Widowed dad was wonderful, before single parenting

Kathleen Parker

6/19/2001 12:00:00 AM - Kathleen Parker
On May 13, 1955 - five days before my father's 32nd birthday - Housekeeping Monthly came out with "The Good Wife's Guide," a list of rules for women to live by and men to die for. It came to my attention recently via one of those perpetually forwarded e-mail messages that eventually winds up in everyone's electronic mailbox. I was struck by the guide on several levels. First, it's hilariously funny in light of the past 46 years. "Have dinner ready," it begins. Modern translation: "Order take-out in time for him to pick up on his way home." On a more personal level, I couldn't help thinking how ludicrous this guide and the attendant "thinking" must have seemed to my father, who that year was beginning his journey as a single parent following the death of my mother. "Prepare yourself," says the next bullet. "Take 15 minutes to rest so you'll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people." Yup, and now he's coming home to two young children who miss their mother and who haven't yet realized that his life isn't all that peachy either. "Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him," the guide goes on. "His boring day may need a lift, and one of your duties is to provide it. ... Be happy to see him. ... Greet him with a warm smile and hug. ... Listen to him. ... Arrange his pillow." And then it gets really good: "Remember: He is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him. A good wife always knows her place." I read this aloud to a college student who's helping me this summer and she looked incredulous: "Did a man write this?" There's nothing inherently wrong with most of the "rules." They are what decent, loving people might voluntarily do. Be interesting. Be happy. In other words, be considerate. What's offensive now is the sense that these were unilateral instructions, delivered by the male to his subservient, know-thy-place wife, who had no life of her own. Now we all have lives of our own and little time to be "gay." Arranging his pillow means, "Roll over, buster, you're snoring and I've got an early meeting." Don't complain when he's late? What if it's his turn to relieve the nanny or pick up the kids at daycare? But we nitpick. Growing up, I witnessed little of the husband-wife dynamic that compels so much of today's discussion. Divorce followed my father's subsequent remarriages, but my most persistent childhood memories are of him coming home from work with a briefcase in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other. He shopped, cooked dinner, helped with homework, quizzed me on vocabulary, presidents and capitals, rubbed my back and listened to my prayers. He was a single parent before single parenting was a statistical norm and long before a Census Bureau report on the growing numbers of single fathers warranted a press release. In today's he-said, she-said world of bitter divorce and contested custody, my father would be a poster boy for the men's movement, maybe even a fatherhood icon for some Web site boasting 10,000 hits a day. I have a feeling he would have found all that just as silly as we find "The Good Wife's Guide" today. Like the millions of uncomplaining men who call themselves "Dad" today, he did what he had to do. No awards, no plaques, no ribbons. It was just called being a man.