I had what was probably the best example of manhood from a guy who was—I thought as a kid growing up—not very manly.
My stepfather didn’t have the physique of a man who would easily intimidate; he wasn’t built like my “real” father, the pumped-up physical specimen who spawned me but little else. He looked like a New Jersey Italian teddy bear who loved to pass out cigars and pour a good drink when the occasion called for it.
He was the Mediterranean Buddha with a bulbous nose and big belly. He didn’t have a fighter’s body or disposition; but he had a lot of fight in him, and he was pretty good about knowing when to use it, without resorting to fisticuffs.
His most manly asset, though, was his fierce devotion to mom, which counts for a lot in my book. That made him as big a man as any I’ve seen in my life. He took on the role of husband and father where most men might have fled in the other direction.
He assumed the full weight and responsibility of father for children who were not his own, including major expenses such as making sure our teeth were properly straightened.
“There’s my new pickup truck,” he teased when friends came over, and he’d point at me, asking me to smile so they could see my new braces. “Show them my new truck.”
He’d have to wait a few more years before he finally got the truck he’d always wanted but in the meantime he took care of pressing family matters, making sure we all had what we needed first.
My biological father, meanwhile, deserted us when I was four; he didn’t put any time or effort into getting to know me, or my brother. He paid us no attention. He was a ghost in my life, a non-person essentially whose only historical significance to me was that of sperm donor. As a young boy, I’d ask mom what happened to him.
“You’re better off without him,” she’d say. At first, I’d get mad at her for saying such things; I didn’t believe her. How could I be better off without the man who was supposed to be my father? A boy doesn’t understand these things. He assumes that by rights the man who made birth a possibility would also take an interest in his own children.
After a while, though, I figured she was right, that he probably didn’t care, and that indeed I was better off without him, so I forgot about him, except for the one random visit he made to our home when I was about 10 to discuss visitation arrangements with mom and my new dad.
That was the last time I ever saw him. I heard from him once more when I was in high school and he sent copies of the New World Translation of the Bible favored by Jehovah’s Witnesses to me and my brother.
I took my brother outside with our copies of the “bible,” and showed him how we would appreciate the gifts by placing them in the gutter and then I set them on fire. As we watched the thin pages of the bibles crinkle into twisted ash, my grandmother pulled up beside the curb to park her car. She sat staring over the steering wheel, horrified.
“What are you doing?” she demanded as she got out of the car.
“Oh, hi grandma, don’t worry; it’s nothing, just burning those fake bibles Jim sent us.”
I’d gotten to calling him Jim because that’s what mom had always called him, never “your father,” whenever she talked about him, which was rare.
The strange thing was I hadn’t thought twice about burning those books, and didn’t realize the real horror of it until I saw grandma’s face when she drove up. No one in the family valued books more than she did, coming from a family of educators; her mother and aunt both had schools named after them.
For me, it was a kind of purgation.
I wanted to be rid of those books, and the false religion, and the show of some kind of weak Christian love from a man who didn’t want to be a father to his children.
Not long after I was married, I thought of seeking him out, to ask him personally why he hadn’t taken an interest in his two sons, but it was too late. He died when I was 23. He was 45, and had started at least two more families besides the one he started with us.
At that point, it didn’t matter much whether we “hit” it off or got on well. I was more interested in finding out what sort of man he was, whether there were patterns and habits of mind that I might have inherited and whether there was anything about which I should be concerned.
But any such opportunity was crushed when mom spoke up casually one afternoon as she and my wife relaxed at the dining table drinking tea and coffee. I was cutting an apple by the sink. “Oh, by the way, Jim died.”
I didn’t expect it to trouble me the way it did. I didn’t shed any tears, but I was troubled and left feeling vacant by the news. My wife graciously walked over and put her arm around me. I must have felt like a sack of potatoes.
I might not have picked my stepfather as the “ideal” model of a man for a young kid looking for a strong father figure, which is what I wanted. I would have picked someone like my biological father, whose pictures mom kept showed a man with a powerful, muscular build. My one earliest memory of him, in fact, is of him putting his fist through the bathroom wall.
I learned quickly, however, that my stepfather cared with the kind of devotion that shows real backbone. He made a lot of sacrifices, and paid us a lot of attention.
He was our protector, even without the intimidating manly presence a young boy might want in a father.
I’d seen him fearlessly go after people who wronged him or who showed the slightest disrespect, people, for example, who parked their cars in the handicap zone he’d had the city paint on the curb nearest the front door so that grandma could get to her car without trouble.
He run out, no matter whom it was, and he’d confront the offenders, directing them away from the painted curb. Even the scary looking guys complied.
“Dad, you gotta be careful these days,” I said once during a visit to the old neighborhood, “there are a lot of gang bangers passing through the area now.”
“I don’t care,” he said, “they don’t belong there.”
I seldom heard whatever he said to people as they rummaged through his trash; but he’d shoosh! them away too and off they’d go.
“I don’t want people digging through my trash or my recycle,” he’d say, sitting back down into his chair to read the morning newspaper. “I pay money for the city to come pick those up. If they want to dig through the trash, let them go to the dump.” §