They just don't make fathers like they used to


It seems an odd concept that fathers and fathering can change with the times, but they do.

There’s my maternal grandfather, in a stiff collar and suit, unsmiling, standing tall before the camera. In the formal family portrait hanging on the wall, he is standing beside his wife, Grandma Annie, and she is holding their first child, my mother’s oldest sister.

He was a first-generation American, a proud “Yankee” who came here by himself from Russia when he was 13. That can toughen up a kid. He died when I was 4. By all accounts he was an emotional, hot-tempered man, not particularly empathic and probably not aware of what the word meant. He didn’t talk about feelings; men of his day didn’t know how. His Canarsie apartment was his castle, and he was the absolute ruler of the family of four.

The only breadwinner, he worked as a tailor, earned a modest income and doled out every penny with an autocratic flourish. His oldest daughter (the one on Annie’s lap in the photo) couldn’t wait to get out of the house. She ran away when she was 16, into a doomed marriage.

My dad moved up the evolutionary ladder. He was pretty much an old-time father, primary provider, go-to guy for big decisions. Raising daughters was a mystery to him, so he taught us to fish and throw a ball when we were little. When we had crying fits and dramatic teenage meltdowns, he escaped into his books. Feelings, as a topic of discussion, were not on his radar.

But something happened around age 65. As he grew older, remarkably, he seemed to notice what was going on in the world of relationships, the shifting sands of gender roles. One night he actually got up from the table with a plate in his hand and brought it into the kitchen. A modest step, but there was no going back.

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