Wissot: When father knew best
Jim and Margaret, Bud, Betty and Kathy Anderson on “Father Knows Best.” Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky Nelson on “Ozzie and Harriet.” Ward and June, Wally and Theodore — better known as Beaver — Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver.” These were the sitcoms I remember watching as I was growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s.
There was nothing about these shows at age 10 that I didn’t like. There was the wise father dispensing useful homilies to his children; the dutiful wife supporting his authority with patient dedication; the obedient children destined to grow up healthy and happy by not straying too far from the straight and narrow.
I loved everything about their lives. They lived in comfortable homes in modestly middle class suburbs. They were icons for family stability, civic responsibility, moral uprightness, the virtues of the nuclear family. The shows were scandal-free because they represented a sanitized version of white America. The problems addressed on the shows were charming and innocent.
Betty is boy crazy. Bud is letting down in algebra. Beaver has to confront a bully. Ricky wants to launch a singing career (spoiler alert: he was very successful).
These shows represented a Disneyland version of America. In similar households across the country, families were eating baloney or American cheese sandwiches garnished with mayonnaise on Wonder bread.
Watching in my cramped Bronx apartment I was munching on rye or pumpernickel bread slathered in schmaltz (chicken fat) after having scarfed down my favorite dish: bananas mushed up in sour cream. Yum. I didn’t read the nutrition bulletins of the time (silly me) but I later learned that a steady diet of what I was eating would get you a life span of 7-8 years.
My family had as much in common with the Andersons, the Nelsons and the Cleavers as we did the Mongolian nomads herding sheep, goats, horses, camels and yaks on the Asian steppe.
My father didn’t come home at five o’clock wearing a suit and tie like Jim Anderson. Nor did he traipse around the house all day dressed casually in a cardigan sweater like Ozzie Nelson. As an aside, I never quite understood what Ozzie did for a living because he never left the house.
My best guess is he was a day trader.
I don’t remember what my father wore to work because I was asleep when he left early in the morning and came home past my bedtime late at night. I do know he worked seven days a week in order to pay the rent, put food on the table, and clothes on my back as well as my sister’s.
I received very few pearls of wisdom from my father. It was more along the lines of “when I tell you to do something do it,” or his favorite admonishment, “one more word out of your mouth, you little pipsqueak, you little snot nose, and I”ll close it for you.“ I fought him during my rebellious teenage years and appreciated him by the time I reached my 20s.
When I began to work a five-day week and couldn’t wait for the weekend to come, I understood what he had done for me. He never had the luxury of wishing for a weekend. His example taught me everything I needed to know about sacrifice and commitment; about doing what you have to do when you least want to.
Times have certainly changed in the last 60 years. Men are not the exclusive authority figures in society that they once were. We now have gay and lesbian heads of households. The shape of the family has changed, too. Nuclear is no longer the singular norm. Divorce has increased the number of blended families and immigration the number of multi-generational families living under the same roof.
Parents and teachers have competition in the form of technology shaping the minds of the children they are trying to raise and educate. Adults who have established an intimate, one-on-one relationship with the kids they parent and teach have a sizable advantage over the virtual reality experiences adolescents get online. This is especially true in this year of COVID-19 when kids are under house arrest and have overdosed on remote learning and socialization.
Making a network connection is not the equivalent of a personal connection. Reaching a website is not as powerful as reaching a person. Platforms may excite you. But they can’t love you. For that you need to feel bonded, not hooked up to an avatar on a smart phone.
So how has all this knowledge served me in my role as father of two now adult daughters, one who is 50 and the other who recently turned 49?
Quite well, I think.
Over the years, I have freely dispensed unsolicited advice on a wide variety of topics ranging from the practical to the personal to the spiritual.
And I can honestly say without a moment’s hesitation that they have ignored everything I told them.
The only conclusion I can draw is that they believed advice coming from a one-time, snot-nosed, pipsqueak was not worth following.
Smart. Very smart.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.
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