“How is your blood pressure?”
“It's fine, Dad,” I said. That seemed to be a better response than, “None of your business, old man.”
“So what is it?” he persisted.
“Like I said, it's fine. I don't carry my readings around with me.” It was in the 120s over the 80s, which is pretty fine, all right, but I was not in full disclosure mode. I should never have told him when I was diagnosed as hypertensive. Once you give him something like that, he'll never let go.
“Let's check,” he said.
I looked up. My father was brandishing his home blood-pressure kit, complete with inflatable cuff. He looked eager to spring into action. Instead of recoiling, I schooled myself to keep a neutral expression on my face.
“No, thanks, Dad.”
He looked disappointed, but not surprised. I never cooperate with his intrusive fact-finding missions.
It's one of the ways in which he and I are different. He delights in sharing gruesome details, occasionally spoiling meals. (“No, Dad, we don't need to know what they found when they lanced that boil. Please let us slurp our soup in peace.”)
Maybe it's one of those small-town things, where everyone knows everyone else's business. If it is, that's rather funny. Except for my grandparents, who lived next door, the nearest neighbor was a quarter of a mile away. We couldn't lean over our fences and gossip.
In a sense, we did all live close together. It was like our yards were all part of the village commons, even though disaggregated and scattered in chunks throughout the county. At any time someone might park a pickup or tractor alongside your house, stroll over to the garden hose, and take a big drink or indulge in a cooling face splash. It would have been an exercise in excessive scrupulosity to knock on the door first to ask if it was okay. Of course it's okay. No question. We do the same at your place.
We also grew up in a drop-in culture. Calling ahead was entirely unnecessary. At completely random intervals, vehicles would pull into your driveway and aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and acquaintances might come tumbling out. If they knocked on your door and found no one home, it might be because you were pulling into their driveway at the same time. These things happen.
My unexamined acceptance of these practices underwent a complete collapse when I moved out to go to college. When I was still living close enough to home base to make drop-in visits feasible, I discovered how impossible it was to protest that tomorrow's real analysis exam prevented me from dropping everything and going out for a spontaneous but leisurely dinner with my family. Their faces would fall if I insisted that I merely planned to wolf down a sandwich while poring over measure theory. (It was I who was being rude by demanding or expecting prior notification.)
Fortunately, the problem was solved quite naturally once I was living over two hundred miles away. Impulse-driven drop-in visits became impossible and all was well. By then, however, I discovered that the process of individuation had produced someone unlike anyone else in the family.
I had become a private person, perhaps in a kind of weird rebellion from the well-established practices of kith and kin. I began to starve the information mill—or should I call it the “gossip machine”?
- “Hey, I'm a member of the ACLU now!”
- “Guess what? I stopped going to mass this spring.”
- “I gave Howard Jarvis a bad time during a Q&A in Sacramento.”
- “I went to Jimmy Carter's campaign rally at the capitol.”
- “I protested Jerry Falwell's appearance at a Moral Majority rally.”
- “I spoke at an AIDS memorial service.”
- “I'm going back to grad school.”
That last instance is one of my more notable examples of keeping my mouth shut. After a dozen years of full-time teaching, I got itchy to return to grad school to earn a doctorate, not having stayed the course in my previous attempt. However, when I was admitted and began to take classes, I never told Mom and Dad. Instead, I'd occasionally comment to my parents about some seminar or another that I had attended at the local university. All very casual. I didn't report that I was formally enrolled.
It was a lesson learned from my bouts of high blood pressure and life under the microscope (or sphygmomanometer). Once my parents (especially Dad) were aware that I was taking another run at an advanced degree, I would be boxed in. Regular progress reports would be demanded (ever so nicely, of course). I'd be committed. Any decision to bow out would be viewed as a crisis or failure rather than a personal judgment that grad school had become too big a distraction or detour from my teaching career. Thus I didn't tell any tales out of school until I had completed the degree requirements and calmly informed Mom and Dad that the university had approved my dissertation and was awarding me a degree.
“We didn't know you were in school!”
“Oh, it was just a part-time thing. The units gradually added up. No big deal.”
My parents were quickly reconciled to the idea that I had puttered my way to an advanced degree. It was a new bragging point to share with their friends, so no harm done.
I imagine, though, that Mom and Dad have learned over the years that their eldest is a close-mouthed fellow who keeps his cards close to his vest. They're probably wondering what new revelation I might suddenly spring on them next. Have I secretly gotten married? (Fat chance.) Have I received some fancy political appointment? (No, they turned me down for the citizens' redistricting commission.) Have I pierced my ears? (Heck, no, although it would be funny. Poor Dad lost sleep when my kid brother did.) Have I endorsed another left-wing cause? (Oh, too many to tell!)
Still, maybe I should consider what the surprise will do to Dad's blood pressure.