Fred is in his 70s. He lives next door. His wife died three years ago and, since his four kids don’t visit or check in on him, we’ve kind of adopted him. He served in Vietnam and, then, sold insurance. He now likes bird watching, volunteering at the public library and drinking non-alcoholic beer while he reads on his patio at 3 p.m. every afternoon.
In the last three years, I’ve had to teach him how to iron, get stains out of his clothes, buy linens and fix his printer. He’s opened my garage door when the electricity went out, organized our neighborhood American Idol pool and, on one occasion, checked my house thoroughly when I thought we’d been burglarized. We also went to the Adam Lambert concert together last year and had a wine and cheese tailgate party before the show because nothing says “Let’s get pumped up for Adam Glambert!” like an aged gouda from Trader Joe’s.
It’s an odd relationship we have. He’s a pseudo-helpless-grandparent type and we are a pseudo-obligated-family. And, I’ve always thought that it’s good for my boys to see that you help neighbors and old people, even when they annoy you and you have call them every night before bed to remind them to put their garage door down.
Then, he called C.J. a sissy. And a wuss.
My problem has never been a lack of assertiveness. But, I do have a problem directing that assertiveness towards old people. I’m kinder to the elderly than I am to most people; which, I guess, is how it should be. I really don’t know why I’m especially nice to old people. Maybe it’s because my grandparents watched me afterschool and during summers growing up and I loved them like crazy. Or, maybe it’s because I have a fear of old people dying or falling in my presence. If I’m just nice to them, they’ll go away pleasantly and not fall and break a hip, right? Once you break a hip, it is – generally – downhill from there.
The other day C.J. was out front in the pink cheerleader uniform that he got as a reward for dislocating his elbow. Fred came over to ask if Haley and Casey from American Idol were still a couple and eyed C.J The Cheerleader. A disgusted look washed over his face.
“Why do you do that to him?” he accused.
“I don’t do anything to him,” I shot back.
“Well, he doesn’t do it to himself,” he countered.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, he does. Come on C.J., we have to eat dinner.” I ended the conversation and walked into the house and immediately texted a girlfriend and my husband to exchange oh-no-he-didn’ts.
Two days later, Fred heard a bunch of us moms talking and kids playing in the twilight of an early summer evening. C.J. had his toe and finger nails painted an assortment of colors.
“C.J., I’m really starting to wonder about you,” Fred said in front of everybody. “Are you a real wuss or what?”
I bit my tongue. Hard. The other moms looked at me with wide eyes. The silence scared Fred away.
“You better say something to him before your husband does, because that is not going to be pretty,” said one of the moms.
I went home, opened a bottle of chardonnay, turned on Teen Mom and found comfort in the fact that at least I’m a better mom than the girls on MTV.
Yesterday, Fred was asking me how to get latex paint off of his favorite gray sweatshirt and C.J. exited the house wearing a green velvet women’s shirt as a dress and plastic Snow White heels.
“Aughhhhh, C.J., what a sissy. I don’t know about you,” he said out loud.
“Hey, Fred, we accept you the way that you are and you have to accept us the way that we are,” I shot back without a moment’s hesitation. I knew that this day was coming.
“Really? Accept him like that,” he asked with a laugh.
“Yeah. Remember, you grew up with a boy like this,” I said over my shoulder as I walked away, referencing Fred’s gay brother.
I spent the rest of the evening worrying that Fred would have a stroke or heart attack in the night and I would blame myself for pushing an old man into an early grave. He didn’t. He’s alive and kicking. Or, alive, at least.
Yes, Fred has a brother who is four years older and gay. As a matter of fact, Fred’s late wife was originally attracted to the brother, but upon finding out that he was batting for a different team, she settled for Fred. Fred also has children and grandchildren who are “different.”
So, in a big way, we felt that Fred, more than anyone else, should be sensitive to our family and our rainbow ways. Not the case. We are continually learning that we can’t predict peoples’ reactions to C.J. and our parenting. Can the older generation be changed? I don’t know. But, Fred’s gonna have to find a new girl to dance with at the Adam Lambert concert if he doesn’t.