Poet's Notebook: Happy Fathers

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: Happy Fathers - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Poet's Notebook: Happy Fathers

My father’s eyes rolled upward in Paul’s Diner
not in fine frenzy but diabetic coma
and we thought when they refocused two weeks
later it was time to make amends . . .

Jeanne’s and my fathers were old-style Republicans. High-school graduates from blue-collar backgrounds, they worked hard, and eventually prospered as salesmen, Jeanne’s dad (Roger) owning his own real estate business, and mine (Harry) becoming a manufacturer’s rep for metal products in New Jersey.

Big, loving, good-natured guys who enjoyed a drink (and a few more), they were proud to send their children to college, which had some unpredictable results; the first being that Jeanne and I fell in love while she was at Syracuse and I was at nearby Hamilton. When I finished my Army service in 1957, we got married, and our fathers wanted us to work for them so we could prosper as they had.

Perversely, it seemed we both had a mutated gene, and quickly displayed an allergy to selling anything, sales ability bouncing off us whenever an opportunity approached. Neither Jeanne nor I could sell a mitten to an Eskimo.

Still, they hoped we’d learn, and were disappointed when we jumped ship for the academic life. We drove off to the University of Michigan with two toddlers and $2,000, while they rolled their eyes and worried. But something even worse than poverty awaited us: We became Democrats.

On September 26, 1960, Jeanne and I sat in a fellow graduate student’s apartment and watched the Nixon/Kennedy debate — we had no TV — and it changed our lives. Of course, that debate changed many other things in the world, but before long our politics, always a bit unfocused, took a sharp left turn.

Our practical fathers handled this by ignoring politics entirely and, whenever it flared up, treated it as a transient disease, like mumps. Our mothers kept silent, but we suspected these talented, introspective women were secretly sympathetic to our cause.

A typical incident: In the ‘60s, hair was a big issue, a dividing line. In 1969, on the way to teach a summer class in England, we flew out of the Newark ,NJ airport, and stopped by to see Roger and Ruth (Jeanne’s mother). My hair was a little long and I was sporting a slipshod Trotskyesque goatee. That night, Roger looked hard at me and said, “Don’t come back again until you get a proper haircut.” We took off for England the next morning.

On the plane I said, “You realize, I can’t cut my hair any more.”

Jeanne didn’t have to think about it. “I guess not.”

Two months later, when we flew back to Newark, I was a lot shaggier than when we left. Hugs all around, celebrations, and reunion with the kids. Roger never mentioned my hair again — he seemed to have forgotten his remark — and pretty soon, back in Florida, I shaved and got a haircut, keeping the moustache.

That’s what I meant by “old-style Republicans.” They had the same basic opinions as the others, but over the years, as the Meinke/Clark family tree sprouted to include Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Black, Chinese, Japanese and gay members along its branches, these old white guys stepped up to the plate and welcomed all of us home. Of course, along the line, when we told them we were going to Poland for a year, they brought out their Polish jokes. They were Republicans we could love; and we did.

As for my dad, after his doctor forbade him to drink, his wife Betty allowed Harry one martini whenever Jeanne and I came to visit; so he said he was always happy to see us, even if we were Democrats. He let me make the martinis; he had taught me how. As the old saying goes, the olive doesn’t fall far from the tree.

. . . and let me tell you old man I was proud
at having the strongest father on the block

—Both quotes from “Father,” in Liquid Paper: New & Selected Poems, by Peter Meinke.

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