I have not always been sure what it means to be a man, at least not really.
Of course, I know what I used to think. I know about the more commercialized versions of what it means to be a man – or to be strong. Then again, I’m not so sure I know what it means to be strong either.
Least of all, what does it mean to be tough?
Do I even know what this means?
To be tough or to be true to yourself; or to be strong, to know how to fix things, or to not be afraid of the dark or to wonder, to question, to challenge the wrongs around you, or to not be afraid to dare, to try, to adapt to the world, and to admit when you are wrong are all qualities which, in my heart, is the person I want to be.
Man or not.
I used to think that by being a man, you worked hard.
You ate everything on your plate and asked for more.
You knew how to fix things.
You had answers.
You drank beer and blackberry brandy when it got cold in the wintertime.
This is something that men do.
I used to think this is what manhood was all about.
Men don’t cry, right? At least this is what I thought.
Men can endure pain. They can live with something being wrong and not even flinch.
Not even for a second.
I used to believe this yet I was always afraid that I wouldn’t know how to do this; that I wouldn’t know how to be a man when it was my turn to face the life in front of me.
What if I fail?
What if I cry?
What if I hurt or show you my weak side?
No signs of weakness.
I used to think that this is what it meant to be a man.
I used to.
However, I am not sure what it means to be a man or not.
Then again, I have reached an age where I no longer care about the outside descriptions of me or whether I am who I am (or not).
I don’t care who identifies me or how.
I don’t care much for the gender arguments or descriptions.
I just know that I have lived long enough, survived and endured enough to say that this is me. Since this is me, I have earned my spot at the table – to sit where I am, right here with you, from now until the hour of my death (amen).
I know this –
I know where I came from.
I know that work is important; however, the same as it applies to any other “ism” in the world, workaholism is equally real and equally a theft of both services and time between a person and their family.
And Pop . . .
He was my Father.
He was a worker. He ate everything on his plate. He liked his beer and he liked his blackberry brandy when it was cold outside.
“It keeps you warm,” he’d say.
My Old Man came from a different life.
He was born out of The Great Depression and lived in a small apartment building in the Bronx. He grew up in a hard fashion with a hard, European father who left Austria to come here to New York.
My Grandfather was strict and tough.
Then again, I cannot say much about my Grandfather because I never met him.
He died about two years before I was born.
My Grandmother would tell me stories about The Old Man. She would tell me how he was in his youth.
I suppose I tried to emulate him.
I suppose I tried to be like him and talk like him.
I wanted to walk like him and be tough like him.
Only, I wasn’t him. I was me.
I will always be me and my Father will always be him.
He worked hard. He worked long days and weekends too. This meant time with my Father was limited to a few occasions.
While honesty must prevail and while some of my memories are not great ones, there are some memories that I hold dear and close to my heart.
One memory is a late-summer fishing trip to a place called Wantagh Park. This memory is a rare gem. We stood knee-deep in the water as Father and son. The sky was blue and the winds were perfect. I can recall him standing in the water, my Father. The strongest man on the planet.
He was looking out into the bay.
His eyes were fixed in a position, watching his red and white float as it bobbed across the surface of the water – just waiting for a fish to come along and take the bait.
After baiting my hook, I walked back into the water and accidentally stepped on a broken clam shell and yes, this hurt.
The shell went into the bottom of my foot.
But no matter how painful this might have been at the time, I wouldn’t complain. I wouldn’t say anything.
I wouldn’t cry or even whimper because I didn’t want anything to get in the way of this moment between us,
Father and son.
His hair was salt and peppered and gray.
The wind was blowing through his hair. The sun was beaming down on his face.
He looked so intense, staring out at the bay and yet, it was as though he was staring out into the nothingness of time and space.
His eyebrows folded downward with intensity; expressing such an in-depth thought – just thinking, perhaps wondering about a work problem or the status of a new project that would fuel his business so he could keep the lights on.
The truth is, I don’t know what he was thinking.
All I know is I was very small at the time.
I was so young
He was my very first hero . . . .
I find myself writing this to you now, sitting behind a desk, which is where I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out a new project, thinking about work issues and trying to figure out how (or when) I’ll make my great escape. I am a worker. I often forget myself. I have to work long hours and take breaks when I can (like now . . . I am not in my typical place. I’m out of my element at the moment; however, writing this entry is a priority to me).
I swear, The Old Man used to work so hard that he would run into himself at the door.
I used to want to be like him. Exactly like him.
Then, there was a part of me that wanted to be nothing like him.
And now; I can see.
I can see the parts of him in me.
Even the regrettable ones.
I can see this when I run into myself at the door.
I can see this when I lose my patience or feel weak or old or inefficient.
I can see this after I burn the midnight oil or work long shifts and then somehow, I have to make my way to another appointment because work is always calling.
Always . . .
I am like him. I’m just like him.
Did you hear that, Pop?
I’m just like you now.
Always worrying about what will come next or how I’ll keep the lights on.
I’m like you.
Only, I hope I learned the most important lesson –
This is the one that you missed out on.
You have to make time for the people and the things that count.
Otherwise, we can die young and the people who love us will miss out on the countless memories they could have had if we spent more time with them.
Someday, we’ll meet again and catch up.
Maybe we can do this at that spot in Wantagh Park.
Better yet, maybe we could meet at Shinnecock Canal where I caught my very first fish.
Remember that place?
Because I know I do . .
What a wonderful piece! I enjoyed reading about what “being a man” may have meant in the past, fortunately today, most of us see people as people. But as I read on, I appreciate that this is also a memory of your father. I think he would be pleased!
I hope so. And thank you for this.
As I’ve grown, I tried to let go of the way I used to view people (and myself) and the more I grow, I’ve chosen to focus on value rather than what it means to “be” a man so-to-speak