58: Manhood 101: Having Your Masculinity and Your Marriage Too

58: Manhood 101: Having Your Masculinity and Your Marriage Too

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Manhood 101: Having Your Masculinity and Your Marriage Too

Housekeeping ain’t no joke.

~Louisa May Alcott

When it comes to macho, you don’t get more manly than my father. Air Force fighter pilot, Air National Guard Hall of Famer, Golden Gloves boxer. Happily married to the same woman for sixty-six years, still willing to match anyone drink for drink and insist on picking up the tab for the whole bar. He has a gruff voice, refuses to mince words, and radiates an athletic energy that’s served him well throughout his life.

So far, so good. You’re with me.

But here’s where the story goes off the beaten track. When the going got tough, he went shopping. Literally.

My father was stationed in Alaska when he mastered the art of braiding my sisters’ hair, changing my brother’s diapers and doing laundry. No, it wasn’t some early version of Wife Swap, but a much grittier reality show, one you’ve not seen on TV.

The first indicator of trouble was a phone call he got in the midst of scheduling flight runs. It was my mother’s doctor. “Your wife has a spot on her lung that indicates tuberculosis.” In those days, not only was TB highly contagious, it was also a death sentence. Perhaps it was the fact that the doctor hadn’t yet told my mom her own diagnosis that made my father hang up the phone with a brusque, “I’ve got to talk to my wife!”

When my mother’s tests came up negative for TB, she was released from the hospital until shortly before Christmas, when she began coughing up blood. At that point in time whole hospitals were filled with patients dying of “consumption,” and because it was so contagious, my mother was immediately quarantined in a hospital fifteen miles away.

In 1950, hospital rooms didn’t have phones. Arranging a call ranged between rare and impossible. Thus my folks’ sole contact came in the form of daily visits, first thing in the morning when Dad and my siblings, bundled up against the severe weather, stood outside in the snow waving up at my mother who smiled back from the third floor window. It was a comfort, I imagine, for all of them.

Meanwhile, Dad’s commanding officer was able to get Mom into a promising new treatment program in Denver. Two weeks after Christmas, she was on her way, strapped into a gurney on a plane transporting wounded soldiers from the Korean War.

My father packed up the house and prepared the children for their “compassionate transfer.” It took nearly six weeks to reach their new home, during which time they and my mother were deprived of even the scant comfort of seeing — much less talking — to one another.

Without my mother around, my father learned the hard way what it meant to walk in my mother’s shoes, coming home from work to cook dinner, do dishes, bathe the kids and get them to bed before picking up the house and doing laundry. When he tells the story now, it’s with characteristic self-deprecation. “I didn’t have a clue. I remember, before she got sick, she wanted a clothes dryer. ‘Are you kidding?’ I asked her. ‘Do you know what those things cost?’”

A few weeks into the Denver transfer, he saw the light — or was it a Whirlpool? — in the rivers of wash created by four children, including the cloth squares that were — in those days — not an alternative but rather the only barrier standing between him and much less pleasant overflows.

Diaper delivery wasn’t an option, not even a gleam in an ecomarketer’s eye. Deliverance came in a large steel box that rendered clotheslines obsolete and turned my father into a walking-talking spokesperson for the unsung plight of the housewife.

When not hunting for perennially lost socks, he prayed for my mother’s safe return. He began — as we recovering Catholics say — to “offer things up.” First candy, which he loved, then cigarettes. As he tells it now, it was touch and go, because the next thing he planned to tackle on this list — right when my mother was released from the hospital — was wine. “Just in the nick of time,” he laughs.

Everyone they knew saw my mother’s recovery as miraculous. I wonder if she didn’t think this might be God’s way of getting her husband to give up sweets, cigarettes and the ghost of male chauvinism all in one fell swoop. Dad says he was too busy giving thanks to think much at all. Giving thanks and teaching his kids that each time they did a chore around the house, it wasn’t ever menial. “Consider it a labor of love,” he’d say. “If you do it, your mother won’t have to.”

A labor of love. When I think about it now, all they achieved, the military honors and the Ph.D. he earned after “retiring” at the age of forty-five, I’m awed. That they could do this with ten children is almost as amazing as the fact that he shared his every accomplishment with his wife. They were a team. He’d learned the hard way just how much her labor at home allowed him to excel in the world at large.

What I’ve learned from his example is that the honest work of love, the real “manning up,” involves putting yourself, whoever you are and whatever you do, into your spouse’s shoes. Marriages thrive when both partners break through their inexperience and empathize with the other’s challenges, whatever they may be. That’s the real lesson at the heart of my father’s heroism. He can shake his head at his former self, bare his soul in unflattering light, be humble enough to admit when he was wrong, and imaginative enough to remember, long after my mother had returned to the kitchen, that love’s labors — unlike socks — are never really lost, just tucked away in a place it takes a brave heart and eagle’s gaze to notice.

~Sheila Curran

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