by Stacey Warde
I learned the best example of manhood from a guy who was—I thought as a kid growing up—not very manly.
My stepfather, who died in 2008 from kidney cancer, didn’t have the physique of a man who would easily intimidate. He looked more like a New Jersey Italian teddy bear, a Mediterranean Buddha with belly to match, who loved to pass out cigars and pour a good stiff bourbon when the occasion called for it; he worked hard and celebrated life with gusto.
He had a lot of fight in him, fearless in his way, and he was pretty good about knowing when to use it, without resorting to fisticuffs. You always knew where you stood with him. He never minced words.
He took us on, some 50 years ago—mom, my brother and me— as if we were his own. He quickly laid down the law, setting boundaries and establishing family as the beginning and end of all things. He had been raised in the old ways of a New Jersey Italian where family and loyalty to one’s clan are as sacrosanct as the natural order of the universe.
My brother and I, abandoned by our biological father, were hurt, angry little boys when mom remarried and we weren’t quite ready for another man to claim us as his own.
Sure, we liked him—as a friend—but when mom told us she was going to marry him and that he was going to be our dad, we rebelled. We tested him. When the cops came knocking on our door only a few months after the wedding, he stood by my brother and me as we bold-faced lied.
“Did you throw rocks at the old lady’s window?” he asked us, responding to a complaint from the neighbor woman—a cranky old bag who hated kids—as the cops waited patiently on our doorstep for an answer.
“No, we didn’t do it,” we protested.
“If my boys say they didn’t do it, they didn’t do it,” he said firmly, closing the door on the cops and sending them away.
Mom came home later that day and got straight to the point with my brother: “Why’d you do it, Nathan?”
“They made me do it,” he wailed, pointing his finger at me.
We both got whooped pretty hard for making our new dad look like a fool in front of the cops. He made clear that his authority was to be respected, or we’d pay the consequences. That was our first taste of fatherly love, Italian style.
“You don’t have to love me, but you will respect me,” was the message, and as time passed I learned to both respect and love my new father.
Dad put a lot of stock into “playing the game right.”
One summer years later, after he’d gotten his licks in as a father, he put together a traveling baseball team, hand-picked the players and helped organize the league. It was forward-thinking at the time for teens our age who wanted to continue playing through the summer, an idea that came long before the now super-hyped, expensive and prestigious traveling leagues we see today with their fancy uniforms and fussy parents and spoiled players telling the coaches what to do.
It was a big treat for us kids, too, getting to play past the usual short season of organized youth baseball; it was a rougher and scrappier kind of game, more in the dirt, and with other talented kids from communities beyond our own whom we’d never met before, and who also loved to play hard and get dirty. It was just the boys and their dads, who helped with the officiating and coaching, steeped in the passion of playing the game.
My dad instilled in me that summer a love for the game that went well beyond just playing good baseball. It had everything to do with how I played, and the way I carried myself on and off the field—do it with class, he’d say.
“If you can’t play the game right, don’t play at all!” he barked at me once when I’d tried a cleats-to-the-face slide into third base. He didn’t like foul play or cheats; he wanted me to know and play the game well enough to take advantage of my opportunities without resorting to cheating or foul play. “It makes you a better player, and others will respect you more when you play the game right,” he said. “You don’t have to cheat to win.”
And he benched me to drive home his point.
During another game, while pitching, I got increasingly frustrated because I was missing the corners, and throwing more balls, and wearing myself down. I still managed to hold off most batters, but was working too hard at it. My frustration got worse and I let anger take over and started throwing harder, straight down the pipe, but still missing, and digging myself into a hole.
My dad saved me from myself and pulled me from the game. But I was angry and didn’t want to leave and, in a fit, threw my glove into the dugout as I came off the field and he glanced up at me over his scorebook and said, “Do you want to sit out the next game, too?”
That’s all he needed to say, and I stewed quietly until the game was over. On the way home, he said, “I pulled you because you were playing blind. You don’t play blind. You’ll end up hurting yourself, or worse, someone else.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. “I didn’t hit anybody,” I said.
“I didn’t say you were wild. I said you were playing blind. You got too emotional. You let your emotions get in the way of your abilities.” I knew he was right and thought about it for the rest of the summer and still think about it whenever I start feeling like breaking down and “playing blind.”
“You play smart, son. That’s how you win.”
As mom says, we were lucky he took us under his wing, flawed as he might have been, and through him I learned the measure of a man, enough so that I grew fond of him, loved him, and eventually, as a boy of 8, started calling him “dad.”
His most manly asset, though, was his fierce devotion to mom, which counts for a lot in my book. That made him as big a man as any I’ve seen in my life. He took on the role of husband and father where most men might have fled in the other direction.
As an Old School Italian, he was intolerant of disrespect. Once, at the dinner table, my brother mouthed off to mom and dad reached over with his spoon and rapped him on the head. “You don’t talk to your mother that way, ever!” he scolded. While today that correction might be seen as abusive, we got the message loud and clear and never mouthed off to mom again.
He defended and protected her in ways that are only now becoming clear to me as I watch her adjust to widowed life after nearly 45 years of marriage. She seemed to have fewer cares then, he wouldn’t allow her to become anxious or worked up and made sure all her needs were well met. He doted on her.
I seldom heard dad argue with mom; their arguments, he’d say, weren’t anyone’s business but their own. That’s why, when they needed to discuss something that might get heated, they took their personal business behind closed doors. They never raised their voices with each other, at least not around my brother and me.
He assumed the full weight and responsibility of father for children who, at least in the beginning, were not his own, including major expenses such as making sure our teeth were properly straightened.
“There’s my new pickup truck,” he teased when friends came over, and he’d point at me, asking me to smile so they could see my new braces. “Show them my new truck.”
He’d have to wait a few more years before he finally got the truck he’d always wanted but in the meantime he took care of pressing family matters, sacrificing his personal wants, making sure we all had what we needed first.
My biological father, meanwhile, deserted us when I was four; he didn’t put any time or effort into getting to know me, or my brother. He paid us no attention. He was a ghost in my life, a non-person, essentially, whose only historical significance to me was that of sperm donor. As a young boy, I’d ask mom what happened to him.
“You’re better off without him,” she’d say. At first, I’d get mad at her for saying such things; I didn’t believe her. How could I be better off without the man who was supposed to be my father? A boy doesn’t understand these things. He assumes that by rights the man who made birth a possibility would also take an interest in his own children.
After a while, though, I figured she was right, that he probably didn’t care, and that indeed I was better off without him, so I forgot about him, except for the one random visit he made to our home when I was about 10 to discuss visitation arrangements with mom and my new dad.
That was the last time I ever saw him. I heard from him once more when I was in high school and he sent copies of the New World Translation of the Bible favored by Jehovah’s Witnesses to me and my brother.
I took my brother outside with our copies of the “bible,” and showed him how we would appreciate the gifts by placing them in the gutter, pouring on gasoline and setting them on fire. As we watched the thin pages of the bibles crinkle into twisted ash, my grandmother pulled up beside the curb to park her car. She sat staring over the steering wheel, horrified.
“What are you doing?” she demanded as she got out of the car.
“Oh, hi grandma, don’t worry; it’s nothing, just burning those fake bibles Jim sent us.”
I’d gotten to calling him Jim because that’s what mom had always called him, never “your father,” whenever she talked about him, which was rare.
The strange thing was I hadn’t thought twice about burning those books, and didn’t realize the real horror of it until I saw grandma’s face when she drove up. No one in the family valued books more than she did, coming from a family of educators; her mother, Marie Harding Thurston, and aunt, Ruth Harding, both had schools named after them.
For me, it was a kind of purgation.
I wanted to be rid of those books, and the false religion, and the show of some kind of weak Christian love from a man who didn’t want to be a father to his children.
Not long after I was married, I thought of seeking him out, to ask him personally why he hadn’t taken an interest in his two sons, but it was too late. He died when I was 23. He was 45, and had started at least two more families besides the one he started with us.
At that point, it didn’t matter much whether we “hit it off” or got on well. I was more interested in finding out what sort of man he was, whether there were patterns and habits of mind that I might have inherited and whether there was anything about which I should be concerned.
But any such opportunity was crushed when mom spoke up casually one afternoon as she and my wife relaxed at the dining table drinking tea and coffee. I was cutting an apple by the sink. “Oh, by the way, Jim died.”
I didn’t expect it to hit me the way it did. I didn’t shed any tears, but it troubled me and left me feeling vacant. My wife graciously walked over and put her arm around me. I must have felt like a sack of potatoes.
I might not have picked my stepfather as the “ideal” model of a man for a young kid looking for a strong father figure, which is what I wanted as a terrified little boy. I would have picked someone like my biological father, whose pictures mom kept showed a man with a powerful, muscular build. My one earliest memory of him, in fact, is of him putting his fist through the bathroom wall.
I learned quickly, however, that my stepfather cared with the kind of devotion that shows real backbone. He made a lot of sacrifices, and paid us a lot of attention. He was our protector, even without the intimidating manly presence a young boy might want in a father.
I’d seen him fearlessly go after people who wronged him or who showed the slightest disrespect, people, for example, who parked their cars in the handicap zone he’d had the city paint on the curb nearest the front door so that grandma could get to her car without trouble.
He’d run out, no matter who it was, and he’d confront the offenders, directing them away from the painted curb. Even the scary looking guys complied.
“I don’t care,” he said, “they don’t belong there.”
I seldom heard whatever he said to people as they rummaged through his trash on trash days; but he’d shoosh them away and off they’d go.
“I don’t want people digging through my trash or my recycle,” he’d say, sitting back down into his chair to read the morning newspaper. “I pay money for the city to come pick those up. If they want to dig through the trash, let them go to the dump.”
As a father myself, I determined as much as possible not to be like my biological father, who it seemed to me, quit when the family he created put demands on him that he wasn’t ready to meet. He became a flyboy. He fled, spawning more families along the way, leaving more abandoned, fatherless children in his path.
I swore that I would never do that to my child; that I would never flee from my responsibilities, that I would break the cycle, as much as possible, and try to be a meaningful manly presence in my daughter’s life. I failed on many levels to give her what she needed but she knows that I love her and will not abandon her. She’s the apple of my eye.
Without my stepfather’s example, though, I might never have known what it means to be a father. Over the years, I’ve tried to emulate his commitment and respect and love for family. Mom was right. We were lucky to have found him. §
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice.