Honoring Thy Father, And The Grumbling That Goes With It

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank March 15, 2013 05:00

Russel FrankNear the end of the month my big sister sometimes sends me a friendly reminder: time for another Dad-check.

A Dad-check is my contribution to a family fund that supports my father, who’s 95. I wish I could say that my sibs and I wrote our Dad-checks in a spirit of gratitude for all that dear old Dad has done for us. The ugly truth is that we have been known to grumble about it just a teensy bit.

It’s not that we don’t appreciate all that dear old Dad has done for us. We do. If he were a mean old coot our resentment would be forgivable. But he’s a sweetheart. We love him. But we’d be lying if we didn’t cop to occasionally feeling wistful about the other uses we could find for that money if Dad had – what? Made more? Saved more?  Not lived so long?

I can’t even claim that this monthly chunk has been a hardship. Usually I think about the airplane tickets I could be buying. Poor me, right? When my better angels are singing to me, I think about the money I could be spending on my children rather than on myself.

Our foreign friends are rightly appalled by this apparent lack of respect for our elders. Coming from societies where three generations under one small roof is the norm, they tell us it’s an honor to care for your aging parents.

And by caring they don’t mean sticking Maw and Paw in an old folks home – even a ritzy one like my dad’s digs, with its gym, pool, computer lab, movie theater and dining hall. We should be making space for him in our own homes.

Well, we’re spoiled Americans, which means we have a grossly inflated idea of how much personal space a person needs. Forget everyone needing his own bedroom. We each need our own bathroom.

We tell ourselves Dad is more comfortable in his own place, among his peers, than he would be in any of our houses, and it’s probably true. No one likes to feel like he’s “in the way” – even if we were to go out of our way to make him feel at home.

Again, our non-American friends find this talk of being in the way, of being a burden, very strange. It’s as if, they say, we define our value to each other solely in economic terms: If you contribute wealth to the family, you’re an asset; if you consume wealth, you’re a burden.

Where do these differing attitudes come from? I’m guessing it has to do with differing levels of confidence in social mobility.

In America, we believe anyone can (and therefore should) get rich. That gives rise to a linear model of filial obligations: Each generation is supposed to make enough money to give the next generation a head start in accumulating its own wealth.  If we don’t succeed, the failure isn’t just personal, but intergenerational: Instead of flowing down the pipeline to the next generation, the money has to flow back up – the wrong way – to the previous generation.

Of course, in a society where social mobility is possible, it’s not supposed to matter whether our parents are rich because we can become rich ourselves, in which case supporting our parents shouldn’t be a hardship. But if we, too, “fail” to get rich, we’re more likely to resent our parents for not having enough money to support themselves, than we are to blame ourselves for not having enough money to support them.

In traditional societies, you either come from money or you don’t. If you don’t, there isn’t much you can do about it, so why waste energy on resentment or blame? Just pool your resources and take care of each other as best you can. The dominant model of filial obligations in such societies is a loop of reciprocity: Your parents take care of you when you’re young; you take care of them when they’re old.

For most of us, I suspect, the worst part of taking care of our parents isn’t writing the checks. It’s the fear that our kids are going to have to take care of us. But what’s to be done? At this point, my only two hopes of striking it rich are to win the lottery or write a blockbuster. Unfortunately, I don’t buy lottery tickets and lack blockbuster talent, so I probably shouldn’t spend a whole lot of time down at the docks waiting for my ship to come in.

That leaves scrimping and saving and working until they have to pry my cold dead hands from my computer keyboard. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone who isn’t rolling in dough can afford to retire anymore. The last time I looked at how much I had paid into my pension fund it appeared to be a pretty tidy sum – until I realized it would keep me in groceries for two years. Three if I switched from chunk light to cat food.

My dad retired at 62. Since that didn’t work out so well for him (or me), I keep saying I’ll work ’til I’m 85, health permitting.

As for saving, it sounds very practical to defer most gratifications now so you can support yourself later – except I have just about as much stamina now, in my late 50s, as I did 25 years ago. I might not be able to say that in 10 years. So if we’re talking practicality, what’s practical is to keep seeing the world now, while I still feel up to it.

And then?

I fantasize about maxing out the credit cards and then putting myself down, to borrow the veterinary euphemism, but I fear that I’ll go out like my dad, “honoring” my children with the burden of my care.

I can’t count on their getting rich. I can hope, for their sakes, that they’ll be more gracious about supporting their dear old dad than I have been about supporting mine.

Russell Frank, a former Sonora resident, is an associate professor of journalism at Penn State. Contact him at rbf5@psu.edu.

 © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Russell Frank
By Russell Frank March 15, 2013 05:00
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