As a toddler and small boy my sisters and I often spent the weekend on an estate in Camden, Maine. A place where the hills meet the sea, it’s what San Francisco would be if San Francisco were a small New England town.
The estate had a mansion and two other small houses. My grandparents lived in one of the small houses. The other was empty. And except for a few weeks each summer the mansion was empty as well.
My grandfather, Fred Daley, was the groundskeeper (pictured as a young man, on the right of this photograph). He kept the lawn manicured, grew vegetables on a small patch of land, went deer hunting in the woods every November, and plowed snow in winter. My grandmother cleaned the houses and cooked when the owners were there.
The wealthy family that owned the estate could impress their guests with vegetables straight from the garden, and venison from their property. Their appreciation for my grandparents was clear.
Years later, after the property was sold and my grandparents had bought their own house, my grandfather showed me an officer’s sword from the First World War. He told me his old boss, whose father was a captain in the Great War, gave him the sword as a gift.
Almost two decades later my grandfather died. I asked my grandmother for the sword. But she had already sold it. I don’t think she understood the value of that sword. And I don’t mean financial value.
Back in the day, it was quite the honor to be given a man’s sword. That a man of wealth would give a family heirloom to a common laborer was an immense sign of respect.
And my grandfather was a well-respected man. He was a quiet man. People trusted him because his word was his bond. But he was not a domineering man. The only time I ever saw him get angry was during a television interview with a holocaust denier (he was an American GI during World War II and saw a concentration camp first hand).
He was also a man who could get things done. He knew basic carpentry, plumbing, electric, automotive, and agriculture. It was a matter of necessity. The second of five boys, he finished high school in the early 1930s at the peak of the Great Depression.
He told me they were poor before the depression, so it didn’t make much difference. Except for one thing.
His father was a marine carpenter, and New Deal farm subsidies meant that Maine potatoes would be sent by ship to larger American ports. The increased demand for carpenters to build and maintain docks should have been a help to the family. But his father was a Canadian citizen, and back then a man couldn’t get American citizenship by marrying an American woman. (In fact, between 1907 and 1922 an American woman lost her citizenship for marrying a foreign man.) My great-grandfather was barred from any job that involved government funds, and my grandfather worked what jobs he could find in the 1930s to help support his parents and brothers before being drafted into World War II.
His masculinity was conveyed with a quiet self-confidence and dedication to those closest to him.
A person, not a role
Pop culture, for better or worse, is a barometer of what our culture thinks of what it means to be a man or a woman. The increase in strong female characters, and the recurring theme of women rejecting traditional roles (often after a man attempts to impose it on her) has been notable over the past few decades, and especially of late. Men, meanwhile, are often buffoons, soft or ineffective “nice guys,” or the violent heroes of summer block buster action films.
We ask what it means to be a man because men’s roles in modern society are shifting. Part of this is due to the diminished need for brawn. Part of it is due to a dramatic expansion of women’s options, meaning that women aren’t dependent on men as they were in the past. Part of it is that many men both want and are expected to take a greater role in child rearing. And gay and transgender men are fighting for their equality as men.
But a man’s dignity has always been about who he is as a person, not the particular role he serves. The self-possessed man who leads with a quiet self-confidence, who is a valued member of his family and community, has always been there.
And he’s still here today. I think of the fathers and children I see everyday. I think of my father, who tells me he loves me every time we talk, even though his father never spoke those words to him. I think of my friends. I think of my first boss after college, my sometime mentor, a gay Jewish man (now married with two kids) who also played a large role in the man and the social worker I am today. I think of my boss ten years ago who gave me a hug when I told him my grandfather had died. I think of the men who reached out to me a few years ago when I got divorced.
It is often said that masculinity is about domination and control. Such men exist, but the domineering tough guy has never been the sum total of masculinity. The notion of toxic masculinity, however, is presupposed in the question of how to redefine masculinity. But this is a one-sided view. We don’t need to redefine masculinity. We need only look around us.
By David Dubay
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