My last photo with Dad

This short piece was first published in The Daily Tribune on Father’s Day, 2002, in my old “Life Lines” column. It’s reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home. 

249570_10150280937670242_5875146_nIt’s my favorite photograph of Dad and me — one of those priceless family icons I’d rescue if the house caught fire.

Taken on Father’s Day in 1992, it reveals the totally uncomplicated relationship we’d enjoyed right up to the moment the shutter clicked. I use the word uncomplicated because I can’t think of a more lyrical way to describe my father or the way he lived.

Even when pop psychologists urged us to scrutinize our parents and find them suspect, I saw my dad as a sweet, patient man whose agenda was rarely hidden. He was the kind of guy who appreciated most people just as they were, and I think that’s what we all loved best about him.

But let me explain the photograph.

Dad and I were standing on my back porch, having just finished the surprise dinner I’d hosted for him and my father-in-law. Dad wore a pale blue-gray windbreaker and an outdated pair of glasses that somehow looked right on him. My hair was orange, thanks to a failed experiment with a drugstore highlighting kit. The late afternoon sun shimmered through the maples in our yard, and my mother was anxious to finish the film left in her camera.

Dad and I hugged tightly for the shot.

He was sixty-five and grinning — despite the grim diagnosis of degenerative heart disease he’d been given a few months earlier. At thirty-seven, I was newly unemployed and unsure of my career path. The travel magazine I edited for nearly six years had folded abruptly, dropping me off at midlife without a new map. Still, summer had arrived and we were optimistic. Dad’s diabetes was under control, or as he put it, he’d been “feeling pretty darned good lately.”

Better yet, the ball games were in full swing. It wasn’t shaping up to be a stellar season for the Tigers, but Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker were giving it their best. While I never shared my dad’s religious devotion to baseball, I still can’t hear the crack of a bat against a ball without remembering the old transistor radio he kept tuned to his games.

But there’s something else about the photo. Looking at it today, you’d never imagine the two of us had a major-league concern beyond what we’d be eating for dessert that evening. Nor would you guess that this 35mm print chronicled one of our last days together.

The inevitable phone call came two weeks later on a Monday morning: “Your dad collapsed in the driveway. The ambulance is coming.”

So this week I’m very grateful for that luminous Father’s Day afternoon ten years ago — grateful I hadn’t waited another day to throw my dad a surprise party. I usually postpone my good intentions, adding them to a long list of things I plan to do later. Later, when there’s more time…

“Today is the only time we can possibly live,” wrote Dale Carnegie, whose work my father read often and admired. I see now that Carnegie’s philosophy is gleefully captured in my father’s grin, which my mother wisely captured on film.

Becoming a mother-in-law

WeddingFrom the moment she posed for those first high school prom photos on our front porch 10 years ago, I knew Andrea was perfect for my only son, Nate.

Yet I felt a subtle shift in our relationship when the two exchanged wedding vows last fall.

Even in the happiest circumstances, after all, the family dynamic changes when adult children marry. Whether we’re debating where to spend the holidays or how often to phone the newlyweds, everyone has to adjust or compromise.

In other words, my new supporting role as “mother-in-law” is making me a little nervous.

Googling the term “mother-in-law” last week, I found dozens of websites listing crude mother-in-law jokes and personal blogs describing toxic in-laws from hell. From Joan Rivers, for instance: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.’”

Cast as the witch in American family mythology, the stereotypical mother-in-law is blamed for poisoning marriages and spoiling grandkids. No matter what she says or does, she’s the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.

Of course, I want to avoid becoming this woman at all costs.

Comfort and counsel

Thankfully, I can revisit my own family tree for positive role models.

When I married 32 years ago, I felt awkward around my husband’s mother, whose shy personality was so different from mine. At the time, my own wise mother was quick to remind me that a cozy relationship with one’s in-laws rarely evolves overnight.

Early in her marriage, Mom was uncomfortable with my dad’s mother, Ruby, a dowdy Scottish immigrant and teetotaler. Ruby was the polar opposite of my mother’s alcoholic parents, and her brogue was so thick that my mother wished she could hire a translator. Over time, however, Mom learned Ruby’s language of unconditional love and often turned to her in times of crisis. Serving comfort and counsel with bottomless pots of tea, Ruby provided the maternal stability my mother always lacked.

My new daughter-in-law, Andrea, hails from a happy family with solid Croatian roots, and isn’t the sort who’ll need Scottish-island wisdom or scone recipes.

Having watched her grow up with Nate through high school and college, I’m proud of the capable young woman she’s become.

Given such a blessing, who wouldn’t strive to be the world’s best mother-in-law?

New family values

Nate reminds me that I’m “over-thinking” this phase of parenthood — a habit I can blame on my former career as a family columnist. Even so, if he’s lucky enough to be a father someday, he’ll find that letting go of one’s children is the trickiest step to learn in the circle-dance of life.

All said and done, most of us have watched enough Dr. Phil to know we shouldn’t meddle in the lives of our married children, and we know that our new extended family is likely to bring different customs to the table.

But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much love and effort to invest in our key relationships.

Meanwhile, I want my new daughter-in-law to know that I’ll never compete for my son’s attention; I’ll do my best to respect her boundaries.  Yet I want to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. And as our family’s future unfolds, I hope she’ll turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter — or someone who will listen with an open heart.

This column was first published last year in Michigan Prime.