Bob, my father-in-law, was the first older man that I spent years being around, my own father being distant, an alcoholic, and a wandering merchant seaman. I looked up to Bob as someone who seemed to be full of confidence and success. He had risen from a machinist to the Director of Quality Control for a major defense contractor, although he left that job soon after I met his daughter. Besides my future wife, Kathy, Bob had an older son who was a year older than me, and a much younger daughter. Bob had a definite ‘head of the household’ attitude, but did little in the household except bring home the bacon. My mother-in-law, a sweet and smart housewife turned teacher seemed to worship her husband. I was impressed by this seemingly together family. Their house, in my humble world, seemed to be a small mansion
Bob and his family had moved to the Midwest from the East Coast after being offered his Director’s job. They had some adjusting to do in terms of culture. They once asked a waitress in a small Italian restaurant if she had mussels. She was offended! Mussels were not common in the Midwest back then. Certain items from the East could not be found in St. Louis, and things we knew and loved, like pork steaks and toasted ravioli were foreign to them, but they came around.
I was a simple, poor, but honest 18 year old kid when I met my wife and her family. Being from the East Coast, Bob did not trust me and my ‘act’—although it wasn’t an act. I had a car that barely ran. It broke down often and it was hard to start. Smoke billowed from the exhaust so badly that I had to coast past police cars hoping they wouldn’t stop me. Many times I was late getting Kathy home because of my car. Bob simply did not believe me and thought I was full of (sh)it! He took my innocent attitude as an attempt to put something over on him.
As time went on, he could see I was really who I seemed to be—a guy with a lot to learn, but not a con-artist like so many of his acquaintances and friends had been. He came to like me quite a bit, and I could tell it was real. And even though he had a son my age, my father-in-law started to lean on me to help him. I did everything from rebuild my mother-in-law’s Chevy carburetor to putting in an attic fan. Mind you, I had never done these things before, but I wanted to help him and my other ‘Mom’, so I learned as I went.
My father-in-law, (I called him Mr. Farr for the 6 years I dated Kathy), had no interest in performing or learning household maintenance. I was his go-to man. His ego didn’t need the self-satisfaction of fixing something on his own. So self-assured was he, that he had no problem asking his wife to get him some milk as he watched TV, even though she was in their bedroom and had to walk past him to the kitchen to get the milk for him. They were truly a family from the 50s! He had always been into gambling, sports, and leisure but became even more so after he left his corporate job. He also had an interest in having his own business and opened up a small bar and grill, which he later unsuccessfully passed to his son.
When Kathy and I started out as a married couple, we were strapped for cash. We decided to ask Bob (he asked me to call him Dad after marriage) for a temporary loan to buy some furniture. He agreed but said he would have to charge interest. I was a little surprised so I checked into getting a bank loan and discovered their interest was lower. When I informed Bob of this he said, “Well get the loan at the bank then." I don’t remember being angry about this, just perplexed. Why did he want to charge us interest? Maybe it was a good lesson because Kathy and I have never leaned on anyone since.
It turns out he was not a great father, but I think he was a victim of the times and his culture. In his world, more prevalent in the East, the male was truly dominant. It was also evident in how they treated their son versus my wife. The son could do no wrong and lived at home through his mid-thirties, while I did all the jobs around their house. Kathy, on the other hand, doesn’t ever remember being held by her dad. Whether this is literally true or not, it sends chills up my back!
Kathy’s brother and sister came to be distant from their parents. I’m not sure why. When Dad (Bob) was dying of cancer, it was Kathy and I who took off work to take him to the doctor. Kathy was there almost every day to help him and her mom, who was also not doing well health-wise. Kathy was always looking for their acceptance. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were not around to help. After he died, we didn’t even think they were going to come to his funeral. They did show up late but did not go to the cemetery. Something I don’t understand allowed Kathy’s brother and sister to not have the unconditional love of their parents.
While Bob may have lacked as a father, he was a loving grandfather. Time and a new environment had softened him up. He loved to tease and arm-wrestle my son and was very affectionate to my daughters. They all loved him very much! He had always been a likable guy and very charming, but as a grandfather he also lost his superior, cool attitude that had helped him be a success in his work.
Bob never did much for me in obvious ways, but he did more for me than any other man ever did. He smiled when he saw me, and I knew he liked me. Bob would give me pats on the back and squeeze the base of my neck. Most of all, he respected and trusted me. Bob always made me feel good about myself and I can’t think of a better gift.
Before we knew he was dying, but maybe after he suspected it, he came to me in his living room and told me, “Mike, if anything ever happens to me, I want you to take care of Mom”. Mom had been showing signs of dementia and he was worried about her. He didn’t ask me. He didn’t have to. Of course I, along with Kathy, would take care of her. And we did for the few years she survived after he passed away. It was this act, this trust of me to take care of the most important person in his life, which gave me the idea I was a good and trustworthy person. It is an important thing to hear trust and confidence from a loved one, especially from a male mentor. His request was a special honor to me!
The message in this story is how important it is to have another male in the life of a young man. My father-in-law wasn’t perfect and no mentor need be perfect. His fond attention and acceptance of me was something I needed so much. I looked forward to our times together and I miss him still eight years later. Dad (Bob) was the most important male influence in my life!