menu/ MANHOOD

it takes a special man to fill a stepfather's shoes

By Beth Mullally

With Father's Day coming up, it's occurred to me that this country is missing a holiday, Stepfather's Day.

If anyone deserves a special day, it's these brave souls who've had to carve out a place for themselves in readymade families with the care and caution of a neurosurgeon.

That's why we have a Bobber's Day in our family.

It's our own version of Stepfather's Day, named after Bob the stepfather.

Here's why we celebrate it.

The Bobber has just moved in.

"If you do anything to hurt my mother, I could put you in the hospital, you know," says the college boy, who is far bigger than the stepfather.

"I'll keep that in mind," says the Bobber.

"You're not going to start telling me what to do," says the junior-high schoolboy. "You aren't my father."

"I'll keep that in mind," says the Bobber.

The college boy is on the phone. His car has broken down forty-five miles from home.

"I'll be right there," says the Bobber.

The vice principal is on the phone. The junior schoolboy has been in a fight.

"I'll be right there," says the Bobber.

"I need a tie to go with this shirt," says the college boy.

"Pick one out of my closet," says the Bobber.

"You need to get your ear pierced," says the junior schoolboy.

"You need to stop burping at the table," says the Bobber.

"I'll try," says the boy.

"I'll think about it," says the Bobber.

"What did you think of my date last night?" asks the college boy.

"Does it make a difference?" asks the Bobber.

"Yes," says the boy.

"I need to talk to you," says the junior schoolboy.

"I need to talk to you," says the Bobber.

"We should have a stepfather-stepson bonding experience," says the college boy.

"Doing what?" asks the Bobber.

"Changing the oil in my car," says the boy.

"I knew it," says the Bobber.

"We should have a stepfather-stepson bonding experience," says the junior schoolboy.

"Doing what?" asks the Bobber.

"Driving me to the movies," says the boy.

"I knew it," says the Bobber.

"If you drink, don't get in the car. Call me," says the Bobber.

"Thanks," says the college boy.

"If you drink, don't get in the car. Call me," says the college boy.

"Thanks," says the Bobber.

"What time do I have to be home?" asks the junior schoolboy.

"11:30," says the Bobber.

"Okay," says the boy.

"Don't ever do anything to hurt him," the college boy says to me. "We need him."

"I'll keep that in mind," I say.

And so we have Bobber's Day.

The boys buy their stepfather a new toy they can all play with. The Bobber grills steaks. And I am awed by our great fortune that the Bobber earned his way into this family with such grace that it now seems he was always there.

2006 Chicken Soup Enterprises, Inc.

 

new year's eve

If this is obsession - obsession, one could say, right down to the words, boy, man, girl, woman - then I've had it since I could speak. I've breathed it, no more conscious of it than of the bite of pollution in the New York City air.

I went about my business like any other boy until someone brought it to my attention, as when my tall father bent down the branch of a young maple on our street in Greenwich Village, to show me the brown-edged holes in the green leaves. Invisible acid in the air had burned holes just big enough to peer through.

When I looked, I saw my long-haired father, my cobblestone street, my upthrust city darkly framed as by a pinhole camera. On the first New Year's Eve I remember, when my parents brought my toddler sister and me to celebrate with family friends, I was not thinking that the air between men and women burned with angry confusion.

I knew that my struggling parents had been fighting more, and more publicly, than before, but their fights were beyond me, facts of nature, forest fires. On the way to Princeton, I remember thinking of my good luck - we'd gotten to ride not just the subway but two real trains, the impressively long Trenton local and now, from the junction, the little "dinky," with its deep-voiced conductor and its door excitingly open to the air.

When I tired of the train, I thought about the toy airplane in our overnight bag. I'd made it in my kindergarten's first-ever turn in wood shop, with a scrap of two-by-two for a body, and for wings a flat narrow board the shop teacher held while I painstakingly hammered.

The wheels were wooden buttons that really spun, and across the wings and to each side ofthe nose, where model planes showed military insignia, I'd inked the numbers of the coming year with indelible purple Magic Marker: 1972!

We got to our friends' house as the evening sky deepened. The trees beyond their living room windows had turned black. Peter's mother lit candles by the stereo, on the side tables, and in the dining room. Firelight flickered off glass tabletops and chrome tubing and bright black leather. The whole downstairs filled with a fireplace glow, cozy and unreal.

Soon the dads, long-haired and bearded, were sitting on the couch, talking in important-sounding dad sentences, and the moms were standing in the kitchen, chopping salad vegetables on wooden boards. The kitchen had doorways but no doors, so what the moms said could be heard in the living room even over the music: sharp laughter, criticisms long pent up.

My friend Peter and I went upstairs to his room, to push toy cars and trucks and to play-fly my New Year's plane. The comforter on his bed was good to sit on, but bumpy for Matchbox vehicles and wooden wheels. In time, Peter's sister came to the door, and a familiar dispute began.

Peter argued from strict principle - older brothers with older brothers, younger sisters with younger sisters - and his sister countered with a plea for reason and flexibility: Amanda downstairs, just two, was too young for games. Peter relented. The three of us were playing together when I felt the tremor of my parents' argument on the stairs.

My father's step was heavy, his voice distorted; it was hard to recognize him. My mother's voice made a flat, distancing drone, a sound that said not you, not what you say, never, nothing, no. This was a bad one. I felt I should step into the hallway and show myself, to remind them where we were, that this was supposed to be a holiday.

Peter was driving a dump truck up the side of his bed, and his sister was asking how it kept from crashing when the mountain was so steep; to them, adult voices on the stairs were nothing to notice. I wished then that I didn't have this ear always listening for out-of-tune conversations. My father's voice rose and my mother's followed.

She yelled his name, and something thumped dully down the stairs. Peter and Amy looked up. My father's fast steps pounded toward us, shaking the floor, then veered into Amy's room, one wall away. We heard a crack, and rapid distant tinkling - wind chimes in a gale. Then came a sound I'd never heard before, like the ripping of heavy fabric, but deeper. We heard my father cross the hall again, then the slam of a door and the snap of the bathroom lock.

In the silence, I pulled open Peter's door, and all three of us edged out into the hall. At first we saw no one, only the stairway railing and the shelf of books built into the wall. The air was strangely cold.

Downstairs, I could hear my sister crying and Peter's father asking my mother if she was all right. We leaned into the room where the strange noises had come from, saw the holes my father had punched in the glass window and the wall.

Until then I hadn't thought of the wall of a house as something a man's fist could break. Night air, cold and oily, snaked past the shards of the broken windowpane. Peter's mother ran up the stairs to shepherd us into the safety of her office, a room with midnight blue walls where we weren't usually allowed. In that grown-up place there was nothing to do but listen.

We heard her knock on the locked bathroom door and speak soothingly to my father, as though to a child who had been ill and now would be put to bed. He unlocked the door and went downstairs. No one seemed to know what had happened or what to do about it. In time I think we were led to the dinner table for spaghetti.

I don't remember if we ate.

My mother lay stretched out on the couch, wincing at the pain in her ribs. My father sat apart, staring out the darkened windows. Peter's mother spoke to him again. "I'd like you to leave," she said. Peter's father stood up and moved beside his wife, his jaw set hard beneath the thick red-brown of his beard.

My father had barely spoken since he'd come downstairs. "I want you out of my house," she said. She spoke in a controlled, formal voice put on for the occasion. I didn't recognize her in it, as I hadn't recognized my father in his screaming. My mother lay wounded on the couch while my father - suddenly, now, my not-kind, not-brave, not-right father - collected his things in a brown paper shopping bag.

Everyone was quiet, waiting for him to leave. With just quick kisses on the head for my sister and me, and an awful jerky nod to my mother, he followed Peter's father out the door. I watched from the window seat, kneeling by little panes closing up with frost as he walked past the porch light into the darkness.

A slow draft crept up from around my knees, and I tilted my head so my breath on the glass wouldn't fog my view of him. I could see him in the passenger seat with his paper bag on his lap, staring at nothing.

As the car's red taillights dwindled down the driveway, my sister ran stiff-legged to my mother on the couch. She clung tight and burrowed her head into my mother's uninjured side. Peter's mother joined them, and over my shoulder I watched hungrily, imagining how good Amanda must feel in that gathering of reassurance and warmth.

My mother held out an arm to me, offering a hug and a sad smile. I wanted to run to her, to be comforted and to let her know I was with her, but I hesitated. Peter and Amy had been sent upstairs; I was the only boy in the room now. I stood alone, learning to feel like a traitor. It was as though something dug into me then, setting barbs, never meaning to let me go. Knotted to those barbs were ropes, one tied to my mother's outstretched hand, one pulling from the fender of my father's retreating car.

It's hard for me to say how long I waited by that window. Perhaps it was fifteen years. The next day in our little apartment, my mother talked to me on the brown corduroy couch. I sat with my back against a cushion, my legs sticking straight out in front, wishing I'd distracted my parents before the fight got so bad.

I kept my eyes on the floor, away from the bare wooden beams of their empty loft bed rising up near the ceiling. My mother told me that my father would not be coming back unless he learned to control himself and to treat us right. She would call a locksmith to change the locks, she explained, and then we would be safe.

On this unthinkable day, she knew what had to be done. I felt gratitude, so much gratitude it knocked the wind out of me. She told me that sometimes when parents have fights, kids think it's their fault. I stared up at her, amazed at what she knew - just hearing her say so made me feel a little better. I pulled my legs in close where I could hug them, and I looked at her, the sincerity in her dark brown eyes, the upbeat gestures she made when she gave explanations.

She said that in the past, when my father had screamed and hit, she'd thought it was her fault. She'd thought she made him angry by being a bad wife. But now, thanks to her women's group, she understood that he had a problem. His screaming and hitting and smashing were wrong, she said. It was very important that she realize, and I realize, and even baby Amanda realize that he had this problem. It was his problem. His alone.

When she glanced down to see if I understood, I studied the blue valleys on the denim-patched tops of my knees. I knew she was waiting for me to say something, but I sat silent, lost. In my silence, she repeated her idea slowly and carefully, as if it was hard to understand. It was not. Nearly every day in school, kids pushed other kids.

They punched and wrestled and screamed and smacked until a teacher stopped them. Mostly, those kids were boys. Boys broke things that didn't even belong to them. Boys gave scratches and bloody noses. Boys made other kids cry. I'd done these things myself sometimes. Everyone knew it was bad. My mother didn't try to explain to her five-year-old all she had learned in her women's group, but I got the message.

My father had a problem. His problem was being a boy.

Copyright 2006 Greg Lichtenberg

Buy Playing Catch with My Mother: Coming to Manhood when All the Rules Have Changed, by Greg Lichtenberg

"Why can't you just love him because he's a little boy?" John screamed as a final projectile missed me and landed in the sink. "Why can't you love him as he is?"

His voice had degenerated into a hoarse sob, and tears were running down in two steady streams over the cookie dough on his face. John touched his cheek and brought his hand away slowly, staring at it in amazement.

"There's water on my face," he said in a baffled whisper. He looked at me with complete bewilderment. "How come there's water on my face?"

I don't think John had cried in front of another person since he could remember. I looked at him, and the anger seemed to drain out of me all at once, leaving me scoured and exhausted.

- from Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck

(i'm your) hoochie coochie man

The gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born I got a boy child's comin'

He's gonna be a son of a gun
He gonna make pretty womens
Jump and shout
Then the world wanna know
What this all about

But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Well you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him

I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo, too
I got the Johnny conkeroo
I'm gonna mess with you
I'm gonna make you girls

Lead me by my hand
Then the world will know
The hoochie coochie man

But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Oh, you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him

On the seventh hours
On the seventh day
On the seventh month
The seven doctors say:

He was born for good luck
And that you'll see I got seven hundred dollars
Don't you mess with me

But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Well you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him

[This Willie Dixon song was a Chess single in 1954. My source for this song is a French Vogue CD, "Muddy Waters on Chess, Vol. 2: 1951-1959".

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