The sins of the father…

Before I went on my travels, to Malaysia and then China, I made sure that I had set the iQ to record Mad Men in my absence. Mad Men is my favourite program on TV, and has been from the moment it began. It’s one of my all-time favourite TV programs. When I returned though I found I had no interest in watching it, and no real curiosity as to what I had missed.

After a few weeks I decided it was time I got back into it. There was no real desire to watch it still. I switched on rather because the episodes were piling up and I wanted to clear the backlog. I figured once I began watching again that the love of it would return to me.

That’s pretty much been the case. I’m still a few episodes behind, but I’m catching up fast. Some nights I watch episodes back to back so immersed I am in the program. It seems so familiar to me, though I went a whole year last year without it. It comes back on the small screen and I know exactly where I’m at.

I’ve written in the past of how I identify with Don Draper in certain aspects. I’m sure there are a lot of men out there who make the same claim, and probably in the same egoistic fashion as I did. Don Draper is the heart and soul of the show, the raison d’etre, and while I don’t doubt that he and I share some traits (as well as some perversities) it struck me the other night how much he reminds me of my dad.

My dad at the time of the show would have been about 10 years younger than the Don Draper character. Instead of working in advertising in Madison Avenue in NYC my dad was climbing the corporate ladder here in Melbourne – he was the precocious wunderkid and manager at 19. There are differences between my father and Don Draper, but as a type they are very similar.

Watching Mad Men in the last few days has had me picturing my old man in his environment at that time. No doubt it was much less glamorous and racy than is depicted on Mad Men, but the ambition and drive, the cut and thrust and getting-aheadness must have been very similar.

Even as a child I had the sense of my father as being aggressive, ambitious and driven. As with Don Draper I think he felt a sense of his self-proclaimed manifest destiny validated by the work he did, and the triumphs he experienced. My father had success after success, working himself up to CEO and MD before he was 40, and traveling around the world at different times doing deals and acquiring companies. As with Don Draper I think it’s fair to say that there was a strong individual identity to my father outside of the family group, and beyond all the other points of ordinary cultural reference. He was contained within himself in a way that may be seen as narcissistic and even selfish, but also must be recognised as essential to that person.

My father was, and remains, bold in certain ways, strong in self and blatantly determined. He was smart – smarter than most people – and knew it. As with Don Draper he was defined by his confidence and belief in self – to the point occasionally of arrogance, and even intimidation. Dark and handsome like Don Draper, I gather he was just as popular with the girls and equally as interested, though – as far as I know – without Don Draper’s serial philandering. Was my father driven to erase a stain in his past like Don Draper? Or was it all simply the fulfillment of self? I think likely the latter, but it’s hard to know with my father.

I guess in the light of all that it’s easy to understand why dad’s marriage to mum failed, though there was fault on both sides. It’s hard for me to shake the thought that his family – us – was only a part of his life. He loved us, but we did not give him the fulfillment his work did, at that time anyway. As his son I was somehow aware of that, and it affected my behaviour. My father back in those days seemed an incredibly impressive figure to me. He was strong, hard, masculine, formidable. I saw how other people viewed him, witnessed the respect and frequent deference. He was like a diamond, shiny and hard.

It’s easy for me to say that I shared many of his attributes, but from this vantage point I’m not sure if that’s true. Did I have them in me already, or did I acquire them in the contact – and inevitable conflict – with my father? In any case I know I wished to break through to him, to pierce that hard carapace and for him to admire me as I did him – bear in mind I was in my teens then. My method of doing that was to stand up to him. What I saw as an admirable rebellion he saw instead as a insolent insurrection. We clashed, and clashed hard.

That’s not really what I want to write about here, but rather is the background to what I’m about to say. If worth noting though that, if my analogy is true, then I am effectively the son of a Don Draper.

About 25 years ago dad gave all his corporate life away. It was hard to understand then, and even more so now. My parents had been divorced for nearly 10 years and my dad re-married for about 5. With his wife he decided to pick up their collective super and buy a motel in Narrandera on the road to Brisbane. He had done his homework and was famously hard working, but the venture failed. Dad was never free with the details, but I gather he lost everything and more, and was left with a deep deficit to recover.

I remember one day then calling him up from work. I guess the business was in receivership or similar, for it was another man who had answered. My father was not there at present, but this man – an administrator or similar I presume – opened up to me. He was full of admiration and respect for my father. He told how hard my father had worked to save the business, how much still he did to salvage all that he could. He did not complain or blame others. He knew he was in deep shit, but that was the way it was.

The kindness of strangers is always the hardest thing. I listened to the voice of this man so filled with an obvious respect that I became emotional. I loved my dad like I never had before. I remember the man said to me about dad, “he’s so tough,” he said, “but be there for him”. I saw him mighty still, though fallen. I knew it would be hard on him, less the practical loss than the moral. He would brush aside what happened as being done, he would, as I knew him so well, remain positive – but I thought inside somewhere deep he would feel this as an unexpected and unknown defeat. And in a way I felt it too.

There are many reasons I remember this now. There are strange parallels. Mostly I am reminded after a conversation I had by phone with dad the other day. For one of the few times ever he alluded to that time, and referenced how tough it was. We talked about how humbling such a thing is, and how you end up doing things you never thought you would, or even could, but now must. It was important, we agreed, to separate yourself from these things. You do what you must and swallow it, no point dwelling on that or the things that you cannot change. I recognised so much of that in my father as we spoke. You had to remain positive and keep looking ahead – one day things would change, and you have to believe it.

His disaster was 25 years ago. He recovered, though most of what he lost was lost forever. In time he entered the corporate arena again and once more climbed to the top. I never doubted that. Now he does his thing, and though he’s over 70 now he continues as he ever was, driven, fiercely intelligent, defiantly unbeaten. We all have stories, and that’s just a part of his.

Dad and I are alike in many ways, and very different in others. Some of the similarities are key, however, and at times like these come to the fore.

Family life

It was my sister’s birthday last week, and per custom we went out for dinner on Saturday night to celebrate. We went to an Italian restaurant in Camberwell, on a night notable for other things.

Mum was not good. She is convinced her time is nigh, and can’t stop telling everyone. This is a situation exacerbated when she has a few drinks. It’s not what we want to hear. It may be true – she continues to decline – but there are times we want to get away from that and besides, no-one really knows what’s going to happen. On Saturday I got exasperated. Mum would interrupt conversations between others with her dire predictions and then get upset when we didn’t react as she hoped. The kids have known all along what the situation is, but still I think it’s unhealthy for them to be made to confront it so starkly. Besides, it was my sister’s birthday, a time, supposedly, of celebration. Can’t we just take a break for a while?

I never have a conversation with mum these days without the major part of the conversation being about her health. The polite ‘how are you?’ is now responded to fully and in detail. I understand and I’m by no means complaining. It’s just that sometimes you need a break from it. I know that’s impossible for mum, but for us, with our lives to live, our own challenges and issues to deal with, it’s necessary. What’s happening with mum is a big part of my life right now, but it’s not all of it. I have a lot of other things I must deal with, and many more challenges than I ever let on here. I cope well, I manage, but still it’s nice sometimes just to let it slide away and live in the moment.

I don’t like to write these things, but I’m committed to being up-front here. I don’t blame mum in any way, and the truth is that she’s been pretty strong and matter of fact, almost philosophical, about her situation. I can’t imagine what it must feel like. Still, mum has always erred to the melodramatic, and there are times those tendencies feel very foreign. I know, she’s searching for attention and sympathy, and I know it must feel isolating sometimes to have a death sentence slowing playing out. But enough already, we know, let us breathe a little, lets have some fun, can we not put it behind us for just a little while? So in the face of her incessant and long-winded negativity on Saturday night I became exasperated, and resorted eventually to calling her bluff. Okay then, you’re going to die soon? When? Should we have a book on it? I’d had enough. The next day, sober, mum said nothing more on it, and nor did I. It’s hard enough dealing with the harsh reality without making more of it.

The second thing that happened concerned the kids. Waiting for them to arrive I had checked in on Facebook, including the two boys. At some point I asked my sister how long since she had heard from her ex, the father of the kids. “About 6 months”, she said. “And the kids?” She shrugged her shoulders. “About 3?” A moment later I glanced at my phone to see the man himself had responded to my post from way off in the UK. “Tell the kids to contact their father will you?” It seemed strange after our conversation. I showed my sister. She raised an eyebrow. And then I passed on the message – though of course there’s been no reason why he can’t have contacted them himself.

Finally my niece, Schae. She is 4 years old, a pretty, smart and strong willed girl. I’m her favourite. She’s always loved her ‘Buppa’, as they all call me, but I wonder if my place in her life has not become magnified since her father left. I’m the only male influence in her life, and that of the boys. I’m happy to be whatever they want me to be – I love them all dearly. On Saturday she was all over me, wanting to show me things, or talk to me, crawling up onto my knee at the dinner table whenever she could. She was excited too because she had a gift for me.

A couple of weeks ago at kinder the kids had done something special for Father’s Day. They had made gifts for their father, or else, as in my case, some other dear male figure in their life. Schae had had painted a white t-shirt for me she was thrilled to give. A rainbow shaped arc of colours – red and purple, green, yellow, blue and orange – curved across the shirt, and the inscription, written by the kinder teacher, read: “I love Buppa. I make him happy. He makes me happy too. Schae.”

That’s family life. The dramas, the tribulations, and ultimately the love. Hard to take sometimes maybe, but impossible to live without.