I was 43 when I first met my father-in-law "Pop", so it’s safe to say that both of us were set in our ways, unlikely to change much. My future husband and I traveled to Florida so that I could meet his parents. This would be the second marriage for both of us, and the news of his divorce had not endeared him to his folks. They knew little about me, but likely regarded me with a mix of suspicion, resentment, and morbid curiosity.
In the course of my work, I’ve had to deal with all sorts of angry and potentially antagonistic people – concerned citizens, property owners, attorneys, government officials, competitors, subcontractors, disgruntled employees - who took issue with what was (or wasn’t) being done to resolve issues of importance to them. I had become quite adept at exploring their concerns, defusing tensions, and finding common ground, and trusted that these skills might pay off as I stepped off the plane. I wasn’t worried, but I did want to make a good impression.
Pop was a staunch Liberal Democrat, something I discovered within moments of meeting him, and he absolutely loved to debate any political issue. Our views aligned like enmeshed gears, propelling us into a vocal crescendo of animated discussion, to our delight, and the delight of my soon-to-be husband, but to the unsuppressed annoyance of my future mother-in-law who grasped – correctly – that we were not going to shut up anytime soon. She wasn’t gaining a daughter-in-law; she was adding another loud-mouthed political zealot to the family.
Pop loved reading the New York Times, but didn’t subscribe to it, so whenever I visited his house or spent time with him at our house or on vacation, I’d pick it up for him, and he would read it all the way through, finding all manner of topics for discussion, debate, and rants.
My mother-in-law would warn us that it wasn’t healthy for Pop to get so worked up over things, especially things we couldn’t do anything about. It wasn’t good for his blood pressure, or his weakened heart. To me, however, he was completely alive at these moments: energized, focused, passionate, and articulate.
Anyone not outraged at national and world events, he and I believed, should have their vital signs checked. We were just fine.
Follow along below the brain scan for more...
A World War II Navy veteran, Pop returned to the States to begin holding up his piece of the middle-class sky, working in the automobile industry, later launching his own business as a tax accountant. He was scrupulously honest, with a sense of unwavering ethics, traits that endeared him to his clients (and to me).
For years, he was a fierce advocate for a flat tax, even though that would have eliminated much of his business that depended upon the Byzantine complexities of the tax code. It was the right and fair approach; that was all that mattered to him. One must always do the right thing.
In this, he and I were much alike: surrounded by friends and family who simply didn’t “get” why we were so adamant in our beliefs, so unshakable in the positions we had adopted, even when those positions caused us grief and anguish. Others were quick to accommodate, capitulate, or simply live without the constant self-criticism and analysis that took up vast real estate in our fevered brains. We didn’t have that option, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Eventually, health issues forced Pop to retire prematurely. He was actually declared dead on several occasions, which gave him a rather unique perspective on life and death. Rather than turn his accounting business over to his partner or selling it to another firm and in either case risk jeopardizing the level of service that he had always provided to his clients, Pop opted to disband his firm.
My mother-in-law chided him for the rest of his life about this lost opportunity to cash out. Pop always replied, “Well, I figured I could either eat well or sleep well. I wanted to sleep well”.
Pop died in 2003. We had seven marvelous years of bonding over all manner of issues, personal and political. He didn’t fear death, as he’d had a few quick glimpses of the Other Side, but the process of dying was horrific, painful and protracted, ending through the tender mercies of hospice.
Much as I miss him, I’m glad that he hasn’t witnessed the degeneration of American political discourse over the past few years. He utterly despised George W. Bush and the Neocons and their warmongering and fiscal irresponsibility. At the time, we thought this was As Bad As Things Would Get. We were sadly mistaken.
The war on the poor and middle class and labor unions would have outraged Pop. The possibility of dismantling Social Security and Medicare, and other safety net programs for which Pop gladly paid his fair share and from which he later benefited, would have pushed him over the edge. Five minutes of listening to Faux News would have triggered an aneurysm.
The idea that in 2012, abortion and contraception – rights he defended, even as a Catholic – would be under assault, and would be the issues dominating national discourse – would have sent him into a heart-attack-inducing rant. If he saw that our unnecessary war in Iraq was only now winding down, and that we’d thrown ourselves into Afghanistan, graveyard of empires… well, you get the picture.
As a Navy man, Pop wanted to be buried at sea, but in this as in many other matters, my mother-in-law wouldn’t honor that wish. So I stop by Pop’s grave in the frozen tundra of New Hampshire once or twice a year and give him an update on how we’re all doing. How his grandsons have grown up to be fine young men, doing well in their careers. How we welcomed our smart and feisty daughter-in-law into the fold. That yes, we’re taking care of ourselves, as he often admonished, saying “don’t end up like I did”.
Before I go, I tell him how much I miss him, but that I’m glad he can’t see what’s become of the world. I hope that, wherever he is, he’s found peace… or at least some like-minded Liberal Democrats who appreciate a rousing political discussion.