Who Needs a Perfect Father?
Writing a parenting column is a delicate task. You don't want to turn people off by writing as if you've mastered the art of motherhood or fatherhood. Yet even if you don't claim to have any special credentials, even if you're funny and self-deprecating — like my dad, Rick Epstein — you still have to convey a sense of authority and perspective in your writing.
When my dad wants to provide an example of good, solid parenting, he'll usually turn to a memory of his own father performing some thankless task for his children or delivering some sage advice that's stayed with little Ricky all these years.
Because my grandfather's long, slow decline into Alzheimer's was already well under way by the time I was a kid, I know him almost exclusively as a character in my dad's columns. Even so, it's hard to believe that my grandfather could have really been the paragon of virtue that my dad describes in his writing. According to him, Ted Epstein never broke a law, never lied, never cheated, never swore, never accumulated debt, never evaded duty, never drew attention to himself in public, and never overindulged in anything.
It would not be fair to say that my dad is his opposite. (Although it's true that my dad never shies away from the attention of his public.) For the purposes of his column, however, dad habitually contrasts himself with his father. He remembers his old man for his wisdom and restraint, his high moral standards, and his total lack of hypocrisy. Who wouldn't pale in comparison?
My theory is that we all create hard-to-live-up-to standards for ourselves when we decide to emulate our parents (or vow never to become them). The standard set by my dad is no exception: Not once in my childhood did I see my parents argue. My dad never called in sick to work — even when he was sick. He never got a speeding ticket. He never drank more than half a beer at a time. He never lied to me, never lashed out at me with an insult, and never broke a promise. (Take that, Grandpa Ted!)
With all the modest habits of his middle age in plain sight and all of his youthful transgressions safely hidden from his children, my mild-mannered grandfather managed to retain a certain aura of fatherly mystique. My dad, on the other hand, told me anything I wanted to know about his life. On long car trips I would try to come up with the juiciest questions I could think of. I really hit the jackpot when I asked, "What's the stupidest thing you've ever done?" He couldn't name just one thing.
I won't reveal his dumbest mistakes here, but I would like to honor him for being so candid. My dad makes no secret of the fact that he's mortal, and I'm not sure he could if he tried. I've seen my dad fall off a horse, capsize a canoe and (in a moment of panic) dive fully clothed into a swimming pool. All were oddly heroic.
My dad never saw his own father run, yell or even swim. He was a librarian. He was punctual and conscientious. He wore rubber-soled shoes so as not to disturb anyone studying in the library. On one memorable occasion, my reclusive grandfather returned home to find that my dad had invited over two of his teenage friends. "What is this, Woodstock?" my grandfather asked.
My grandfather was so private and withdrawn that I sometimes wonder how well my dad knew him. I don't think Ted Epstein's formal, reserved style as a father would have suited me at all. I try to imagine what my childhood would have been like without a dad who was affectionate, expressive, and willing to admit his mistakes. And it's just impossible.
As a parent, my dad does not exactly know what he's doing. And I think that's a good thing. If he had all the answers, his column probably wouldn't be as much fun to read, and being his daughter probably wouldn't have been such an adventure.
Claire Epstein, now 24, has been a semi-fictitious character all of her life. Her antics have been reported to readers from Alaska to Australia.