Not long ago it became fashionable to downgrade the traditional importance of fathers. What emerged was a prescription for a "new" type of father, one who would be more like a mother: a nurturer as well as a provider. The term "Mr. Mom" made its rounds, and fathers themselves seemed to be buying into the revisionism that suddenly viewed dads of generations past as largely absent figures who did little more than work and sleep, while mothers were on 24-hour-a-day duty as child caretakers.
My experience as a child was different, and I don't believe it was singular. In my working-class New Jersey neighborhood of the 1960s, fathers were always present. Their characters were as starkly defined as those of our mothers. I can still recall each and every name: Salvatore Briguglio, Ben Slavin, Rupert Haller, Joe Rutigliano, Norman St. Michel, Seymour Strenger. Each played a role in the lives of us kids, sometimes colorfully so, as when Mr. Rutigliano, who dealt in wholesale pasta, took us for rides in his delivery truck through the streets of Jersey City.
And of course there was my own father. Every morning when I got up, he was there to greet me. When I was very little, he made my breakfast as often as Mom did. I recall him combing my hair, chiding me about misplacing my schoolbooks, and, when I was 12 or so, teaching me how to knot a necktie. I can still see him hovering behind me as we stood before the mirror. He wanted so much to construct the "double windsor" for me, but restrained himself as he directed my clumsy hands with staccato voice orders such as, "That's it. Now left. No, that's your right. OK. Now over. Now under. Well, you'll learn."
My father worked long, hard days, and spent a lot of time on the road in that horrendous, legendary New Jersey traffic. And yet, when he returned home around 6 p.m., those warm, breezy, New Jersey summer evenings were as invigorating for him as they were for everybody else. He'd strip off his coat and tie and put out the call for a stickball game. My friends would flock in from every house, apartment, and alleyway. Dad pitched while the rest of us "fielded" our narrow street and took turns at bat.
The end of the game was signaled by calls to supper from multiple accented voices (five languages were spoken on my block), or perhaps a summer cloudburst. But we always left our game reluctantly, as the presence of a parent lent order and interest to the proceedings, dampening the tendency to fight among ourselves.
Other fathers made contributions as well: Mr. Slavin took us to Coney Island (Coney Island!), where his brother-in-law ran the "spook house"; Mr. St. Michel hauled us off to the county park; Mr. Briguglio passed out Italian bread and cheese on his front stoop. (He once howled as I bit into a chunk of provolone. "What's the matter?" I asked as I pulled some clinging substance from my teeth. Mr. Briguglio replied, "You're eating the wax coating!")
Truth is, dads have always been nurturers, perhaps even more so in previous generations. The sight of a dad playing catch with his child was far more common 40 years ago than it is today. What is remarkable about those fathers is that they were active participants in their kids' lives to the extent they were, given their role as primary, often solitary, wage-earner.
Recently I was at the mall with my 8-year-old son and, after a lot of walking, we looked for a place to sit. We wandered over to the sunlit atrium. What struck me was that all of the adults sitting on the benches with kids were men. And then I reflected: But why not? We had good role models.