I have spies in my house. They watch, listen, observe, mimic. If you’re a dad, you’ve got spies too.
Boys and young men constantly watch and glean bits of manliness from grown men. Even the smallest details get etched into boyhood memories. Much of what a boy learns about manly living is caught.
In my growing-up years, I spent hours observing my dad. I would watch him go about the work of running our home. From fixing all that was broken to mowing the lawn to building a shed. I was his shadow—sometimes seen, sometimes not. And sometimes too close.
I memorized dad’s mannerisms, his expressions, his patterns, his methods. I learned his classic phrases like “measure twice, cut once”, “never do half a job”, and the well-known “lefty-loosey, righty-tighty.” I remember him smelling of hard work—sweat, dirt, fuel and paint. I wondered at his rock-steady hand that could cut-in paint along any ceiling like Michelangelo. I marveled at his ability to coax the rusted bolt loose. Sometime he went shirtless. Often got sunburned. There were cuts and scrapes, but he continued unfazed.
And then there were dad’s muscles. There wasn’t a pickle jar dad couldn’t open. Even the most stubborn jar relinquished its seal to dad with a “pop”. Whether busting through pickle jars or hanging drywall, I was fascinated with dad’s strength. I frequently stole glances at the muscle in the crook of his lower and upper arm. It bulged when he gripped, lifted or just wrote with a pencil. He was tough. His muscle was cool. I wanted one.
I remember wondering if my forearm would someday look like his. I would bend my arm and flex, looking with hope for the desired mound of muscle. Bend, flex, look, repeat.
I’m still looking.
Dad often closed a hard day’s work by grabbing a beat-up, translucent white, two-quart pitcher. He’d fill it half water, half ice. Then he’d stand – not sit – and relieve a bit of his exhaustion with large gulps. He looked like Mean Joe Greene downing a bottle of Coca-Cola. As I took-in those moments, I pondered how manly it was to drink straight from a pitcher. To tame two quarts of ice water in a few short minutes. To feel the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. To be master of a small suburban homestead.
Because manliness is stamped upon my soul, something deep inside me stirred to life as I watched my dad work. As I admired his strength. As I pondered his painting prowess. Even in his drinking he was, at least in my eyes, the epitome of manliness. And I wanted to be just like him.*
I miss my father. Profoundly. I found comfort in his nearness. His accessibility. But that chapter is closed. Time progresses as I, with cautious reverence place my feet into his well-traveled shoes.
Although our reunion will come, the reality of separation sits heavy upon my day-to-day fathering. My dad was solid, steady and wise. He was strong, confident, and courageous. He was faithful and fun. He was a biblically authentic man who understood his brokenness. And I am grateful.
*from a book I co-authored, Man Made: Reclaiming the Passage from Boy to Man