year old, a ten-year old, and a 13-year-old.
This one thought revolutionized how I saw my childhood. Wrestling in the living room? I just did this with Pax a few days ago. Now I know firsthand the exhaustion that goes into a hard day’s work before the Big Match. I might not always feel like having a wrestle, but when I don’t, I try to think about the memories my son will have with me.
That bike ride through the woods? I know I hurt my foot somehow, and I remember him and my two brothers riding ahead until I couldn’t see them anymore. My dad did come back to get me to continue riding. Now I understand what whining and complaining feels like on the receiving end. Ella is experiencing growing pains and everyday a new dozen things “hurt.” Pax has always been a home-body and groans whenever we have to leave the house. I can only imagine how my crying over my foot might have put a damper on what was otherwise a nice ride out with dad. I have to fight against letting any complaints from my kids ruin our fun family events.
As for the jokes around the table, well, I have a few rules in my home about that, too. Rule number 1 is, “No playing.” My dad’s sense of humor is definitely different from ours. He was more Police Academy while I’m sure our jokes at that age were closer to SpongeBob Squarepants. No wonder he wasn’t laughing. And now I see how frustrating meals can be, to get kids to sit still and eat their food, not be picky, chew with their mouths closed, and thank their mother for dinner. How will they remember me at meal times, if I don’t loosen up and laugh a little during the most stressful moments in our house.
That thought revolutionized not only my view of my childhood, but also helped put fatherhood in perspective for me.
My kids will probably only remember half the fun of what we did together. They’ll probably remember the bad things to be way worse than they really were. They certainly won’t understand how much I loved them and did my best for them, at least, not until they are parents themselves. And I have them over to celebrate their 33rd birthday.