Talking With Bob Morris
Bob Morris's "Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating With My Dad"
Shortly after Bob Morris's mother, Ethel, died of a rare blood disease in 2002, Joe Morris enlisted his son to find him a new sweetheart. Handing him the personals page from Jewish Week , the 79-year-old with a bum hip and a weak heart asked his 44-year-old single, gay son to make some contact calls to the women whose ads he had circled. Morris was appalled, but he agreed -- partly to keep his father, with whom his relationship was strained at best, out of his hair.
"Don't you feel a little impish doing this?" asked the elder Morris, a retired lawyer and judge for the Department of Motor Vehicles, as he dispatched his son to make the calls.
"Pimpish is more like it," Morris observed in Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating With My Dad . Dubbed by Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell as Sex and the Sun Belt, Morris's book is a funny, heartwarming account of his father's year of "dating dangerously" in Palm Beach, Florida, and Long Island. While Morris screened ads ("Sabbath Observing Honey!" "Classy Energetic Yenta!") and provided morning-after assessments and advice to Dad, his own life in the singles scene in New York was less than fulfilling. At Joe Morris's age, at least, the Beach Boys' utopian lyric "two girls for every boy" was almost a fact. A writer for the New York Times and its "Age of Dissonance" columnist for several years, Morris began to see his father in a new light during that year -- and ultimately learned from him a key lesson about love that allowed him to finally find his own perfect partner. By the end of his book, with both men in happy new romances, Morris wrote, "We're going our separate ways. Yet we've never been closer."
Q. What was your initial reaction when your father proposed that you become his dating service three months after your mother's death?
A. Actually, three months after my mother's death, he ditched me when I went to visit him in Florida. I was about to make pancakes when this call came in from a woman he had the "hots" for, who was not available to him all the time. So the next thing I knew, he was getting in her car and I was eating their dust, waving, "Good-bye! Have fun, kids." When he suggested that I help him with dating, I was appalled, confused, and conflicted because I understand selfish motivation beautifully -- I'm a selfish person. I thought he just didn't really want to go through any gesture of mourning that he didn't feel he had to go through. They say that when somebody is as sick as my mother was for so long, you're mourning her all those years, really. He was almost 80 and he was looking at a future that he wanted to pack in with a lot of fun. So we started looking around. And it didn't take long for me to go from posturing as disapproving to getting involved.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with him up to this time?
A. Brittle, but not through any fault of his, really. I was just one of those kids who think they know so much more than the parent does. I thought of him as unsophisticated and transparent, and had this attitude my whole life of wanting to bust him for anything rather than just let him be. I was always quick to judge and criticize or make fun of him, when he generally just wanted to be a good guy.
Q. But from your book, it sounded as if he could be a tough father.
A. Well, he could be infuriating. He could be tough in that he could be moody and willful. And I guess what you learn when you finally grow into adulthood -- in my case, at 45 years old -- is to take a breath and realize that there is no right in a family. Old people, as we know, love to be heard. For me to be able to just stop and listen and not impose my way was a skill that really started kicking in during that year after my mom was gone.
Q. Can you give an example of how you began to just stop and listen?
A. My impulse had always been to be in a hurry. He had a habit of calling in the middle of the day, thinking I would be available when, in fact -- even if I was single and didn't have a corporate, 9-to-5 job -- I might be lost in thought trying to write my newspaper column. I had to develop this skill of not sounding like I was blowing him off. That was very important because when you're older and you don't have a job, you feel marginalized and the world is busy, busy, busy. I can see all the parents my age who are so obsessed with their children, they don't give their own parents the time that they deserve. I think that's something that's wrong with our culture, frankly. We like to go for the little ones because we think it's so important, but really it's often just easier to deal with because it's hopeful.
Q. Your father was very hopeful.
A. I got a glimmer of the idea of making the end of life a hopeful time. I hope that in the book I succeeded in providing a glimpse of what it's like to let the judgments down and enjoy somebody.
Q. You wrote that you and your dad became friends through this experience. How did that happen?
A. It happened because none of the parameters of my parents' 50-year marriage, which I was part of for 45 years, existed anymore. There was no longer Mom, who was always a pure and giving soul. Suddenly, Dad and I were alone, so we were in a new dynamic. And this dynamic was that he needed help in dating and then to download after his experiences. He actually needed advice from me, which he never did before; he had always been an advice dispenser.
Q. So he was more vulnerable.
A. Yeah, he needed me. And instead of being put off by the neediness, I worked with him -- we worked together. It gave me a chance to boss him around and tell him things like: It's time for you to understand why dry cleaning is not a terrible thing and why table manners exist. If you think somebody is really cute, she is not going to like a person who chews and talks at the same time. And I'd suggest that that stain on your shirt isn't going to make you a commodity either.
Q. On your end of it, did the newfound friendship come about because you were experiencing some of the same feelings dating as he was?
A. We were definitely two boys on the hunt. I was not enthusiastic about dating. I wasn't hopeful about it. I was resigned to being alone my whole life, but I hadn't quite given up. So I'd be on nerve.com, one of the online dating sites, and fully aware of what a nefarious little world that is, and how people can lie and flip. They write you one day and then you've got your hopes up and you've got a date for this weekend and it never comes through. And you want to kill yourself for being so needy.It was funny, because he definitely had a lot more dates than I did. And when you are dating, it's a very competitive atmosphere. Of course, he had the demographics in his favor -- seven men to every ten women -- and he was a good-looking guy. But he also blew it a lot, and it wasn't easy.
Q. You drew the line when he wanted to tell you about his sex life.
A. Right. He liked somebody I didn't approve of because she was six years older than he was -- she was 86 and he was 81 at the time. I said, "What is it with her?" And he said, "She's foxy. We have good chemistry." I thought, chemistry? Ew. Which is typical of children at any age -- you just don't want to hear about it. You don't want to face that your parents have sexual and romantic feelings.
Q. What was your strangest "date" experience with your father?
A. The worst one must have been the time I was visiting him in Florida. I had a rental convertible and suddenly this woman he was crazy about was in the backseat with him. I could see in the rearview mirror that he was trying to put the moves on her. He was really trying to win her over because she had two other boyfriends. That was strange enough -- that an 86-year-old has two other boyfriends besides him, and he didn't even mind! My response to it was furor. And he said, "Don't judge my happiness. She makes me happy for now, so let's just leave it at that." So that was pretty strange, driving around the mythical land of south Florida with two teenagers who were in their 80s in the backseat. And me being the chaperone -- aiding and abetting.
Q. Did they ignore you, like teenagers do a carpooling parent?
A. The seniors got to marginalize the younger person for once.
Q. You became pretty protective of your dad, in terms of the kind of women he was dating.
A. That's a nice way of putting it. I became a "screener." I thought to myself: Look, he's 80, I'm 45, Mom is gone, I've had a crappy relationship with him my whole life, so this is a time to really settle that and come to appreciate him. And if he hooks up with any number of bad choices, because he was very open and not very discriminating, I could end up with a loudmouth at the Thanksgiving table, someone who wore way too much perfume, somebody who was so neurotic and brittle that there would be drama in the family that we never had before, somebody with an unpresentable Brooklyn accent – I had any number of concerns. So I was actually protective of me.
Q. What did you learn about him through your new relationship?
A. I learned that age to an aging person is nothing like age to a younger person. To him, my mom's death and his ability to date were an opportunity to be young again, despite the fact that he didn't walk so well and we knew that his heart condition was going to get worse and worse. He insisted on being as youthful as a kid who wanted romance and love. And I really didn't expect that. As you know, once women have loved and cared for somebody for many years, they don't want to do that again. They make that quite clear, and that's why the statistics show that aging men marry a lot more than women, and marry a lot quicker than women. Because many of them aren't just looking for love; they're looking for lunch -- although, to my dad's credit, he could make a pretty good tuna sandwich with pineapple.
Q. What did you learn from him about love and dating?
A. He was so open. He didn't have a heavy amount of judgment toward people. I don't think he would have gone with a strident liberal, but short of that, there weren't that many qualities that he insisted on. He was open about love, and I learned from him that you have to suspend judgment. He suggested to me that if you stop looking for perfection, you may find it. And that's what happened to me.
Q. Looking back, what's the main thing you wish you had known about care giving when you were caring for him and your mom?
A. Here's what I wish I had known: Nagging somebody about exercise because you think it's going to keep them healthier actually may end up being detrimental to their emotional health.I was never quite happy enough just to be at my ailing mother's side. I always tried to get her up to move around: "Let's just go out for a minute and walk to the corner. Please, I know you can do that." She'd say, "No, I'm tired, I can't." Well, when she finally passed away, lo and behold, we discovered she had a collapsed lung. It was something we didn't know about because we were so focused on her blood ailment. So she had due cause for not wanting to move anymore In my father's case, he had edema [a condition caused by a build-up of excess fluid], which a lot of older people get in their last years. Again, I was convinced that the answer was to move around so you get more circulation, because you just assume people get these blisters because they don't move around a lot. In his case, he had a weak heart and was tired, and again, he had every reason to be tired.Why can't we accept this? Maybe we should be a little bit more yielding at a time when people are so compromised and so weak. Maybe we don't know best.
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