15 Years Later, He’s Still ‘Pop’
My original plan was to meet him at Red’s Donut Shop. We went there all the time, when I was a kid. Sometimes picking up donuts to take back home and enjoy as a family, other times, he and I stayed. Two guys with two glasses of milk, and one warm cinnamon roll with melted butter apiece, talking about the world before spending a day at the construction site.
But as it turns out, he doesn’t live in the immediate area anymore. That was news to me, then again, since we only spoke once in 15 years, and hadn’t seen each other in just as long, there’s a lot of room for breaking news.
He and I last spoke earlier this year after I received word his mother passed away. I wrote about this phone call and the anxiety I had leading up to the phone call (read both here and here). Our chat was brief, too brief for me to say there was any real closure. The pain of his mother’s death (still fresh) and my impromptu phone call made for a disjointed conversation. We would have to talk at a later date. Seeing as I am home for the holidays, I figured this was as good a time as any.
Through a tangled web of now distant families, he received word I was trying to get in touch with him. When I picked up the phone, he started to say “This is Pop” but corrected himself quickly and referred to himself by his first name instead. I simply said, “Hi, Pop.” I imagine it was news to him that even after 11 years, I still referred to him as such. When I told him I was in town and I wanted to see him before I made my way back to New York, he half-jokingly said, “As long as you don’t want to go at my head.”
This was odd. All the years he raised me, he made me nervous. There was not one chore I did, not one play I made on the baseball field, where I didn’t hear his voice demanding me to do better. If I didn’t meet his high standards, there were consequences to be paid, some severe, some not. Now, he was the nervous one, worried I was baiting him into some sort of scenario where I would tie him to a chair and make him feel bad for raising me with an iron fist.
That was the last thing I wanted to do.
We decided to meet at a diner halfway between where he lives now and my family’s home, the place where he too once lived. The date we agreed was the day after Christmas and there wasn’t one day leading up to that date when I didn’t think of canceling. In my head, a million questions of what I would say, what he would say, and what, if anything was going to be solved. Chief amongst these questions, was this at all worth the time and energy? Sometimes we have a tendency to let our memories get the best of us, creating tall tales out of simpler ones. All these years, was it really important to see him or was I creating drama that didn’t exist?
He was out of the picture by my freshman year of high school, and unlike most people who underwent separation from a parent or an acting parent, I was more than happy to see him gone. He loved my mom, sister and I dearly, but he also scared us. I wanted the fear out of our house and out of our lives, so when he finally decided to leave, I said good riddance
I have never looked back on those years with a change of heart. My mom and sister and I grew stronger and closer as a result of him leaving. But as I got older and started to become more of my own man, I realized how much of my style of manhood was influenced by him and his teachings.
When I got to college, I happened to make friends with men who were fortunate enough to have close relationship with their fathers, and as they would tell their stories, I realized I too had stories to tell. He wasn’t around for those high school years, but in the years prior, he was the consumate father. I’m talking about chaperoning school camping trips, hosting little leagues, and teaching me chess at the dinner table, the whole nine.
Still, I buried the good memories under the bad ones. I was angry with him for a long time and had no interest in seeing him, even as some of my experiences I hated as a kid are now looked back upon with some comic relief. One story I love to tell is how he refused to call the cereals I ate by their proper name. To him, everything was Corn Flakes so when he would yell at me to pick up the Cocoa Puffs I spilled on the floor, it would always piss me off he was calling them by the wrong name. I never dared corrected him, but oh how I wanted to.
The more I was becoming a man, the more I had to give him credit for laying down the foundation, the good and the bad parts. But telling him over the phone would not suffice. He needed to see face-to-face what his years raising me wrought.
I arrived at the diner first and waited for him inside. Ten minutes went by before I saw him standing outside looking for me. He looked remarkably different, almost unrecognizably so. The years have given him extra pounds, and he’s now shorter than me, but I knew it was him because he remains as horrible a dresser as I remember. On this day, he wore a black leather jacket over a brown sweater, some jeans, sneakers, all topped off with a logo-less, white, adjustable baseball cap.
We gave each other a hardy hug and went inside. Seated at our table, over breakfast, we talked like men, as he would say. There was laughter and, as one would expect, tears. A lot was discussed, too much to rehash here, but to his credit, he recalls things pretty much as I remember them, even the memories we both would like to forget. He admits he was just trying to make a man out of me as he was still trying to figure out what kind of man he is. I admitted to him that it took me becoming an adult to realize adults aren’t perfect.
When we were done with breakfast, he led me to his truck to give me a couple of pictures. He’s married now, has been for some years, so the pictures have been in hiding, he told me. I understood. In our house, we too have taken down the pictures of the old family. But the two pictures he gave me are coming back with me to New York. One is of he and my mother, the other, a picture of me, him, my mom, and my sister all sitting in a 1930’s style roadster we rented for a day. We gave each other another hug, and went our separate ways.
Hours later, I received a text from him thanking me for the time spent, signed off with the following: Thank you, my son. Should you not mind, Pop.
My reply: Thank you for meeting with me this morning. I’ll always be your son.
Then, I saved his number in my phone. He’s listed as Pop.