Soon after I gave birth to my third child, I received a phone call from my dad. He said, his voice giddy with delight, “Three, huh? That’s a good start!”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to scream. Three was definitely my upper limit; I had had to negotiate vigorously with my then-husband to get my latest—and last—bundle of joy. But my dad was not just joking. He was sincere in his exuberant encouragement of a large family, believing wholeheartedly in “the more the merrier.” And although I didn’t produce any more children, when he hit a total of twelve grandchildren, he begged my younger siblings to give him a baker’s dozen.

At least my dad had standing to promote prolific procreation: He and my mother had produced five children over the course of eight years. Although families were statistically larger back when I grew up in the Boston suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s, five was still a standout. Why my parents wanted so many children is still a mystery, but it was a great gift for me and my four siblings to grow up in a household teeming with playmates. And when all five of us finally were out of college, my father would wistfully murmur he wished he’d had more—what would the sixth or even seventh child have been like?—although my mother remained decidedly tight-lipped on the subject, undoubtedly recollecting all the pregnancies, deliveries, sleepless nights, meals cooked, laundry washed, carpools driven, school work reviewed, and on and on.

Like the archetypal mid-century family, my parents had a strong division of labor. If my mother was the infantry, fighting all the small daily battles, my father was special ops, swooping in with grand activities like playing round-robin ping pong or shooting hoops, or going skiing or sledding, or going sailing or swimming, or going to the theater or a concert, or assigning us a writing project (you read that right, weird as it is). His many years as a camp counselor came in handy when marshalling his numerous progeny. A true Renaissance man, he had—and continues to have, at age 88—energy, intelligence, knowledge, athleticism, cultural interests, humor, analytical powers, and drive.

With five kids to deal with and limited time, he related to us primarily as a group and didn’t bestow a lot of individual attention. That came from my mother. Our household reminded me of the dedication that opens one of my favorite childhood books, Cheaper by the Dozen: “To Dad, who only reared twelve children, and to Mother, who reared twelve only children.”

The distinction between my parents’ styles—with Mel focusing on the masses and Sooky on the individuals—continued from my childhood into adulthood. When I moved to New York for law school and stayed—for marriage, kids, a home in the suburbs—it was my mother’s voice that I heard at least twice a week on the phone. After hanging up, she would give my dad a full report, but direct conversations with him were rare and always brief. Not surprising from a practical man who liked to joke that things sentimental were “a little bit of senti … and a lot of mental.”

And then, about a dozen years ago, at the age of 72 and after 52 years of marriage, my darling mother died, very quickly, of pancreatic cancer. I can’t begin to say how painful it was to lose her, but in retrospect, it could have been worse. With her passing we could have lost both parents. My mother had been on the front lines; my father had provided backup and could have retreated. But my dad rallied in ways that we would never have predicted. He became domestic, learning to shop and cook and do laundry and wash dishes. And most importantly, he learned to make those all-important phone calls. He continued to visit, making extraordinary efforts to see his scattered-across-the-country offspring. He’d even bring a loaf of homemade oatmeal bread. He was no longer the stereotypical breadwinner; he was the bread baker!

What happened to the father I grew up with? Times had changed and, in most cases, familial responsibilities are not divided, they are shared. As the current wisdom holds, “When Dad takes care of the kids, it’s not ‘babysitting,’ it’s parenting.” Besides the societal shift, there was a vacancy that created the need for Mel’s new role. And he discovered that he liked doing the things that my mother had done as a matter of course. Not the tedious stuff like making beds and peeling carrots, but the good stuff like, well, everything else having to do with your children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren.

 

Not surprisingly, I desperately want my mother back, but I also want the father Mel has become in her absence. It’s like the well-documented phenomenon of parents who are given the wrong baby at the hospital: When the switch is discovered, the parents want both their natural child and the one they have been raising. Since I can’t have my mother, I try to fully enjoy mellowed Mel.

In becoming so engaged with his progeny, my dad has disproven one of his long-held theories: that, as people get older, they don’t change … they just get “more so.” Meaning the crabby great aunt gets more crabby, the taciturn great uncle gets more taciturn. But as Mel has shown, over and over again, you can strive to improve as a parent, and you may well succeed.

Mel recently visited me in Manhattan from his home in Cambridge, which he shares with his second wife, lovely Lilla. With our immediate family now pushing thirty members, it’s unusual for me to get my dad all to myself. We had fewer than 24 hours together and several of those had to be spent sleeping, but we went to a Carnegie Hall concert, visited with a young musician friend, and crammed in an awful lot of conversation and laughter. We talked about theater and music and art and books and politics and finances and friends and family. You know, the stuff that good friends talk about.

Family photo: ℅ Alice Scovell Family archives
The line-up from left-to-right is: Ted Scovell, Julie Kaufman, Alice Scovell (me!), Nell Scovell, Mel Scovell, Claire Lazebnik

“A true Renaissance man, he had—and continues to have, at age 88—energy, intelligence, knowledge, athleticism, cultural interests, humor, analytical powers, and drive.”

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