Connie Schultz | Real Men Always Cooked – and Sewed, Too

My mother insisted it was an accident that she sewed shut the pockets on my father’s pants, but for the rest of her life, she took credit for helping Dad discover his inner seamstress. She always smiled when she said it, too, which made it hard not to see a premeditation in her crime.

We owned a Singer sewing machine housed in a wooden cabinet and celebrated for its drop-in bobbin and ability to zigzag at the flip of a switch. Dad bought it for Mom, but she didn’t like to sew and wasn’t invested in keeping that a secret. The only time I remember her using our Singer before the pocket caper was to help me stitch together a single pink plaid potholder for a fourth-grade 4-H project. It was exhibited right next to some showoff’s handmade bridal gown at the Ashtabula County Fair, to give you an idea of how fondly I remember our joint venture in domesticity.

My father had a lifelong habit of jingling his pocket change. We grew up to the occasional sound of dimes and quarters clanking on the ground around my father’s ankles, followed by a swearword or two and his call for my mother. She was fine with restitching the pockets by hand, but one day Dad got it in his head that a machine repair would be less likely to render his pockets to the size of a toddler’s hands. His disbelief dangled in the room like a bug on flypaper when Mom stitched shut the pockets on his favorite pants.

I don’t remember how Dad learned to thread the machine, but he became a real pro at it. There are few childhood memories more tenacious than the image of my factory worker father — all 6 feet 2 inches, 220 pounds of him — hunched over the needle and working the pedal so that machine hummed like a revved engine. Pockets were only the beginning. Soon he was fixing the frayed hems of tablecloths and, in one fashion emergency, repairing the seam on my favorite corduroy jumper.

“Let’s keep this to ourselves,” he said. “We don’t brag.”

The last thing he needed was guys at the plant finding out that Chuck Schultz liked to sew. For my part, it never occurred to me that Dad was anything but all guy.

Silly notions of manhood die hard. Last week, Newsweek’s cover featured the naked back of a man cradling a young boy. Most women would look at that cover and see one loved and lucky kid. But the headline read, “Man Up! The Traditional Male Is an Endangered Species. It’s Time to Rethink Masculinity.”
Inside, the subhead ratcheted up the alarm: “To survive in a hostile world, guys need to embrace girly jobs and dirty diapers. Why it’s time to reimagine masculinity at work and at home.”

Writers Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil are talented wordsmiths armed with a few good points. We’re the only wealthy country in the world, for example, that doesn’t subsidize parental leave for either parent. The lack of that “bonding period” hurts the child, the parents and the family they are trying to be. And we’d have more male nurses and elementary school teachers if some other males would stop seeing such jobs as a surrender to sissy-ness.

But less than a third of the way into their story, even the writers concede their false premise. “Most guys, in fact, don’t even need rescuing — at least not yet,” they write. “They’re still overrepresented in business and government, earn more on the dollar, open bigger movies, and clean fewer dishes.”

I’m having a hard time working myself up into a panic over the precious notion of the American man’s imminent extinction. It’s a good thing that the Marlboro Man, who died of lung cancer, is no longer the model for a manly life. It’s downright inspiring to watch my son’s generation of young fathers, who know not only the difference between a hungry cry and a wet-diaper wail but also how to bring those baby tears to an end.

And I sure have fun imagining the future whenever I watch my 2-year-old grandson name the lemon balm and the basil in the family garden that grows just inches away from his basketball hoop.

How that would have jollied his great-grandfather, who took up cooking after he retired from the plant.

Chuck Schultz made a mean steak marinade, but manicotti stuffed shells were his specialty.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. To find out more about Connie Schultz (cschultz@plaind.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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