Finding the Freer Side of My Father

Last week my youngest son and I visited my father at his new home in Tucson, Ariz. He moved to a retirement community several months ago, and I was eager to see his new place and meet his friends.

My earliest memories of my father are of a tall, handsome, successful man dedicated to his work and family, but aloof and uncomfortable ''horsing around'' with his children.

As a child I adored him; as a teenager and young adult, I felt intimidated and somewhat resentful of him. He settled for nothing less than straight A's and dismissed my boyfriends if their fathers weren't appropriately ''accomplished.'' When I ran errands with him on Saturdays, I used to struggle to think up things to say, feeling on guard.

Over the years our times together became easier. We got in the practice of talking once a week by phone. By saying hello on a regular basis, I came to understand the rhythm of his life. We talked about the little events that make up our days - weather, birthday parties, children's activities, vacations, work, and play. But something was missing; a reserve held me back.

And so, I boarded the plane with my 18-month-old son - an uncanny spitting image of my father as an infant - to spend some time alone with my dad. He had planned several dinners and luncheons for me to meet his friends, and during the day we would enjoy long meandering walks together.

Midmorning on the first day of my visit, we collected one of his female friends for lunch at an outdoor cafe. She was lively, bubbly, and infectious in her long flowing skirt and jangling beads. I liked this woman and my dad's reaction to her. He brightened up, seemed younger. Gone was his critical air and the underlying tension he funneled into a strict schedule.

We poked along that afternoon, wandered through the gift shop, ate on the canopied table, laughed over my son's antics, and browsed in a local bookstore. Who was this person I knew as my father, who seemed so outgoing and interesting to be around? What had held him back before?

The next day I asked my dad to pull out his childhood pictures. I was curious to compare my son's visage with my father's. I also suspected the photos would stimulate remembrances about his own childhood. Perhaps they would help me understand why my reserved father had - so late in life - blossomed into an engaging companion and confidante.

The black-and-white pictures were faded, curled at the edges, stuffed in a box, the years running together. My father as a toddler, hair cropped and dressed in a one-piece romper, grinned into the camera as he grasped a wicker doll stroller. It was a haunting reflection of my own son with his life before him.

Five years later, my father is pictured in the same yard, sporting a sailor cap, as he stands next to his sister on a brilliant summer day. He wasn't a stern and demanding child, but a bashful little boy with a winning grin.

We visited a long time that afternoon and later into the evening. He had been shy as a boy and, ironically, just as removed from his own father. ''Boy,'' his father called him, as he insisted my dad do his errands, his schoolwork, and whatever chores would keep him busy and away from play. The regret came through in my father's voice, the sadness, the desire to have been closer to his dad.

The next day after dinner he surprised me with another box of photos, this time from his first job. He was a man then, handsome in the way I remembered as a child. His face was fresh, eager. His smile glowed. And as he recounted the fun of working in his early marketing career, I detected a renewed excitement and wistfulness about the fact that the company had changed in ways that couldn't accommodate him. He went on to found his own consulting firm and rebounded in his always optimistic way. But the disappointments of his career and failed marriage taught him later in life the importance of nurturing friends and family, the way one does a business client.

My dad had changed over the years - ripened and softened.

I had, too. I say my father was critical when I was young, but now - with my own children - I recognize the temptation. Time runs late, and I'm not patient with my children, forgetting how I felt as a child under my father's stern command. And I'm called up short when my grade-school son asks, ''Why is it parents know everything?'' My children expect me to be perfect.

It has taken many years, but I'm finally seeing another side of my father. And in so doing, I'm delighted with my new friend. My dad, in his new home in Arizona, is back where he was in the yellowing picture taken on his college graduation day. Bedecked in his gown, slender hands wrapped around his diploma, he radiates - as he does now - a satisfaction and acceptance that he temporarily lost in his middle years. I can't wait to see him again and learn more about the dad I never knew.

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