Living with 'The Boss'

June 16, 1995|By Signe Lauren

I CAN'T REMEMBER exactly when we started calling my father The Boss, but I'll never forget why. His authoritarian style left no question as to who was in charge at our house. He could make me feel like I was being cross-examined in court, especially if I espoused ideas that differed from his. I had to be well-prepared and have my facts straight. Even if I won a debate, I didn't care; I was just thankful it was over. As a result, today I am able to hold my own with anyone.

Admittedly, The Boss made a lot of mistakes and was wrong about a lot of things. But he did a lot of things right, too. He was a benevolent leader. He provided a sense of security and assuredness in my life. He demonstrated a strong work ethic. He didn't let me have my own way, and he taught me the meaning of "no." He also taught me to respect myself, others and -- most importantly -- authority figures. Besides, Mother, who was easygoing and soft-spoken, was always there to make The Boss' rules easier to take.

There are so many ways that Daddy touched my life. For example, well before the women's movement came along, he taught me how to be independent.

At age 16, I was shocked when he told me I had to learn to change a tire, pop a clutch and check the oil in the car -- and get an "A" in driver's education -- if I wanted to get my driver's license. It was 1962; I was a junior at Kenwood High School in Middle River. Tire changing and clutch popping were not taught in driver's ed. Enter Daddy.

During my tire-changing lesson in our driveway, when The Boss picked up the tire iron, I burst into tears. "Why are you crying?" he asked. "Because I'm not strong enough -- I'll never be able to do it," I wailed.

"I know you're not strong enough," he said. "Women don't have upper-body strength. That's why I'm going to teach you to put the big wrench on the nut and then stand on the handle and jump or bounce on it if you have to. When you place the spare tire on, do the same thing in the reverse direction." I can still see The Boss standing on the handle with his arms raised in victory, smiling and saying, "Look -- no hands." For the rest of the lesson, I giggled. "It's easy," I said. After that, he quickly taught me how to pop the clutch. I left that lesson glowing with confidence.

That practical information recently came in handy. I had an emergency, 7 a.m. dental appointment on the same day that the starter in my car showed signs of dying. Because of Daddy's lesson, I knew all I had to do was park on an incline so that I could pop the clutch to start the car after the appointment. I dropped it off at the mechanic's and still made it to work on time.

Beneath Daddy's bluster was a very honorable man; a man of unflagging integrity who loved his family passionately. He was -- just adamant about teaching us how to cope with life. He insisted that his three children be able to provide for ourselves and our families, respect God, support the church, discern the truth, vote responsibly -- and, probably most importantly: "don't get taken."

He was adamant about something else: at death he wanted his body donated to science. He reasoned that it was wasteful to bury a body that medical students could study and perhaps use to find a cure for a variety of diseases. For nearly as long as I can remember, Daddy carried a card in his wallet, showing that upon death his body was to be donated to the University of Maryland Medical School.

As it happened, The Boss was in Seville, Spain, on vacation in 1973 when he died of a massive heart attack. Mother snapped a picture of him on a Seville sidewalk just hours before his demise. He was standing in the "Superman" stance -- hands on hips, feet spread apart. He appeared to be in the best of health -- every bit the strong authoritarian leader he always was.

He died at 1:30 a.m., Spanish time. Mother spent the entire next day in the U.S. Consulate office completing forms. She showed the donor card to the hospital doctor, the consulate officer and to a professor from the University of Seville Medical School. She explained The Boss' wishes. The doctor and medical school professor were in awe and were very grateful. Because of religious and cultural reasons, few Spanish people, at least at that time, donated bodies to science. "How did the medical school officials react?" I asked Mother. "Like I had given them gold," she replied. A fitting end.

To honor my father's memory this Father's Day, I gave some money -- in his name -- to relief efforts in Oklahoma City. Something useful. The Boss would like that.

3' Signe Lauren writes from Baltimore.

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