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My punching bag

by Eric Ginsburg

Istood on his chest, triumphant and jubilant. Donning red overalls on top of a Waldo-esque red-andwhite striped shirt, I dropped down to slap him repeatedly on both sides of his face.

“Don’t hurt Daddy!” he said playfully, as I shifted to squeezing his cheeks with vigor, laughing in enjoyment.

“You’ve got to be careful, you could hurt my face, honey,” he said. “You don’t seem concerned.”

I wasn’t. I slapped his face a few more times before pulling at the sides of his mouth.

“See my teeth? You don’t have teeth do you? Not a one.”

When he held my hands playfully over my head, I wasn’t be deterred. I planted my foot squarely in his eye socket, making my mom — who was holding the camera — wince.

“What do you think my face is made of anyway?” he asked. I was 1-year-old and couldn’t talk yet, so he did for me. “I like beating on Daddy’s face! It’s one of the most fun things I do!” When my dad started digitizing all of our home videos last year, let’s just say I felt like I was fending off a playful toddler sitting on my chest: maybe feigning enjoyment, but actually experiencing small blows to the head. My more patient sister sat through the reruns and showed me a copy of a pretty hilarious clip of us singing and fighting over the spotlight. Still, when my dad sent a video of me as a baby last month, I was skeptical.

The short face-mashing clip was even more enjoyable 24 years later than it was I sat there, in all my diapered glory, smiling and splatting my palms on his face.

The laughter deeper this time, the outfit slightly less hideous.

The face-walloping incident, which supposedly happened on my first birthday, could have been a warning sign for the next few years. By age four, my mom banned us from wrestling — he was apt to get injured by a flying leap off a bed corner.

The roughhousing stopped there, for the most part, and probably as I hit my teenage years I started pushing off my dad’s physical expressions of connection. The combination of our clashing politics and mainstream ideas about male affection likely made me quick to hug my mom but shrink away from my dad’s affection.

My childhood came with all the bells and whistles: basketball camp, a therapist in elementary school to talk me through a fear of sleeping away from home, a tree fort my dad built and later almost three years of private high school. My teenage rebellion, which began before I reached 13 with bitter fights about Hebrew school, was as angsty as the punk music blasting from my Discman.

My parents’ constant support allowed me to take it for granted; my teenage attitude insisted any sacrifices were their duty. Sure, I loved them, but I focused on the negative — a reviled curfew, conflicting political views — and rarely expressed appreciation for how much they did for me.

It’s easy to laugh now, looking back at how angry I would get over small things — like my dad making me sign a contract that I would replace the carpet if any of my hair dye or bleach made its way out of the bathroom and onto the hallway floor — but I doubt my parents would find it as comical in retrospect.

Instead, we mostly leave high schoolera memories alone, opting to create new ones or look back at videos of baby Eric using dad’s face for drum practice years before the drum set arrived. My parents had to put up with that too.

There are plenty of new memories with my dad in the last year to draw on despite living 14 hours apart: a whale watch that was remarkably enjoyable despite a dearth of whales and an abiding sea sickness, trying Korean barbecue for the first time in New York in December and hanging out in Durham together two months ago.

I didn’t appreciate how difficult parenthood is until after I left for college, the distance allowing me the necessary space for reflection. I still don’t; I won’t, despite years of babysitting, until I have a kid of my own.

I wasn’t easy on my parents, especially my dad. When my mom visited in April, we joked about how fights at family dinner would end — once I was full, I’d sprawl on the floor, and the argument was usually over. These days I’m easier on him. I’m over my adolescent fear of his hugs, I call him every week and we don’t fight. We may even take a trip together.

Cleaning out my desk drawer last month, I came across a lanyard from the Newseum in Washington, DC. It was a pretend press pass for a photojournalist. My first reaction: I guess I wanted to work at a newspaper longer than I can remember. My second reaction: Being a parent seems impossible.

The day my parents took us on a tour of the Newseum — a museum unsurprisingly dedicated news and journalism — was the day of the Columbine school shooting. My parents successfully steered us away from gigantic screens broadcasting the news live. I was 11 and caught glimpses of the coverage but ignored it, assuming it was historic footage being replayed.

In some ways the experience was emblematic of the role my parents played, exposing me to new things and letting me develop my own interests while protecting me from a sick world and my own lack of life experience.

In other ways, the video of a 1-year-old conqueror is more representative of my father, who took everything I could dish out and is still good-natured, playful and loving.

I’ve changed since then — soon we may have the same amount of gray hair, I never wear overalls and I’m not as combative, even playfully. Luckily, he hasn’t.

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