After three years, I finally found another father who understands how I feel about my daughter’s boyfriend. He lives in California, I’m in New York, and we met in Reykjavik, but nobody said love — or rather, opinions of love – ever ran smoothly.
My wife and I had been part of a group spending several days hiking up mountains, across glaciers and along geothermal rivers throughout Iceland. We’d shared several meals with one particular couple and their two daughters, but it wasn’t until our final evening — when their kids were sitting at another table with “people their own age” — that the conversation had gotten around to our girls’ love lives.
As any wife can tell you, such a conversation between fathers is similar to playing with matches in a fireworks factory. No matter how careful you are, there’s always a chance that one little spark can bring down the building and much of the neighborhood along with it. And I was one light away from the 1871 Chicago fire.
On the surface, there was nothing wrong with the boyfriend. He was a good student, nice to my daughter and didn’t have a neck tattoo. But I just couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Or, rather, what my problem was with him.
But this night, when I was asked what was wrong with the guy, it finally hit me like an intentionally aimed Frisbee: “He doesn’t suck up to me.”
The way the other father reacted, you’d have thought he had just encountered a long lost brother who not only had found the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, but was offering a 50 percent share and any surrounding mineral rights. While we had gotten along fine up until this point, now he was absolutely thrilled to have met someone who finally, finally understood him.
For the next 10 minutes, our wives had to take the back seat while the husbands took turns driving the “Lousy Boyfriends Express” at 150 miles per hour with brake lines we had happily tampered with. All the tropes were trotted out: He never looks me in the eye. Never wants to engage in conversation. Never asks me how I’m doing, what I thought of the ballgame, or offers to do me favors.
For some reason, sucking up didn’t appear to be on our wives list of What Boyfriends Are Supposed to Do. But being former boyfriends ourselves, we had memories of the most unnerving times of our lives: meeting our girlfriends’ fathers.
Women don’t understand it, but meeting their dads for the first time is a particular kind of hell usually reserved for going before a judge when you’re on trial for a triple-murder rap. A hanging judge at that. Because while you’ve just walked through the door, he’s already measuring the noose.
It’s not that the father is evil — how could he be when he raised such a charming, wonderful young woman? No, he just remembers how he was when he was your age. And what tastes sweet in memory suddenly turns rancid when his daughter is the dessert.
Yes, Jack and I sucked up plenty in our day. I was 35 when I met my now-wife’s father, but my pressed shirt and clean necktie didn’t fool him. Sure, he was nice, but in his eyes, I was just another 17-year-old punk with only one thing on his mind regarding his daughter, and it wasn’t playing Scrabble.
Making it worse was that he had been a star athlete in high school. In other words, a jock — the kind of guy who, just by looking at me, would have been likely to break my nose and blacken my eyes for the simple reason of just being.
But I sucked up that day, and the next, and the next. I’m now 61, and I still suck up to him. It’s part of my job description as the man in his daughter’s life. Treats her well. Is a good dad to their child. Sucks up to father-in-law.
Where’s the Discomfort — and the ‘Mr.’?
So when was this vital talent no longer required? As usual, it all starts in childhood. Back in our day, we were expected to address other kids’ parents as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Whoever. Not only did this show respect, it also kept us in our place.
These days, your daughter’s friends greet you with something along the lines of, “Hi, Sally’s dad” when they’re 7. But by the time they’re 12, it’s suddenly, “Hey, Frank, how’s it going?” Somewhere along the line, we neglected to inform them of that whole “Mr.” and “Mrs.” palaver.
Perhaps this was our way to make them feel more at home when they visited for dinner or sleepovers. Certainly there’s never been anything wrong with my daughter’s friends; even the guys she hung out with in high school were what used to be referred to as “fine young men.” They were all comfortable with us.
Maybe a little too comfortable. When I was growing up, fathers didn’t even look like they had first names. To this day, I often have to ask my wife, “What’s your dad’s name again?” because I can’t remember it. Or, more likely, never bothered to learn it because it was never going to be necessary.
Honest, I want to like my daughter’s boyfriend; I just want him to be a little less comfortable in my presence. Just so I can say to him, “C’mon, have a beer, let’s talk. Oh, this ax? Something I carry around… you know, just in case.”
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