I’ve long-held this dream that a holiday dinner table would offer resolution. Not, like, clearing up what my Uncle Bob was like as a kid, but instead what-the-hell-is-fundamentally-wrong-with-us-and-how-are-we-going-to-fix-it? answers. What is masculinity in our family? What do the men in my family think about themselves? About us? About the big questions that confront all of us?
In my 18 or so years as an adult attending big meals around the Thanksgiving table, I’ve never gotten close to finding any answers. In fact, I’ve barely been able to get a rise to a good political debate. Not that I’d want to. Politics are not feelings and feelings are what I want to explore with the men of my family. They’re my blood. And, as such, I suspect they’d understand my pain and joy, angst and elation, sorrow, and confusion more than most people on this planet. What can my family offer that friends can’t? An emotional history. In families, emotional themes flow, ones that can be seen from afar but only really experienced from within. You can catch signals of anger and fear and hope and humor from a family standing around the death bed of a grandfather or spreading the ashes of a grandmother, but unless you’re one of them the root and depth of that will not be apparent.
In part because of who I am, in part because of the nature of my job — thinking about the feeling of men and fathers to an excessive degree — I’m particularly interested in the way this emotional history has divided along gender lines. You know, the kind you find after the big meal with the men in one corner, women in the other. The men in my family have a type: stubborn but charming; angry and afraid; filled with an equal sense of awe and futility at our plight in life. As with most families, it’s a mixed bag. And I have questions.
So how do I talk to my uncle, my dad, my cousin, and the other men in my family about all this? I have absolutely no clue. And that scares me. Because I know that the windows are brief and the conversations we’re not able to have are deep. Also, I wonder if I’m the only one who wants to have them. I know that I can imagine those conversations — about the weird recesses of our shared history, the unresolved feelings, the deep unspoken understanding of the other — and that, perhaps, gets me a step closer to having them. If I were brave enough to jumpstart and guide these conversations, I imagine they would be productive and even cathartic. I don’t think I am. But if I were, this is how I would hope they unfold.
ACT 1: Conversations With Men About Anger — and Fried Turkey
Scene: Outside on the crunchy cold grass yard of a small suburban neighborhood. A group of men, the youngest 32, the eldest 67, with a sizable age gap in between congregate away from the house, talking over the hiss of propane flowing through a metal skeleton stove as it heats a pot of shimmering oil. There is a small table with a turkey where my uncle works with twine, scissors, and one cold (but properly thawed) turkey that is about to be dunked in the fryer.
Me: Flameout before you dunk it.
Uncle: You’re no fun. Bonfire time!
Me: Heh. But really, don’t do that.
Uncle: Did I tell you about the time I burned down the shed?
Me: When you cleaned the lawnmower with gasoline? Yeah, that was pretty stupid.
Me: The men in this family do some stupid stuff sometimes, huh?
Uncle (proudly): Sure do.
Me: I like that about us. We just put it out there. Also…we’re angry.
Me: You know, we all have it pretty good, relatively speaking, but all of us — you, my dad, grandpa, his dad from the sounds of it — we all are so angry.
Uncle: I guess.
Me: Whenever I talked to Grandpa, he was so pissed off at how hard he had to work to just scrape by. Then he was pissed that I had it easy and that I would waste that hard work. And he was right. I see exactly the same thing in my kids. I get angry about it too.
Uncle: Dad sure was pissed off. Man, did he ever give it to us as kids.
Me: That sucks.
Uncle: It’s fine.
Me: Nah, that sucks. I would never hit my kids. You would never hit yours. It’s totally messed up.
Uncle: It is. But he had his issues. And he did everything for us — gave it all for us — and we were the kind of kids that would run away and light shit on fire and skip classes and all that. We were ungrateful.
Me: Yeah, his anger could be right as well as self-righteous. He didn’t have much and worked for it. Others had a lot and didn’t. Those facts seem just as bad now. And I think I have that same feeling of injustice. That’s good anger. It’s probably why all of us hang on to it.
Uncle: I get angry because I care. So are we going to get angry on this turkey or what?
Me: Just turn the flame out.
Uncle: Okay, okay. But beer me first.
Act 2: Conversations With Men About Loneliness and Football
Scene: Plates have been cleared, belts loosened, and everyone retreats to their comfortable corners. In front of a comically large TV, the elder men (my dad, uncle, and their two cousins) lounge on the sectional couch, basking in the LED glow. No one is exactly alert, but no one quite asleep yet. The pies have yet to be sliced.
Me: Man, I don’t watch much football anymore.
Dad: Oh, come on, the Eagles aren’t that bad this year.
Me: Ha! First, they are. Second, I just don’t have the time with the kids and all that.
Uncle: No time for football? You’ll be back.
Me: I bet I will. I mean, I don’t really miss Fantasy Football, except that it forced friend time. Hanging with people whose diapers didn’t need to be changed was pretty damned nice.
Dad’s Cousin: Yeah, man. I’m crushing my Fantasy this year! DeAndre Hopkins for Antonio Brown was a most excellent trade. Haha!
Me: Do you all get together a lot?
Dad’s Cousin: Who?
Me: You and the guys in your fantasy league?
Dad’s Cousin: Oh, no. We’re online.
Me: Do you watch football at home then?
Dad’s Cousin: Yup. Full Game Pass four seasons and running.
Me: With who?
Dad’s Cousin: Um. The wife. Sometimes her friends come over. Sometimes Joe — our neighbor. Usually, I just carve the day for me. Calling me a lonely old man, are you?
Me: I mean, I’m young — compared to you at least (laughs) — and I get lonely all the time. I hang with my kids and even with them and the wife around I often feel alone. I worry I’m going to lose all my friends by the time the kids are old enough to go out. Watching football alone with no blocks or Raffi sounds amazing right now. But I’m already so lonely.
Dad’s Cousin: It’s good to be able to be alone. Friends come and go in life. You’ve got to be self-reliant.
Me: Yeah. Grandpa hates being alone in that old folks home now, you know? Every time I visit, he’s so damned grateful… and then he tells me all his friends are dead and he wished more people would see him.
Dad: Plenty of family see him. We all make sure of that. In the end, it’s family that’s there for you.
Me: Totally. It’s just, loneliness is tough.
(The Eagles fumble. Dessert is served.)
Act 3: A Conversation With My Father About Death (and Pie)
Two men sit at the kitchen table. They are the last to eat dessert — latecomers due to toddler distractions (the kid wanted to dig in the yard). The house is quiet as the family has gone out into the world to shop, walk, and put the little one down for a nap.
Dad: Just another half of a slice.
Me: No need to sneak. You eat well and exercise.
Dad: I guess. The heart though.
Me: Right. Are you scared of the surgery?
Dad: Not really. I have one of the best surgeons in the world on the case and it’s a pretty routine surgery. Mick Jagger had it done and look at him!
Me: So you’re gonna go back on tour?
Dad: I don’t think the fans could handle the new dance moves.
If something went wrong… Are you afraid of death?
Dad: I’ve lived a good life.
Me: Grandpa was afraid of death. I’ve never seen anything that got under your skin and to your core more than that fact.
Dad: (quoting Dylan Thomas): Do not go gentle into that good night. / Old age should burn and rave at close of day. / Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
Me: You love that poem and quoted it with insane frequency when Pop Pop died. And yet… I’ve always thought, what’s the difference between raging and fearing death? Isn’t fear a sign you’ve had a good life?
Dad: But one you’re keeping to yourself.
Me: I’m afraid of death. Now that I have kids — more than ever. I’d rage for them. I think I’ll always be scared, even when they have kids themselves, of letting them go on without me. But that’s why I try to impart so much of myself and the life I’ve seen on them.
Dad: They’re the reason we’re here. You’ve got to remember that.
Me: They’re everything. But, funny enough, looking forward only makes me miss the past more. I think of Pop Pop all the time. I try to tell the kids about him. But they will only really know you.
Dad: I’m a product of the old man. A slightly newer model. Same defects though. (touches heart)
Me: If the worst happened, for what it’s worth, I would fall apart just like you did when your dad died. I think of it as the Irish in us. Death speaks to us with a loud voice. It’s not something we can ignore — or hide from.
Dad: (quoting Thomas again): Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay.
Me: (quoting right back) And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light