People are going to think this is maudlin or just plain silly, but I think I need to say it: I learned a lot about being a father from Andy Griffith. Or rather from Andy Taylor, the character he played on The Andy Griffith Show. (I owe as much to the show’s writers as to the actor.)
My own father was in prison for much of my childhood, and when he got out was — to be frank — either absent or drunkenly angry. Once, when I was about thirteen, I thought I had broken my arm after a fall in a pickup basketball game, and he just backhanded me across the injured arm and told me to stop being a pansy. When my wrist continued to swell and throb, my mother finally took me to the emergency room, and x-rays revealed the break. About this my father was silent. I relate this as an exemplary, not a unique, story.
When I was a teenager, and The Andy Griffith Show reruns turned up on TV a lot, the episodes that struck me the most forcibly were the ones in which Andy made mistakes in raising his son Opie, and responded to those mistakes by apologizing. It’s not too strong to say that I was awestruck by this behavior. None of his mistakes seemed massive to me; they arose from the misunderstandings, the cross-purposes, that are endemic to human attempts to communicate with one another. If anything, Opie was overreacting, or so I thought. (Didn’t he know how lucky he was to have such a cool dad?)
But once Andy came to see that he had inadvertently hurt his son, the next step was, to him, obvious: he went to Opie, looked him in the eye, asked his forgiveness, and told him that he loved him. The power of repression is such that I had to watch each of those episodes several times before I could account for the fascination they held for me. But when I finally grasped the point, I said to myself, “If I’m ever a father, that’s the kind of father I’m going to be.”