My dad was a funny man. Always one to crack jokes, tease and make up funny names for people, he seemed at ease in any situation. But when my husband showed up at the front door to pick me up for our first date, I cringed. Though Dad shook hands with him and politely asked him to step inside, I could hear his voice drop to the deeper tone which, I knew from experience, was the voice of disapproval. I expected Dad’s usual jovial comments to escalate to sarcasm as he interrogated my date. But after a few minutes of solemn questioning about his intentions with me, Dad let us go without a fuss. As my date held the door for me, and I left the house, a tingle of fear lingered within me.
You see, my parents are from Kentucky. Although they moved away from the state early in their marriage, they retained many of the values with which they were raised. Dad was born during World War II to parents from tiny country towns outside of Louisville. His family went to church, and his mother was a school teacher. I had seen the black and white photos of him as a child, swimming in a lake with his blond haired cousin, of him posing in front of a barn with his cotton dress-clad grandmother, and of him, all smiles, standing next to his bike. They were the portraits of an all-American life, one reserved for whites only. It was segregation, when blacks and whites lived separately, and there were few to no immigrant families around them. To him, it was natural to assume that his children would marry fellow Christian, white people.
Don’t get me wrong. Dad was very smart, educated, and very well-traveled. He did business with people from all over the globe and loved getting to know all about them. But, when it came to his daughter, he feared the unknowns of Indian culture. He didn’t want me to become some subservient wife or be treated like a second class citizen, as popular stereotypes would indicate. But he loved me enough to support me, because I was in love with this foreigner. So, he coped the best way he knew how. He gave my boyfriend nicknames. Lots and lots of nicknames.
Hinduni, Bangladesh, Dervish, Dribble
These were names to tease my husband, to show him that he was still different, that Dad still kept him at arm’s length. My husband took it in stride. Never once disrespectful to Dad, he honored my father, just as he would never disrespect anyone in his family who objected to our relationship. He knew where he stood and worked hard to win Dad over.
By the time my husband formally asked Dad for my hand in marriage, Dad came around. He saw what a gentleman my husband was to me, and that he was a motivated young man with a bright future ahead of him. And I think it meant a lot to him for my love to formally ask for his blessing. He even asked Dad and Mom to be there when he gave me the ring.
Wedding time came and Dad dropped the nicknames, calling my husband by his true name. At the reception, he mingled and danced with the Indian side of the family, making friends with everyone. And over many years, as my husband and I built our home and family together, Dad seemed to take pride in his son-in-law. They became friends, and bonded over replacing tile in the bathrooms and kitchens, and the occasional cocktail. He became “Bud” and “Champ” to Dad.
A month before our fourteenth wedding anniversary, my husband had to have surgery. Dad was very sick by then, and scheduled for heart surgery soon, but was able to be home with my husband to help me care for him. I remember vividly as Dad helped my hubby lie gingerly in the bed and covered his legs with the down comforter. The contrast between them struck me at that moment. Dad stood over my husband, his own fair complexion now paler by the day, with concern in his eyes for the groggy, brown man in front of him.
Dad patted him on the arm, and said jokingly,
“Don’t worry, son. In a few days I’ll be here with you. We can be bed buddies and recover together. We can even share pain pills.”
My husband laughed before dropping to sleep, and Dad slowly made his way to the other room to rest as well.
Ten days later, my husband was back to normal, and he and I stood beside Dad’s hospital bed, as he passed away. But through our tears over the next few days of planning and saying good bye, my husband and I would laughingly recite the long list of names Dad had given to him. When we got to “son,” we were both able to find a smile.