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Double dating with Dad

by Amy Klein

May 29, 2008 | 2:30 pm

Joe Morris looks pretty good for a 79-year-old widower, his son Bob says in a new memoir. Despite the fact that Joe needs a hip replacement -- not to mention a dry cleaner for his yellow cardigan -- he has "smooth, tawny skin, silky silvery hair," is "fully conversant with the idea of happiness, especially his own," and, although it's only been a few months since his wife of 50 years died, he's about to start dating -- much to Bob's consternation.

"I was just thinking, is it a little early to be running around with another woman? I mean, it's just a few months since Mom died," Bob Morris recounts saying to his father in "Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad" (Harper, 2008).

The book is just one of a number of memoirs released recently that are written by sons trying to figure out their fathers, including Bernard Cooper's "The Bill From My Father" (Simon & Schuster, 2006), Nick Flynn's "Another Bull.... Night in Suck City" (W.W. Norton, 2005) and David Shields' new "The Thing About Life is One Day You'll Be Dead" (Knopf, 2008). But the others don't capture the cynicism, humor and fraught male relationship of a father and son who are both looking for love.

When Bob learns his father is seeing women, he recounts in the book, he calls his brother, Jeff, and asks, "Three and a half months after Mom died, and Dad appears to be dating. Is this appropriate?"

Jeff's response: "Since when has Dad been appropriate?"

Bob Morris writes that his mother was "devout;" the family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, and he attended Hebrew school at her behest.

"We all know that Jewish tradition requires a year of mourning, so what was on my father's mind when three months after my mother dies he hands me a page from The New York Jewish Week with personal ads circled and asks me to call," the author said in a phone interview from New York. "Is that appropriate? Six months after she dies, we'll give him an 80th birthday party. Is that appropriate?"

These questions got him thinking, as he prepared to write this book, he said: "What is appropriate in terms of middle-aged children and their parents' love lives?"

Appropriateness is an ongoing theme in Morris' life. For eight years he wrote a cheeky column in The New York Times' Style Section called "The Age of Dissonance" -- a 'Miss Manners' for the New York jet set that is the basis of an HBO pilot he's developing.

Morris has yearned for appropriateness -- good manners, fitting in, being stylish, belonging to the madding crowd -- since he was a child, he said in the interview.

"Why can't you be more interesting, better read, well-dressed," he used to think of (and say to) his parents. "Why can't you be like my friends' parents in Manhattan -- wearing French cuffs, going to Europe?"

While some teens are embarrassed by their uncool parents, Morris was outraged: "How dare you be so unsophisticated!" he thought. "I never was in such an appreciative spot," he said in the interview.

Morris couldn't appreciate the man who sang romantic songs and danced with his wife; a father who helped his son come out of the closet, telling Bob at 19 it was OK if he was gay, but he should be careful; a father who bragged about his son's every minor accomplishment and who told his son there was nothing he couldn't do once he put his mind to it.

"I was always too critical and too cynical to enjoy the guy," Morris said in the interview.

He saw his father as a bore who rattled on about bridge and other banalities. But after Bob's mother died, father and son started discussing dating, love and relationships -- although the discussion was more about Joe's love life, because Bob, at 45, said he tends to hide from relationships, using his busy life and the cynical New York dating scene as excuses.

"I was shocked at how close my father and I got when we were talking about love," Morris said in the interview. He became consumed by his father's dating life -- which began with The Jewish Week personals, but continued with women in Great Neck, N.Y. and Palm Beach, Fla. -- "the Gaza Strip" -- as the Jewish widow section of the WASPy neighborhood has been called.

"I just need someone with a good figure who doesn't smoke. Preferably Jewish. Republican a plus," Morris writes of his father's requirements. Joe sounds like someone a quarter his age -- and dates like one, too: There's the three-timing Edie, with two other boyfriends (in their 90s); the snobby Florence with a house on Fifth Avenue who thinks Joe's after her money; the demanding women, the clingy women, the complaining women, the crazy women.

"Dating is a headache; there are just too many agendas and opinions," Joe tells his son. But Joe doesn't give up, because he wants to find love, to find someone like his wife, Ethel.

"He may not be so worldly, but he's been so brave about love. Why have I spent so much of my adult life afraid of it?" Bob writes, finally taking the plunge to find a love of his own, like his father has done.

Not to spoil the ending here, but the book tells that Joe finds true love, and so does Bob. (Which is where the book wraps -- although real life continues: Joe died, at 83, and Morris wrote the book after his death, wanting only to preserve the happy-go-lucky man.)

In the end this memoir is not just about two men searching for love, but also a commentary on aging, dating, parenting children and children parenting parents. It's also about a father and son learning to love each other -- learning to learn from each other -- even at the later stages of life.

"He gave me a great gift," Morris said, "and he delivered an opportunity for me to talk about parents and children and all the things we need to say and don't say."

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