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It Takes a Real Man To Be a Good Mother
Like any son worth his salt, I have a note on my calendar in June to call my dad on Father’s Day, but unlike other men, I also have that same reminder scrawled on Mother’s Day the month before. I think the call on Mother’s Day actually means more to Ben because it acknowledges the be-yond-the-pale sacrifices he made raising four boys on his own. He wore a lot of hats in our household while we were growing up, and when I call him on both Father’s and Mother’s days, I let him know how much I appreciate all the ways he tried to be both the hand that rocked the cradle and the one that held a hammer.
Even before my mother, Joan, died of cancer in 1983, my father performed more home duties than the other dads he rode Metro-North with. He did most of the cooking even though he didn’t step off the train at the Green’s Farms station until 6:30. My mother’s job was to defrost the ingredients for that night’s meal, and my father would come home, put his briefcase down, change out of his Brooks Brothers suit and enter the kitchen with his sleeves rolled up. With one hand he mixed a Beefeater Gibson, and with the other he whipped up a diner-worthy spaghetti and meatballs or liver and onions.
Since my father had always shouldered a lot of the responsibility around our house, it’s hard to pinpoint what he did differently after my mother died. Obviously, there was a huge gaping hole in our lives – still is and although nothing could replace my mother’s quiet kindness or artistic sensibility, my father tried. He showed deep interest in our friends, especially the girls, and attempted to create the “Dear Abby” refuge that my mom would have provided. He would often talk to my girlfriend when I wasn’t even in the room, asking her sincere questions about her life, what she planned to do with it and how he could possibly help. He gave all my female friends affectionate nicknames, so they would feel welcome in a house where laundry was collected in plastic garbage cans and the Wilder boys had to be reminded not to eat dinner in their underwear. Even now, my father calls and asks me how “Pretty Polly” and family are doing in Connecticut and dutifully sends cards (and checks) to his daughters-in-law on their birthdays, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, and his condolences on their wedding anniversaries. Strong enough for a man but detailed like a woman, we often say about my dad. My older brother Richard recently divorced, and shortly thereafter his ex-wife, Mimi, flew to Florida to stay with my father. They’ve developed a true friendship that does not necessarily need my brother or his children to flourish. I know she values his advice, and he deeply cares about her the way, well, a mother-in-law would.
he other thing I admire about my dad is how he never worried about his masculinity or whether he would be ridiculed for baking our town’s best crustless cheesecake in a springform pan. He was always happy to play any role we needed to make our lives seem less damaged. My brother Tom was always the quiet one of the Wilder boys, and my mother’s death didn’t make him feel he had much more to say after that. He had many friends, though, and was asked by an older girl to attend a dinner at her house before a formal dance. A bunch of mothers were preparing an elaborate meal, and at the last minute one of the moms bailed. Tom asked my dad if could step in and help prepare and serve with all the other moms. I understand my dad well enough to know that he would have canceled anything to help his son and his friends, and would have happily donned an apron and oversize oven mitts as if he had been part of the planning committee all along.
Today I think all of us Wilder boys try to carry on some of Ben’s maternal traditions, though I have to admit my dad can still cook rings around me, and aprons don’t look that good on my fortysomething body. But I’ve learned from watching my dad that defined gender roles have been cultivated mostly out of fear and blindness, not out of the kind of love I know a man can have for his children. I hope some day to be immortalizes in a high-school programme the way my father was when my brother Eddie was a lead in “God-spell”. If you look on the page listing the cast and crew in that photocopied playbill, under the heading “Cast Mom”, it happily reads: “Ed’s Dad!”
By Robert Wilder (Newsweek May 15, 2006)