It took my two brothers and me exactly six seconds to convince my dad to let us ride on the roof of the station wagon. Since none of us had even graduated from the fourth grade, it’s not like we had some treasure chest of rhetoric from which to compose our argument. Justin, the oldest at 9, pointed to the roof. Luke and I nodded enthusiastically in agreement, and we began our chorus of, “Dad, Dad, Dad, the roof, let us ride on the roof!”
As a single father, my Dad had already learned the art of when to cave to our whims and when to be the unshakeable adult. Breakfast for dinner? Why not! “Snow” fights with rug cleaner? I don’t think so. Riding into family camp on the roof of the station wagon? What could go wrong!
Our triumphant entrance into the camp lasted a good twenty seconds. The camp director ran to the car at his first glimpse of three boys stretched out on their stomachs like trophy deer, gripping the edge of the roof and giggling like mad.
“Sir! Stop! Right now, pull over here.” There was no mistaking the appalled disdain in the director’s voice. We’d heard it before.
“Climb down immediately, boys. I don’t think I need to tell you how dangerous that is.”
We didn’t budge. It was a judgment call we often found ourselves making in public since the death of our Mom. When in trouble, defer to Dad.
“Okay guys, I guess the buck stops here.”
We climbed down from the roof to an extended lecture on why that type of behavior is naturally what turns into camping accidents. Most of it was directed at our father. Although nothing was explicitly stated, the tone was dripping with “How could you?” and “Some example.”
I caught one of the organizer’s listening in and shaking her head. Even at the age of 7, I knew how to be pissed at that. The two years since my mother’s abrupt death in the middle of the night had been full of those pitiful headshakes. There was a shift in how everyone looked at us. It was as if at the moment my mom’s heart gave out we stopped being a family and started our new career as “Inept Dad & the 3 Wild Boys.”
I didn’t have the words back then, but I still wanted to shout. I wanted to stop that woman’s head from shaking and wished I could rage right back at the camp director. They didn’t know what was going on with my family. They couldn’t see that my father was gingerly picking up the pieces of our shattered lives and stitching us back together.
Many years later I had an embarrassing moment with what I still think is an emotionally manipulative and exploitative movie. Everyone was talking about Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful with the type of language that made me instantly suspicious. To me, even the most glowing reviews made it sound like the film’s main “success” was in making the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust palatable for the movie-going public. But I still saw it, thinking I could have more knowledgeable debates with my friends who loved it.
Surprise, surprise … I cried my damn guts out.
It’s not that I think it’s a good movie, because I don’t. It’s because certain scenes seemed to deeply understand what was happening with my family when I was young. It was the argument my enraged 7-year-old heart needed back then. In the film, Roberto Benigni is a father who is eternally optimistic and full of good humor. But his good nature is stretched as he and his son are both sent to a concentration camp. The film’s final act entails the broken father shielding his son from the horrors surrounding them by making it into a game. Emotionally manipulative? Sure. Shades of my father? Definitely.
Benigni perfectly captured the resilience I had already witnessed in my father. I don’t know if it was something latent that was unlocked with the death of my mom, or if it was pure survival instinct, but he knew what he had to do. Everyone else looked at us and saw the Dad who had to learn how to be a Mom, and who never quite got it. They saw him order Domino’s pizza for us three times a week. They saw him spray lines of whipped cream down the length of our dining room table as we would follow, licking it up. They saw three boys in the same outfit (different colors for easy identification) tearing around in public, climbing up poles and jumping off ledges that were a bit too high.
Those may have been the outward appearances, but what they missed was the fact that my father was rebuilding our lives. He knew the dangerous shadows that death casts over life, and he responded. Questions of fearful obedience or overbearing safety were no longer his concern. All he wanted was to save us.
The fact is my father wasn’t a good Mom. He let us run wild when we probably should have been reined in. He broke a chair or two when he let the depth of his own sadness get to him. He cussed. He gave us candy for dinner. We rode on top of the station wagon into family camp. When it came to structure and order, the case could be made for his ineptitude.
But he taught me how to live with hope even when there’s nothing but darkness. With the games we played, he taught me that it’s okay to laugh when everyone tells you there’s nothing worth laughing about. When we wanted nothing more than to fall apart, he held us up and found something beautiful to point to. He clawed his way out of his own despair and showed his three boys what it means to be alive.
The camp director was right; my father might not have been a great Mom. But he was a damn good Dad.
—Photo of young man driving toy car courtesy of Shutterstock