Harry Chapin was a folk music icon of the 70’s whose songs had limited air time on pop radio because most of his ballads were over five minutes in length, a no-no in the disc jockey industry. One exception was his Billboard hit of 1974 that reached #1 on the charts, " Cat’s in The Cradle." The ballad is the sad tale of a father too busy making a buck to pay attention to his young son who repeatedly asked his dad to join in childhood activities. Ironically, as the man ages, the roles are reversed. The old man craves the attention and companionship of the son, who is now grown, successful, and taking on the modus operandi of his father by politely declining an invitation by the dad to visit because, " my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu, but it’s been sure nice talking to you, dad. It’s sure nice talking to you." The ballad need not end this way. Let me explain:
It was almost fifty years ago but seems like just yesterday. After a long, hot summer day on the job, I’d driven home and parked the car beside the barn and started the thirty yard walk to the house . Somewhere between the rose bush and the clothes line the back kitchen door flew open and two preschool rascals charged down the path racing to be the first to share with me their adventures of the day. Like most tired dads I politely listened for a minute and then continued the walk into the house as they followed, hoping to continue the conversation.
After changing clothes and greeting the wife (that’s Lefty code for-What’s for dinner?) I grabbed a lawn chair and retreated to the back yard with the local newspaper, intent on winding down by reading the sports page after a long hectic workday. Daughter Mary, then as now, has Tenacity as a middle name and was not about to be brushed off . She had more to share and questions to ask and no newspaper was going to deprive her of her dad’s attention. She followed me to my backyard retreat under the lone shade tree where a cool breeze greeted me. Mary continued with her recall of the day’s activities as I listened with one ear and minimal eye contact. About five minutes into this one sided conversation she injected a question and I completely fumbled the ball with a grunt for an answer. She suddenly stopped and, with exasperation rather than anger, blurted out, " Oh daddy your not listening! " She slowly retreated to the house as I returned to the article that had robbed Mary of my undivided attention.
Mama Bear had been in the process of bringing me a glass of ice tea and had observed Mary’s frustration. Suddenly Helen’s voice, in a soft whisper without ranker, issued a warning that did get my undivided attention: " There are a lot of dad’s out there who would give anything to have their kids eager to share their thoughts and experiences. I hope you don’t regret later, shortchanging them today."
Wow! Talk about the proverbial 2×4 between the eyes of the Missouri Mule to get his attention . That warning was more effective in getting my attention than had she poured the ice tea on my head. The comment sunk into my thick Pennsylvania Dutch skull that summer.
The years rolled by and I no longer had to work at showing interest in the kids activities. It became fun and a higher priority in my daily routine. As they grew into teenagers and then pulled the ripcord to venture forth into their own world, our friendship continued to grow. At least 51% of the credit has to be given to Mama Bear who provided a house, neat enough to be healthy but messy enough to be happy. It was the house in the neighborhood where, when we eventually moved to town, all the teenagers hung out. They still called us Mr. or Mrs Schaeffer. Parental respect need not be compromised while remaining friends with your children and their buddies. Once again, being good listeners and asking sincere questions was the key.
Today Helen and I are frequent guests, or hosts, of our adult children and their families. It’s great having kids and grand kids who actually look forward to your company instead of treating the visit as a duty. This past weekend Mama Bear and I were invited to my oldest son’s annual neighborhood backyard picnic. When we arrived there was already a friendly poker game in session under the deck of the next door neighbor.
Soldiers love shooting craps while sailors feel at home in a poker game. Never knew a Tin Can sailor who wouldn’t walk a mile to play poker but attitudes do change with age. My granddaughter needed me to play the king in a play she was rehearsing with her sister. After declining the invitation to join the poker game that was loaded with fish waiting to be reeled in, I ended up in the backyard hammock with two granddaughters and a Springer Spaniel jockeying for the limited space . For an hour I was in character as some king named Leo before switching to word games and a review of last week’s activities .
Helen was sitting at a picnic table nearby. About an hour into my fun and games with the girls she began humming Cat’s in The Cradle. It was a friendly reminder that we get too soon old and too late smart unless there’s a Mama Bear around to cuff us up side the head.
Retired Consulting Engineer and Farmer