There was a time when Alexander was very sick. Dad took care of him and nursed him back to health. He would greet my Dad every night and would often sleep in his chair! One night, during the cat's illness, I came home and Dad was sitting on the floor of his den shoeless in his 'Billy' sweatshirt, while Alexander was sleeping in his leather chair. What a difference from a few years before, when Dad sat in the chair in his pinstriped suit, tie and polished shoes, carefully ignoring Alexander's plea for affection! Dad sighed and rolled his eyes and ignored him with a haughty grimace.
I remember the old saying: Dogs have masters, Cats have staff. He had insisted on keeping his independence from Alexander. But that cat would not allow it. He now had my Father completely under his spell. For a long time my Dad had ignored and insulted him. Now he was reduced to a toady, taking orders from the cat!
Dad paid a very high price for refusing to acknowledge Alexander's demands, for the dressed-down, humbled, vanquished patriarch was now Alexander's barefoot servant!
I couldn't remember any time my Dad sat on the floor. Now he stayed there taking care of Alexander.
When Alexander died after a long life, Dad grieved more than any of us.
Now back to DAD: the changes were permanent, and they were not over yet..
There was one major change in my Father that had NOT happened yet – and now it did.
Dad's carefully groomed thick silver hair was one of Alexander's favorite targets; he would climb up behind Dad in any chair he sat in and drag his paws through the hair at every chance. Dad was very proud of having a full head of hair as he got older, but Alexander used it for a toy like a ball of yarn.
After the cat’s death he made a decision that made us think that Dad was changing so profoundly that he was turning into a whole new man.
One day Dad came home with a baseball cap on his head: when he took it off in front of us, he stunned us all. His full head of corporate silver hair had been reduced from a businessman's cut - parted on the side and combed back, -to a buzz cut, from four inches of expensively styled hair shaved to less than an eighth of an inch! My mother was stunned. He said he needed the change – and didn’t really know why.
He didn’t know why!
I think at that point my Father’s styled business haircut no longer fit the man he was becoming, so his hair went the way of his shoes. He told us he went to a cheap barber instead of his top-dollar hair styling place. He told the barber simply to ‘chop off my hair’. The barber was shocked but laughed out loud, and told my Dad to “say goodbye to the silver fox”, and pulled out his clippers.
After he shaved off my Father’s hair the barber said: “You look blue collar with that haircut. That doesn’t happen to every guy. You came in with white collar hair and I just blue collared you when I buzzed it off. Better take off those shoes with the tassels on ‘em!”
My Father told me later that he didn’t understand WHY he cut off all that hair that he was so proud of, but that he was changing deep inside.
In fact the garbage man said something very interesting to my Dad when he encountered him that weekend: “You’re a good man. I never talked to you before – too high and mighty. When you stepped out of those shiny dress shoes and shaved off all that nice hair you joined the human race! You’re one of us now!”
A few weeks after his hair was cut off, Dad heard that the bank where he worked was preparing layoffs and he would be next - and he quit
Now I finally understood what the garbageman and the barber and the neighbors and Alexander had known so well: THAT was the change – my Dad was turning blue collar! Deep down inside he was becoming what he had feared: a Joe Sixpack. His old ‘white collar’ self was disappearing rapidly.
I realized that Dad really was changing INSIDE and his old white collar life and identity were falling apart, piece by piece. Alexander had started the process but it now could not be stopped as his new, different self came forth.
Mom understood this better than Dad did. She didn’t get upset. She somehow knew that he was making the right decisions at that moment.
The immaculate suits and ties of a high-ranking executive, the sharp, smart click of polished shoes, the Rolex, the head of shining silver hair, the immaculate grooming and the formal name of William did not fit with Dad's brand new lower position in his own home or with the new man that was being released. After all, servants do NOT wear expensive business suits or shoes, so of course Alexander could NOT allow Dad to be too well-dressed, too impressive or too distinguished! All of that polished corporate persona had to go.
But the new name of Billy, his new blue-collar attire, his buzzed head and his bare feet were perfectly appropriate for his new menial status - the role our Maine Coon had chosen for him – AND the new self that was coming out in preparation for his new work and life! The new Dad was partly the creation of a cat, but it was in there all the time, waiting for permission to come alive. That was the new man that people outside saw when he was not at work in those years.
He left his job before he was laid off – and he didn't look for another banking job. He grew a silver beard, kept the buzzcut and then gave away every one of his expensive suits, every necktie, every white shirt and every pair of dress shoes.
One wonderful irony is that the garbage man walked into our house when he heard about my Dad’s purging of his closets and dressers. He walked away with ALL of my father’s dress shoes, from wingtips to tasseled loafers to captoe leather shoes! He then loaded a bag with all of my Dad’s black dress socks – every single pair, leaving my father in front of the house in his bare feet. I thought of my brother’s joke that first night at the dinner table. It had come true!
This was the man who said: “I hate going barefoot. I look ridiculous!"
Dad then took a part time job as a handyman and stocker at a hardware store near his former office. The owner had been one of Dad’s banking clients! He said he never thought an ex-banker who once wore pinstriped suits would sweep his floors. Dad has to wear a red smock and work boots.
He sold his Porsche and bought a pickup.
He sold his Rolex and bought a cheap Timex.
He said that the car and the watch fit him and his new life better – and on a much lower salary, he and my mother needed the cash!
Yes, today my Father is still Billy. Even my mother started calling him that! After Alexander died, he tried to force people to go back to calling him William, but it didn't work. He was never again called 'sir'. Somehow he really had been changed inside as well. He was now known as Billy, a likable, relaxed and approachable guy.
And he never did go back to wearing shoes in the house, or even at dinner! He no longer cares if people think he is a blue collar guy - because he is! He has a completely new identity. Today you would never think he had once been a very formal man who wore neckties at the table or insisted on keeping his shoes on!
He could never again return to his old self. He tried, but the sophisticated, dapper, immaculately groomed formal gentleman he had once been had been destroyed, first by Alexander and then by inevitable changes, replaced by a new lovable working man identity. Alexander would be proud.
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