I worked at a bank when I was 22. One December day I found myself at a branch of the bank seated on a bench next to a man that was about my father’s age. The wiry man, dressed in the well used apparel of a construction worker, was a few inches shorter than me. He puffed on his cigarette and started talking to me.
It was just light conversation at first. He found out I was working part-time and going to college full-time. I dated a bit, but had no serious prospects at the moment. I intended to get married and raise a family someday. He had been married for over 30 years. He had a daughter that was married and had made him a grandpa twice. He adored his little grandchildren.
After a while, he said, “I’ve also got a son about your age.” And that started a conversation that has stuck with me to this day.
At first the man made some remarks that showed some admiration for his son, but then, with a tone of disgust, he started mentioning some of his son’s shortcomings. The man was proud of his own occupation, but he wanted better for his children. However, his son had dropped out of college and was working in a job where he was making good money. The problem, as this man saw it, was that his son would hit the ceiling in that line of work within 10 years, and would then be sorry he hadn’t stuck with his education.
Then he started talking about his son’s preoccupation with going to the gym and lifting weights. “Oh, he’s got muscles, alright, but they’re not like these,” he said pointing to his own arms. “I got these honestly by doing real work with ‘em every day for 30 years.” He made me feel his biceps. “These ain’t fake.”
And then this man got to the meat of the matter. “Yeah, and he’s got himself a pretty little aerobics instructor that he met at the gym. He wants to bring her to stay overnight at our house on Christmas Eve, and he wants her to sleep with him in the same bed — in my house!” He was beside himself. He wasn’t particularly religious, but, for heck sakes, everyone knew that was wrong. “My wife wants to let him come, but it’s just not right. I can’t do it! It’s just not right!”
The man fumed, “The kid wants to bring his little joy toy home and sleep with her in my house. They’re not planning on getting married anytime or giving me any more grandkids. They’re just using each other’s bodies to get their jollies. They don’t really care about each other. And when they’re through with each other, they’ll just move on to someone else. There’s no commitment there. Where do they get these ideas? Not from his mother and me.”
The man was hurt, angry, and sad. “Why can’t my boy be more like you?” he asked, with tears trickling from the corners of his eyes onto his tough, weathered face. I wasn’t sure I was such a wonderful model citizen, but in those few minutes, I must have represented something this man wanted for his own son.
I felt like a captive audience, and yet I could sense this man’s intense sorrow. There was a lot more to the conversation, or at least to his side of it; some of it quite personal. I mostly just listened and made polite responses. I marveled that this man, who was old enough to be my father, would confide some of his deepest issues to me, a complete stranger. Eventually the man had to go, and so did I. I never saw him again.
I have reflected on that conversation from time to time since then. In a few years when my oldest son is 22, I will be about the age that man was at the time this conversation took place. I’m still not sure what to make of that conversation. Maybe it’s just a warning that the day will come when my own kids make their own choices, some of which will likely differ from my desires for them, in the ever repeating generational struggle of children becoming autonomous adults. I’m not sure that knowing this will make it any easier for me.
We all face difficult situations in life and we all suffer our share of grief. But sharing the load can sometimes help. Perhaps someday someone will be there to be my listening post when I need that service.