Privilege Blog

Happy 80th Birthday To My Father, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:56am

My father turns 80 on Monday. Tonight my stepmother is hosting his birthday party. My siblings, step-sibling, and I will all be there, as will his friends from Stanford and life in California.

80 feels fairly significant. It’s a privilege to reach 80, whether randomly arrived at, or correlated to growing up in abundance.

The construct of “father’ is so complex. Sometimes fathers cause your existence. Sometimes they raise you and provide for you and educate you and fight with you and despair of you. Meanwhile, you grow up.

It turns out, so do they.

My father was raised in enormous privilege. Born in the last generation where white men of heritage garnered straightforward acceptances to the great universities of America, he left Harvard in 1960,  Ph.D. in hand, and came West. The American economy was in one of its great groundswells, driven in Northern California by the semiconductor, binary instruction set, and data network. Stanford was hiring.

I joked with Dad once that he should have titled his autobiography, “The Last White Man.” He demurred. He’s a Democrat too, by the way.

What I now understand is that my father came to California as much for the promise of freedom from High WASP culture as for any traditional concept of opportunity. Imagine a tall, thin, handsome young man, gifted with intelligence and a capacity for language. Also anxiety. Above average verbal skills and anxiety often go hand in hand. I don’t know why. But I digress. I have understood only recently that my father felt rather like an alien amongst many of his more bluff kin on the East Coast.

Like most big leaps in life, the move to California must have felt both terrifying and necessary. One of those moments when worry takes second place to relief.

However, moving put him, and his children, forever, into a straddle. Not in the way of the financial markets that made his family’s fortune, not that kind of straddle, if I can play with language myself for a minute. I mean the sort of feet on either side of a canyon straddle one sees in cartoon figures chased further than they intended. Requiring and allowing the roadrunner to belong to both sides of his chasm.

I suggest that privilege gives us just that, the chance to go West. And having gone, to keep our referent origin in mind. The privilege of becoming two kinds of person at once. The freedom to float above oneself and take a larger view, understanding that everyone is an outsider in one way or another. An “‘And’ Model of Identity,” as my brilliant sister puts it.

Of course, one could suggest that the larger view is also an obligation. Clearly the first requirement of privilege is generosity. Dad’s done his share of charitable giving. But I also think that when you wind up with more than your fair share of anything, you owe perspective. You owe generosity of identity, if that makes sense. You owe humility.

All of this is by way of a thank you to my father. But, you know, I had to lead into it with some intellectual discourse. One must sneak up on High WASPs if one is going to get emotional. And one must use the term “one,” a lot. Thank you, Dad. Thank you for taking that leap. Thank you for spelling bees at the table. Thank you for your laugh. Thank you for my kids’ college education.

Thank you for finally telling me, the other day, that you were anxious in early days. For saying the words out loud. I know it wasn’t easy to say words about feelings, but California can do that to a guy.

Happy Birthday. See you tonight.

Image: my father and his dog, via my stepmother

52 Responses

  1. Lisa, what a lovely tribute to your father. I hope you all have a wonderful time at his party tonight.

    And yes, above average verbal skills do seem to go hand-in-hand with anxiety – my eldest has been living with both all of his life.

  2. What a tribute! moving, real and discreet. And so well written, of course. My best wishes to your father.

  3. How fortunate that your father lives nearby…and 80 is a cause for celebration.
    I hope that the party goes well, it will be fun to have all the family gathered together.

    Hold tight to those conversations with your father…
    heart to heart sharing of feelings is such a gift when it comes to us from a dad.
    It seems to carry more weight at least that was my experience.

    Perhaps your father’s anxiousness might have been generated by High Wasp expectations…

  4. An exceptional man. I’ve read a little bit about, and by, your Dad. You were privileged to grow up with him, and he can see for himself that he too was privileged to have you as his child. There will be lots of love in that room tonight, take good notes!

  5. Many happy returns to your father. Certain milestones seem in our culture to be occasions for existential angst, when they really should be occasions for gratitude and celebration. I hope he has many more years of life and health, and may his spark never go out.

  6. A really wonderful post. Happy Birthday to your Dad. May he enjoy many more years of a life well lived.

  7. Beautifully written. Thank your father for us, for taking that leap from Cambridge to Palo Alto, so that you could become more than just another Boston Brahmin living in the Back Bay, on Fisher Hill or on the Marblehead Neck.

  8. Thoughtful and moving, always the best combination. My father’s background was so very, very different, but the brave early casting-off, the straddling, they had in common. Mine never made it to 80; celebrating that birthday with yours is the only privilege I truly envy you. And I’m so happy that you clearly appreciate it — Please extend my best birthday wishes to your father and may you cherish him for many more.

  9. Very thought provoking. How lucky and “privileged” you are to be celebrating your father’s 80th birthday. He sounds like a very interesting human being as do you. I am now a Follower – Thanks.

  10. This is so moving to me. My father would have been 80 on his next birthday, had he lived. He was a CPA with 4 children, but secretly wanted to be Louis Armstrong.

  11. Lisa,I truly enjoyed this.
    One must sneak up on High WASPs if one is going to get emotional. And one must use the term “one,” a lot. Thank you, Dad.
    I hope that he was snuck up on and had a wonderful birthday.
    Thank you for the sharing of hearth and home.

    Always, Bumby

  12. A very significant age. Many congratulations to him and you have written a wonderful post Lisa. Enjoy the celebrations. x

  13. Dearest LPC: What a lovely post, thank you. Don’t you and I, both of us, know about the “straddle!” I had never thought of it that way, exactly. You have expressed it perfectly. Thank you. Reggie.

  14. Happy Birthday to your dad Lisa! My mom turns 80 next month. The complexities and construct of “father” is complex…don’t get me started. And I’m talking waaay out of school here but the “straddle” circumstance might have ended up being a better situation than if y’all have been raised back East. Back amongst the restraint and mores of the Establishment that your father ambled away from perhaps. Your dad I suspect, gained a kind of “tethered freedom” of sorts by going West. Ok, I’ve had too much coffee.

    And finally, the quasi-monochromatic sartorial assemblage that your dad is wearing in the photo is stellar.

    Onward. To 80.

  15. Ohhhhh the Chance to Go West. (Or, you know, East.) And to keep one’s referent origin in mind. Privilege indeed.

    Happy birthday, Papa of Lisa. Happy birthday, indeed.

  16. Happy Birthday to your father. I hope his party was a great celebration of his 80 years. This truly was a beautiful tribute to your father Lisa. Thank you for sharing him with us. XX

  17. So beautiful. Thank you for your insight – it is shining some light on the happy puzzle of my life.

  18. I´m late with my comment. However I am sure your dad had a wonderful birthday party and that everyone had a splendid time. Yes, indeed your father was then, and is now a privileged man. The background, the opportunities, the intelligence mixed with good looks and health. Having children and grandchildren to love and adore. I sense all this looking at the dog. Lucky you!

  19. This is a beautifully written post (as always). Your father’s story is quite interesting. I have a Great Uncle who also bolted from Harvard and the Last Name and ran straight to California. I wonder how many similar stories there are out there. Happy birthday to your father and I hope the celebration is/was beautiful.

  20. Happy 80th birthday to your father, Lisa, and thanks to your brilliant sister for the concept of the “‘and’ model of identity”. I hope you all enjoyed the party.

  21. There is an old Russian proverb (translated to my best ability): exceptional apples come only from exceptional apple tree. Lisa, you both are exceptional.
    I was so moved by reading your post. Happy Birthday, Lisa’s Dad!

  22. This was such a lovely tribute! My own father turns 82 in a few short months, also a Democrat, also not quite comfortable in the expressing feelings dept., but, quite a generation nonetheless!

  23. This is so beautifully written, and such a wonderful tribute. I hope the birthday celebration was memorable (in the best of ways). You’ve quite obviously inherited the family gift for words (though I hope not the anxiety).

    Since reading this yesterday, I’ve been thinking about that concept of straddling, and how many men and women of our parents’ generation were also straddling between the traditions and culture they’d been raised with, and the modern, post-WWII world they found themselves a part of.

  24. What an incredible man and what an incredible daughter- the apple really does not fall far from the tree. Will be thinking about him all day tomorrow!

    BTW- I love how two intelligent and articulate women can communicate via “xoxo” and “love” and we still convey and “get” the message we’re sending each other!

    xoox ;)


  25. Lisa I so enjoyed your honor to your Father. It is so meaningful that as we grow a bit older we gain more respect for what our parents have been through.

    Joyeaux Noel!

    I have a new giveaway from My Sparrow, do come and enter!

    Art by Karena

  26. My mother said, “Every day after 80 is a gift”; may your father be lavishly gifted.

    To leap, yet create ties, to risk yet keep the center, and especially, for a parent to hold on and yet let go, these oppositions are the richest aspects of life.

  27. What a lovely post and what a tribute to your father! You always bring us a unique perspective. I hope you have many happy, healthy years with your father.

  28. Thank you all for so many wonderful good wishes and comments. The party was great – complete with passed hors d’oeuvres before dinner, a balloon arch in Dodger blue and white, and a bagpiper. Surely the screeling of the pipes makes everyone feel Scottish at heart. But best of all was seeing my father so happy. If you scroll back up the page, you will see a comment from a “Bliss.” That’s my dad. And yes, in High WASP tradition, that’s his middle name but it’s what he goes by.

    Do you see how he capitalized “REALLY?” That’s heartfelt:). Dad, thank you for commenting and thanks for passing on what you know. Much love, Lisa.

  29. My father is 80 and a Democrat too!

    Hope your birthday celebration was outstanding, Mr. Lisa’s Father!

    Belle de Ville – we say either the Neck or Marblehead Neck – very rarely the Marblehead Neck ;-)

  30. “…you will see a comment from a “Bliss.” That’s my dad.”

    Perhaps. Well, if the Professor Emeritus is not internet averse, and of course with your permission, together with our thundering applause, might he consent to an occasional guest host tutorial or two?

  31. Hope your dad had a most wonderful birthday. I wonder how it must be to celebrate such a milestone, surrounded by all your grown children and grandchildren… A sense of contentment, perhaps, of a life well-lived?

  32. Loved this one … and it reminded me that I came West with a nod to privilege, and a deep affection and appreciation for my roots, but a need for distance, too. Hope your holidays are very merry.

  33. Patsy – Perhaps you can send me details on the Cape Cod culture:). Thank you!

    TBS – Thank you so much.

    Flo – I have asked him. He is considering.

    Buckeroo – I can say with certainty that my father did have a wonderful birthday. Thank you.

    Courtney – Here’s a toast then, to your journey West.

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