When I was a teenager my father occasionally took me aside and announced, sotto voce, “Timothy, we need to talk about something. Come upstairs to my bedroom.” To be summoned this way meant that something serious was afoot and needed to be addressed right away. Once, he called me to his room to talk about how to be a dependable employee after I acquired my first job, a gig as a salesman at a men’s clothing store. On another occasion, he admonished me for long-standing, boorish – indeed, probably abusive – behavior toward my baby sister, and discussed what it communicated about my character, what its psychological and other sources might be, and how to move forward productively in a spirit of forgiveness and grace.
And then there was the uber-mortifying “sex talk,” stimulated by mom’s discovering a Playboy magazine hidden not-too-effectively-nor-creatively between my mattress and box spring. When confronted with the evidence, I stammered while my brain searched in vain for a plausible lie. “Gosh, dad, I have no idea how that got there. I’ve never seen it. I bet Jamie put it there last weekend when he spent the night.”
“Really? Hmm. I’d better give his parents a call then to discuss this –”
“No! Dad, don’t! No need to get Jamie in trouble over this. I’ll, umm, take the rap.”
“How noble. In any case, Timothy (use of “Timothy” always meant something solemn and significant was to follow), I think finding a magazine like this in your bedroom signifies I’ve been somewhat derelict in my duty to you as a father.”
“Oh, dad, it’s okay – really. It’s not your fault. Sometimes Jamie just –”
“Son, you’re missing my point. I mean I haven’t yet discussed sex with you in a fashion the serious topic deserves. So sit down, relax, and let me explain some things to you.”
What followed was a highly specific, clinical, and technical disquisition on the birds-and-the-bees, complete with pictures and diagrams. It was also the most gobsmackingly embarrassing hour of my young life.
“You mean that you….?”
My world, as they say, was rocked.
All jesting aside, I have often reflected on those conversations with my father and the impact they had on me. Even as an ignorant teenager (redundancy, anyone?), I quickly realized after canvassing my friends that such heart-to-hearts with one’s father were quite rare and therefore to be prized.
“Hey, Bob, lemme ask you something.”
“Yeah, Swen, what’s up?”
“Last night my family was eating dinner and out of nowhere my dad turns to me and says, ‘Timothy, I’ve got something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. After we finish eating, come upstairs and let’s talk.’ My sisters all went ‘oooooohhhhhh!!’ and gave me this sympathetic look like, you know, ‘Uh, oh! Tim’s getting the guillotine after dinner!”
“Did any of your sisters actually say anything?”
“Well, yeah, Susie laughed and went ‘Hey, guys, we’d better say our goodbyes to Tim. I think his time is short – ha ha!’ And then Barbie got this little worried look on her face and she asked dad, ‘Are you gonna kill him, dad? What did he do?’”
“Wow,” Bob replied. “Cool.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, obviously he didn’t kill you. That’s cool. So what did he want to talk to you about?”
“Oh, nothing too important. Just something Jamie did at our house. Forget it. Anyway, I have a question: Do you and your dad have talks like that? I mean, if something your dad thinks is important comes up, does he ever pull you aside and just talk to you one-on-one? And ask you what you think? And stuff like that?”
“Are you kidding? No way. Can’t even imagine it. Hey, Guthrie, Charlie – c’mere! Do your dads ever talk to you privately about … anything? Swen’s dad does!”
“Is that a joke?” Charlie replied. “No. No way.”
Guthrie looked at us mutely, trying (I think) to anticipate the punchline. Sensing there was none, he finally offered, “No. Never. Well, once he found a dirty magazine in my room and he wanted to know about. But I blamed it on Jamie and that was pretty much it.”
So even if the material was dated (as it was, occasionally) or the delivery was stiff (ditto), this unequivocal, undeniable fact remained: Dad cared enough to engage in the sometimes arduous task of conversing with his son about serious matters.
Thank God for that.
Next installment of Virtue & Mischief: Father-Son Talks, Part 2