Thursday, October 21, 2010

Receding Heirlines

"An angry father is most cruel towards himself."– Pubilius Syrus

After several lazy afternoons scanning online sites of famous quotations, searching for that one quip that would so fully encapsulate my experience as man, husband and father I could spare myself the hassle of coining my own, this nugget gave me pause. What stopped me wasn’t the message. No, all I could think was, “Wow, how angry was his father? What monster would curse his kid with the name Pubilius?”

Was it common practice in first-century BC to dole out names that sound queer both as a whole and in any shortened form? Pubilius? Why not Marcellus, which leaves its owner the option of being just “Mark”? Or John, which, because it tangles the tongue, some pronounce “Jack”? Or even “Billy”? No, scratch that—it sounds stupid, like something you’d call a one-hit-wonder country singer.

Life on the arid Syrian schoolyard could not have been a picnic for young Pubie. Still, as I digested this quote, something moved me.

An angry father is most cruel towards himself.

What kind of ridiculous shit is that? Why in god’s name would I target myself for malice when I spend every waking hour with a figurative “kick me” sign on my back? We’ll never know what the Syrus kids slipped into dad’s wine the day he penned this twaddle—perhaps just more wine—but I like to think he meant to write this:

“Only a masochistic dunderhead would be most cruel towards himself. A smart and angry father prefers to be cruel to his kids.” – Brian O’Mara-Croft

As a parent of five, I have been angry—very angry. Oh, the many flavors of rage I’ve savored. The veins in my forehead stay bulged and throbbing in mere anticipation of my next tirade. When I’m in this state, slapping a mosquito on my forehead would launch a fountain of gore. I love my children with all my heart. I just abhor the way their minds work.

Who stashed the milk next to the cookies in the pantry? Sure, I get it that Oreos and two-percent enjoy a perfect marriage, but are memories so short these items need to be kept side-by-side to recall this? Is a deafening argument in which every third word is “idiot” and every sixth word, “fuck”, really so compelling it can’t wait until I wrap up my speakerphone call with an important client? And what on earth possesses the lot of them to burst, five-wide and unannounced, into our bedroom just as I’m making my best love?

“I’m busy here! GET OUT!”

“But why are you and Mommy nakee? And why are you shoving her? Is she stuck?”

“A little. Now close the door.”

My own father was no stranger to moments of fury. He exercised the option, as did others of his generation, to position a “Board of Education” in plain view on the kitchen wall. It may well have been an idle threat, but none of we three boys dared cut in line to snatch top spot in the pecking order. He never used the paddle—although once, when the hockey stick I left on the garage floor launched the car’s side mirror, in dozens of pieces, down the driveway and into the street, I watched his hands tremble toward it.

Today, a parent merely mentions the word “spanking” in the abstract—as in, “If I don’t spank you now, I’ll always wish I had”—and a kid’s finger hovers over the first speed-dial button, a direct line to DCFS.

Just try me, old man.

At times I have been cruel, if only by accident (or, as the more particular might propose, from negligence). I’ve flipped my kids over my shoulder—“Wheeee!”—only to miss the catch on the other side (“Whoops.”) I’ve rushed their delicate noggins headlong into awnings, car doors and picture frames. I’ve led tender bare feet across lava-hot pavement. I’ve tossed baseballs and Frisbees toward their hands—and into their faces.

One night, I loaded my infant son into a “baby backpack” to join me on a winter walk. Although the air was frigid and the wind stiff, I worked up a steady sweat. My son did not. When we returned an hour later, he had to relearn the ability to walk. If you closely examine the face of this same son, now a 20-year-old survivor of my questionable parenting, you may detect a subtle shift in skin tone as you scan from left to right. Who knew sunlight beaming through car windows could permanently flash-fry an infant’s cheek?

Like baby sea turtles, some of my children may not see adulthood. Thankfully, I have spares.

Take my youngest son, Connor. Years ago, in a supermarket, I asked him to help me transfer groceries from the cart to the checkout conveyor belt. This, I thought, would both expedite the process and allow me to bond with the five-year-old. I lobbed him a box of raisin bran, and then a package of extra raisins. I tossed a tub of ice cream.

“Good job, little man. Nice snag.”

Upping the ante, I flipped a loaf of bread around my back, and a sack of Cheetos up from under my leg. He caught all with a flourish, and alley-ooped each onto the belt.

“Wow, you’re good at this. Feel like a challenge?”

He nodded and scrunched his eyes. “Bring it.”

I grabbed the next closest item —a bag of some vegetable—and split-finger-fastballed it in Connor’s direction.

Everything moved in slow motion. When this happens, you know things won’t end well. I see every movement as clearly today as a decade ago. The bag pinwheeling through the air. My son’s eyes opening wide in eager anticipation. Tiny hands snapping forward to make the grab. My wife Patty’s eyes also growing wide, her lips following suit with a dramatic “Brian!!! Noooooo…..” Connor’s fingers closing around the bag. These same digits falling back as the look of glee gives way to a mask of stark terror. The bag dropping to the floor with a dull thud. Two screams—one from him, another from Patty. An utterly dumbfounded look on my face.


I’d never bought fresh artichokes before. I had no idea they were Mother Nature’s version of throwing stars. When at long last I stemmed the steady flow of tears—and ventured a tepid reply to Patty’s legitimate query about what the hell was wrong with me—I fished out the Cherry Garcia and passed the whole tub of apology to Connor.

He recoiled in terror—presuming, I’m sure, it would pop open and shower him with broken glass and starving rats. Then he pouted.

“You hurt me.”

When I removed the lid and nothing vile beset his now fractured sense of trust, he at last accepted my peace offering.

“Here…this is for you.” I looked at him, pleading. “Please don’t write a tell-all.”

He’s fourteen now, and so far has shown no interest in learning how to sign his name, let alone inscribe bitter tirades about child abuse disguised as harmless fun. He’ll even eat artichokes. I’d dodged a bullet.

On those occasions when I reflect upon my win-loss ratio as a parent—usually when there’s nothing on TV and my relentless petitioning for a midday slap-and-tickle has fallen yet again upon deaf ears—I wonder what the sum-total of my efforts will be.

Will my heirs gaze fondly on my portrait, a giant, tacky, gilt-edged monstrosity dwarfing the fireplace below? Will my descendants be known not by their given names, but as Son of Brian, or Grandson of Brian, or Second Nephew Thrice Removed—also of Brian? Or will I recede in memory until I’m no more than an insignificant skid mark on an otherwise vibrant fabric of life and the living?

Will my children ever quote me to their children or grandchildren from stories I’ve left behind? I like to imagine they’ll boast, proudly, “You know…your grandfather penned great tomes about playing with himself!” Or they’ll ask, “Can you guess how many times Grandpa violated Grandma? No? Why not read his books?” Oh, what a glorious and mysterious legacy my namesakes will inherit.

I, like all fathers, do hope my kids will take away something positive when my mortal coil unravels like every Slinky I’ve ever owned or touched. My father, I’m sure, once said to my mother, “I’ll never do that when I’m a parent.” And I once promised, “Because my parents did this, I’ll never have children. I may even lop off my penis. You just watch.” In turn, my kids will rework the parenting rules to suit their needs and circumstances. None will get it quite right; no one ever has.

Still, with any luck, they’ll remember the choices I’ve made along the way, and will learn from my mistakes. They won’t freeze, cook, bash, maim or threaten their offspring. They’ll lock the door before they go at it like minks. And, with any luck, they may gently pass artichokes into their kids’ hands, rather than hurl the entire brood into a shrieking, bloody nightmare.


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