Take a ride on the spouse gravy train
A few weeks ago, before my birthday, my dad, Tom, sent me an email. “Ma tells me you hit 26 tomorrow,” the message began. “I don’t keep track of such things so I’ll take her word for it. If she’s right: Happy Birthday.”
If he had ended the email there it wouldn’t have been out of character. Last year, my parents sent me a store-bought card in the mail that opened with, “Your opinions, and your outlook on life give me appreciation for so many things I might have otherwise missed.” My dad underlined the words “opinions” and “outlook” and wrote in all caps with a pen, “I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR OPINIONS OR OUTLOOK ON LIFE — BUT ANYWAY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY.”
So when I opened this year’s message I didn’t expect anything different. But after he wished me a happy birthday he continued. “I do know that at 26 you get kicked off [your mother’s] medical insurance. What to do?” he asked. “Stay healthy — or — do what I did.”
At 75 years old, my dad hasn’t worked a day of compensated pay in close to 40 years, and he’s plenty proud of it. He married my mother 37 years ago and has been the primary caretaker for their children (eventually we would number six) ever since. Or as he describes it, “I’ve skated on the spouse gravy train for damn near 40 years.”
His advice to me on my 26th birthday was simple: “Find some smart, hard-charging, ambitious and, above all, employed toots who gets good medical insurance from her work — coverage that also covers her spouse. Then marry her.”
From the start, my parents’ relationship was as simple and as functional as an axe. When they began seeing each other my mom was pregnant with a child by another man who was out of the picture. My mom was focused on her career and my dad was focused on never having one. For him, it was an easy decision to leave the workforce. So he legally adopted my sister, learned how to cook (sort of), and then had five more children of his own with my mom.
This week, on my parents’ 37th wedding anniversary, my dad recounted the day he got married in an email. “37 years ago today your Ma and I stood before a Cook County judge in Chicago city hall and with straight faces and did the ‘I do Dance’,” the email began. “Can’t recall the exact fee, but the ceremony and paperwork cost less than $20…I think the whole deal lasted no more than a few minutes.”
For Father’s Day in 2000, the local newspaper where we lived at the time wrote a feature about my dad entitled, “‘Mr. Mom’ doesn’t claim to be Mister Rogers.” In the article my dad revealed his secret to parenting that had guided him through the years. “I never lose sight of the fact that [children] are evil, lying, time-sucking little beasts,” he told the reporter. “You have to look at your kids honestly, and with hard eyes. They’re imperfect, and parents can’t make them perfect. My job is to make them more like me…their mother’s job is to undo all of that. That’s why God in his infinite wisdom issued two parents to each kid.”
The youngest of my parents’ brood left for college in the fall of 2016. So this last year has been the first in nearly four decades that my dad hasn’t had to act as chauffeur or personal chef. He has handled the change as seamlessly as one switches from pants to shorts in the middle of April.
“The transition to empty-nester status?” he asked. “Cake walk, falling off a log, easy peasy. Kids have been cluttering up my life for years. Change was very welcome.”
I used to think that even though my dad bitched and moaned about his child rearing responsibilities he’d be bored to tears without us. But I’ve come to learn that my dad has always found curious ways to pass the time. For years he stayed busy by looking after the various pets — goats, chickens, ducks, pigs, horse, and donkey — we’d accumulated at my parents’ home in Mississippi. Recently, they got a new puppy.
After he emailed me for my birthday, I replied and asked if he was serious about following a similar path as the one he chose. “It’s worked out, so far, pretty good for me,” he replied. “If munchkins are part of the scene, latch onto (with or without the benefit of clergy or social approval) a partner exactly like your Ma. Such a companion, partner, and guide will make the journey and adventure worth whatever effort you make.”