Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Lion Kings of our Lives by Stefanie E Kramer


“I was scared today.” Mufasa tells his son Simba after sharply reprimanding him for visiting the forbidden elephant graveyard. Even though I’ve seen the animated version of The Lion King at least 520 times with my two children, the live production, and this scene in particular, cast my mind into a thoughtful deliberation of father and son relationships.

Immediately to my left, seats my husband, Douglas Mark, whom at the age of 38 still looks handsome and becomes more distinguished-looking with each gray hair he sprouts. On his lap sits our five-year old, blue-eyed, blonde son, Cole Douglas who, of course, is completely irresistible. Despite his preference for a Star Wars reenactment of a light-saber fight; his near-constant smile indicates he’s deeply engaged in the beautiful lion story. The scene beside me is as touching as the tale being told on stage. It especially moves me since I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying that Doug is too harsh on Cole.

Immediately to my right is the open seat which was previously occupied by Cole. Then is seated my dad, who at age 61 maintains a youthful and bright-eyed appearance. His age is given away only at the moment you realize he can’t hear what you’re saying. (My daughter and my mother are seated next in the row, but they are atypically excluded from this particular reflection.) Dad, or Ronnie Ray, as he was named by his mother, also shares his father’s name, Ray. My grandfather died at the young age of 44 in a trucking accident. Dad was sixteen at the time. What I know about my grandpa is that he was handsome (my own assessment from photographs), an ingenious mechanic (as mentioned by anyone who knew him), and particularly tough on his only son. Dad never recounts a story to glorify my grandfather. As a matter of fact, my Dad’s anecdotes usually underscore his father’s foolish wisdom, such as “I remember complaining to my Dad about the same old vacation we took to Wisconsin every year. He told me I’d be lucky to travel outside of the Midwest. Wonder what he’d think now.” (Dad has traveled to almost every state in the U.S. and to several countries abroad.) Dad also told me when he was young, his father made him take a job as a “substitute” paperboy. The regular paperboy paid my dad a nickel per route, while he himself still got to keep 25 cents. Upon complaining to his father about the injustice of the pay, my grandpa simply said, “You shouldn’t be so greedy! You should be grateful for the opportunity!” Despite the austere descriptions my dad created of his own father, he deeply missed him at various times of his life, especially when I was born -- the only child he would ever have.

Doug, who coincidentally shares his middle name with my father-in-law, Mark, often relates snippets of his past which are very foreign to my own upbringing. Instead of being bombarded with accolades from a very young age, probably beyond merit, as I was, Doug doesn’t remember receiving one compliment from his Dad. My father-in-law (God rest his soul), was an extremely generous and well-respected citizen of the community. But, he didn’t attend Doug’s math bee when he was young. He never patted Doug on the back when he made an all-tournament baseball team. He was quick to point out any unworthy performance. “Good job, Son” wasn’t a part of his script for raising a child. Nevertheless, my Mark was always the one who ensured Doug, along with his brother, Dave, were safe during the harvest or the planting seasons. Mark always showed up to help his sons. Sometime actions speak louder than praise.

What intrigues me amidst this quandary of love and life lessons is the friendship that has developed between my husband and my dad. It began with Doug’s mild interest in my dad’s passion – the restoration of antique motorcycles. (Doug’s interest in motors was abruptly squashed at a young age when his dad scolded him for subscribing to American Hotrod.) This repressed interest transformed into a partnership with my dad – which was supposed to become a money-making scheme. Thus far, the purchasing of inventory has far exceeded the sales. But that’s okay.

Dad calls Doug much more than he calls his daughter. Doug is amazed by my father’s patience as he learns the art of restoration. I’ve watched my husband’s self-esteem grow to a healthy, functional level. I’ve seen an enthusiasm grow in Dad’s spirit. It’s a father and son paradigm created out of respect, and possibly some missing pieces founded in their own personal experiences. The bond between Doug and Dad comforts me, but will I continue to worry about the relationship between my husband and our son?

Probably.

But I’m learning to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of father-son relationships. Case in point:

Doug and Cole were light-saber fighting in the living room, while I was in the kitchen. Amidst the grunts and “Oh, Yeahs!” I heard a large smack. Upon my husband’s gasp and the, “Oh, Buddy! Are you okay?” I ran to the living room. Mortified to see Doug bent down, investigating the welt on our son’s face, my speech was stopped by the expression on Cole’s face. Wearing a proud smile, he told his father, “Good one, Dad.” Doug, of course, replied, “Sorry, Bud. I didn’t mean to do that.” He couldn’t help but chuckle at Cole’s tough-guy reaction. And they picked up their sabers to begin round two.

Yes, I’ll worry that Doug is too hard on his son. But despite my inability to fully understand their actions and their dialogue, I am comforted by something intangible – something beyond words and actions. It’s the unspoken language between a father and son – the unspoken language of love.

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