Most people have a pathological instinct to avoid adopting the habits of their parents. There is even a popular ad campaign on TV right now that features a life coach helping young homeowners deal with “the very real struggle of not turning into our parents.” The angst seems to be focused less on how we were raised and more on those amusing personality traits and quirks that made our parents seem uncool, that marked the age gap and cultural distance between them and us.
In my gauzy memory of those restaurant outings, my dad always did what we asked. He would put on a sheepish grin and dutifully “say her down,” even though he knew we were laughing at him. I now understand what my dad did back then: These traits that can make our parents seem like sad figures to us, that embarrass us, or that we scorn them for, are the very things we remember when they’re gone.
My dad was in the remembering business. Throughout my childhood, I watched grieving families come into his monument shop and pick out a headstone from his small display room. He helped them decide, then engraved the stone and placed it in some nearby cemetery. In doing so, he officiated an eternal union of sorts, christening the final resting place for both the person and the piece of ancient granite, chipped out of a mountain in Georgia or Vermont, and trucked across the country to our small Oregon town.
Gravestones don’t just mark the spot where the dead lie — they are an avatar for a person who once lived, and they act like a homing beacon for people who want to remember. Growing up in cemeteries, at my dad’s side while he worked, I saw visitors sit for hours in front of a headstone, or weep as they placed flowers on it. I listened to long, one-sided conversations, heard “Happy Birthday” sung, and once watched a man bring a radio to a grave so he and his dad could listen to a baseball game together.
In our family, there was no room to be the shoeless cobbler’s son. My four siblings and I knew how to remember. We had no choice. Our dad’s craftsmanship was put to service recording people’s entry and exit from this world, and as such, our family treated the very act of marking occasions as something of a sacred responsibility. We celebrated every birthday and holiday with a big family gathering, and we visited the graves of our grandparents and great-grandparents the way other people went to church.
This is the fourth Father’s Day that I won’t be able to call my dad. I keep expecting these holidays to get easier, but so far, they haven’t. Instead, I will visit his grave, where I will be surrounded by the stones he once inscribed, and be one of those people I used to see as a kid, carrying on in front of a hunk of granite.
My own sons have entered the age of remembering. Memories of our earliest developmental milestones and formative experiences do not make the trip with us to adulthood. But at 6 and 4, the red lights of my boys’ minds are on and recording. I look at life differently as a result, wondering what fragments of this time might survive for them, and I’m on the lookout for my own behaviors that will become a source of their bemused assessment of me. Not so I can avoid the behaviors — so I can accentuate them. Because I want them to remember.
I am not terrified of my creeping irrelevance. It comes with the territory. As my boys get older, and even more aware of my place on life’s timeline, I would rather embrace it than make a vain attempt to be falsely — and tragically — hip. I even workshop certain mannerisms, seeing if they garner a reaction, like wearing shorts with black socks and sandals, or giving them nicknames, or singing old country music songs to them at bedtime. Sometimes I’ll channel my dad — whom they got to meet but will not remember — and drop bits of trivia on them, or begin an explanation of something by saying, “Now, when I was your age,” the way he always did.
I know it’s dumb, attempting to engineer such things, but thinking of how my boys might remember me makes me feel closer to my dad, and reminds me that I am the link between him and them.
The other day I walked in on my 6-year-old as he was cutting construction paper and watching the tiny pieces fall onto the dining room floor. He looked up and said, “I know what you’re going to say.”
“What’s that?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“You’re going to say, ‘Please don’t make a mess.’ You always say that.”
“Hey!” I almost shrieked in delight, realizing what had just occurred. “Remember that.”
“Don’t worry, Dad,” he sighed. “I will.”
Sean Herington Smith is a public relations professional and writer who lives in Berkeley, Calif.