by Sidney S. Stark
My father always burst through the front door of our apartment when he came home seemingly unaided by human effort. I’m sure it had something to do with the spirit of adventure and cosmic energy that hovered around Daddy wherever he went. He had an air about him that convinced you something exciting could happen (and probably would) at any moment; stay close by and you’d be part of it. But usually he was just coming home after a long day of work so in my childhood I tried to adjust my expectations accordingly. There were of course plenty of truly special events that followed his entrances, but I tried not to anticipate them every time I heard the door open followed by his cheerful, energetic call of “I’m home!” There was that one night after I’d grown up, however, when the events surpassed my expectations.
Daddy had a serious problem with retirement; he didn’t want it, couldn’t deal with it and almost let it kill him. Finally he decided to fight back; he just forgot to tell any of the family he’d figured out how. Daddy was attending a meeting of one of the advisory boards he still served on after retirement. It was a big mid-western mining and manufacturing company. I decided to visit Mummy one evening during his trip away with my two young sons in tow. We were trying to keep her busy and cheered up while he was gone as I knew Mummy was getting lonely. She seemed to have no life of her own when he wasn’t around. I thought my boys might serve as a welcome distraction that evening since Daddy’d been gone almost a week and we still weren’t sure when he’d be coming back.
Suddenly just before dinner the front door almost flew off its hinges and disgorged Daddy into the entry hall with the familiar blast of fresh air; although this time we were admittedly caught off guard. As Mummy and I stood staring at the unexpected apparition, we heard him utter the fateful words that would change all of our lives to some extent and my parents’ lives entirely. He dropped his suitcases where he stood, took a few strides away from them down the hall and turned his head to call back at us,
“I’ve just bought a 450 acre working ranch in Cody, Wyoming!” Wisely continuing to leave the room too fast for a response from any of us, he called out to Mummy over his shoulder, “You can come with me if you want to, or not if you don’t want to, but I’m going!”
The force that propelled him and his pronouncement around the corner and out of sight to my parents’ bedroom suggested it had delivered a ten gallon hat and a pair of cowboy boots to his New York City closet already. All that was needed now was for him to put them on and take off. We stood staring after him with our mouths open and our hearts beating too fast. It was unbelievable and yet we all knew we hadn’t misunderstood. Daddy’s meanings were always clear. You might not like the consequences much but you always understood his intentions. What was left as usual was finding a way to deal with them. My boys looked at each other and laughed with delight. My mother looked at me as if she was going to cry and faint.
Naturally the next few weeks produced a maelstrom of judgments from their friends, Daddy’s former partners, our family, and acquaintances who barely knew him; all pronounced him guilty of insanity. As usual they had no affect on him whatsoever. Feeling that I was an adult with the empathy of a married woman to support my mother’s rights I questioned his reasoning when I finally got him alone. How could he possibly have considered, let alone decided on, such a move with Mummy in her sixties and he over seventy? How could she adjust? How could he run a working ranch and why would he want to? Was he suffering from some kind of fast-acting senile dementia and finally going mad?
“No”, he informed me with the grim resolve of a man who would not be knocked off his course. He was not slipping away but on the contrary was trying to save himself. “Strange though it might seem to you,” he informed me quietly, “this is the life I’ve always wanted to live and would have lived had fate not directed me elsewhere between two world wars and society not expected certain behavior from me at that time. Now I’m at an age,” he went on, “when my work demands have been fulfilled and my many children and even most grandchildren have been launched in their own directions. It is my turn to live that other life and doing so will probably save me.”
“But it will certainly kill Mummy!” I can remember responding in desperation.
“I gave her a choice,” he reminded me grimly. “She doesn’t have to come. If she can’t make the changes and doesn’t want the adventure she can stay right here where she is, but I must go. I have to take care of myself or I won’t survive. We each have to take care of ourselves ultimately,” he added. “No one else can do that for you nor should they try.”
“But that’s no choice at all for her!” I can remember firing at him in exasperation. “You know she won’t have the courage to save herself and will follow you anywhere. It’s suicide.”
“We don’t have the right to make that decision for her,” he told me calmly. “My responsibility is to do what’s right for me and hers is to do the same for herself. If she makes a decision out of weakness or sacrifice it will be a disaster for her as it would be for me. If she makes it out of strength it will work. The same goes for me and by the way you and everyone else in this world. Remember that charity begins at home,” he added as he turned to continue packing his bags and signaled an end to our discussion.
My parents both relocated to Cody, Wyoming. Ten years in the ‘Wild West’ produced some incredible adventures, many of them chronicled in letters home to family and friends. The radical decision to go was rife with success and also some failure as life always is, and the adventure was typically daring in its origins but overall it made Daddy’s last year’s very happy ones.
As we rode in a cab together when he returned to New York for a brief visit one spring, I noticed the cab driver couldn’t help staring in the rear-view mirror at Daddy’s clearly authentic ten gallon hat and western lanyard tie. They’d become his permanent uniform and he wore them naturally and well.
“Just in from the ‘Wild West’?” The cab driver queried this former life-long New Yorker.
“Indeed,” my father replied. “But it’s nowhere near as ‘Wild’ as New York…”
“Sure” I couldn’t help groaning as I privately reviewed the list of adventures in my letters. It included cowboys having a shoot out in the Laundromat the first time Mummy’d taken their clothes in to be washed, snow storms in August, helicopters flying supplies in to the ranch mid-winter when the roads were impassable and the first foreman holding my parents at gun point in their own kitchen. My father in a body cast in the Cody hospital recovering from an attempt to break a recalcitrant horse who broke him instead was a picture few seventy year old New Yorkers would recognize themselves in. Daddy undoubtedly read my mind, however, as he looked at me sideways, grinned his handsome smile and continued for the benefit of the cab driver,
“There’s a very steep learning curve for a new rancher out west, which is extremely important to climb if you want to stay young!”
I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about then; but I think I do now. We all need some of the ‘Wild West’ in our extended lives because learning new tricks will ensure we don’t become old dogs. Looking at his strong profile backlit by the sun streaming in the passenger window I noted how good the move out west had been for him. I was glad he’d been so charitable to himself. Because charity begins at home, and you’re only at home when you live who you really are. Of course you also need the courage to figure that out.
Question@You: How do you feel about taking care of yourself first before you turn your attetnion to everyone else’s needs?