What's a dad to do in a world of sharp corners?

"HE'LL trip, and that spoon will go right into his throat." My father and I were watching a videotape of my two-year-old nephew, Cameron -- one of those that his mother, my sister Laura, regularly sends. As Cameron ran into view with a spoon sticking out of his mouth, I knew exactly what Dad was going to say; I practically mouthed the words along with him. He spoke again as Cameron raced around the coffee table in the next scene: "He's going to split his head open on that table. They should pad the corners."

"I know," I replied. "I can't believe that they would even have any furniture. And they should teach him at home to avoid the desk corners and all the other germy kids at nursery school."

Dad smiled, as accustomed to my mocking his cautions as I am to hearing his warnings about ubiquitous and mundane hazards. If my father could, he would have all the sharp corners in the world rounded off and padded.

Like most parents, he has always tried to protect his children -- me and my six siblings -- from all the risks out there. And as a doctor who specializes in public-health and preventive-medicine issues, he is especially conscious of the harm that can result from the seemingly innocuous as well as the obvious dangers surrounding us.

I remember the surprise I felt as a child making cookies at a friend's house that nobody said a word about the possibility of salmonella poisoning when I stuffed raw cookie dough into my mouth. Gum, candy, any food or beverage, posed a danger of choking, particularly if you moved or talked while chewing. "Are you choking?" was uttered as often around our house as "Did you wash your hands?" The Heimlich maneuver was a highly valued skill.

Restaurants, Dad warned, presented additional risks, such as careless waiters who might drop hot food or coffee on your head and employees who neither covered their faces while sneezing nor washed their hands regularly. If we scoffed, he could cite examples, from his days as the New York City commissioner of health, of roach-infested kitchens that had been shut down.

Fashion, too, could be dangerous. One could break an ankle in high heels, trip over too-long pants and skirts, or catch flowing clothes in windows, doors, or trash compactors. Not so long ago Dad took away my fuzzy bunny slippers to keep me from sliding downstairs. Pocketbooks, he advised us, should be worn not across your chest but only over your shoulder. Better that a thief get away with your bag than that he drag you along.

A few years ago Dad confiscated a coat of mine because I hadn't had it hemmed sufficiently. It's a long rust-colored wool coat, and it still hangs in my parents' coat closet. Sometimes I'll ask about it, as I might about an eccentric family member banished to live in the attic. Dad will put the coat on to demonstrate how serious a problem it is. The coat's neck, shoulders, and sleeves will bunch and strain, and its wide circle of a hemline swirl around him like a cape.

"Look -- it's too long even on me. And this material is so heavy, it would pull you down."

"I have never heard of anyone injured by too heavy a coat."

"Do you want to be the first? Just cut it off here," he'll say, drawing his hand across his knee, "and maybe it should be tapered also."

In clothing Dad values warmth, impermeability, and traction over style. He has a penchant for leather pants ("You'll never feel the wind through these") and any garment made of space-age microfibers. It is always obvious which gifts under the Christmas tree he is responsible for: woolen balaclavas and mittens, battery-heated socks, slippers with treads, and sharp metal cleats to slip over your boots in the snow, which might be indispensable while ice fishing in Alaska but create an embarrassing clatter on the sidewalks of Manhattan, where I live.

The weather was only one of the many natural menaces from which we were to guard ourselves. To this day, when I walk within a few yards of the branches of a tree, I blink as I hear his voice: "Watch your eyes!" Dad lectured us about Rocky Mountain spotted fever from the ticks that lurked in the grass and on neighborhood dogs, deer, and squirrels; about the rabies carried by raccoons, bats, and dogs. "Don't touch -- it'll bite!" was his automatic reaction when one of us reached out to an animal. Our own pets -- dogs, rabbit, gerbils, snake, and fish -- always seemed nervous around my father, aware, I thought, that he regarded them with suspicion.

OF course, as children, we did not always listen to Dad. We had our broken bones, cuts, near chokings, electric shocks, car accidents, and illnesses, some of which might have been avoided (though he never said so) if we had heeded his advice and not jumped from the top of slides, thrown rocks at one another, run around while eating, yanked the plug while the vacuum cleaner was on, driven too fast, and kissed the dogs. My parents for the most part calmly accepted these traumas as a natural part of growing up, perhaps because my father had predicted every one of them. But there have also been unanticipated calamities: my brother John's meningitis, my disabling head injury, Dad's prostate cancer. He accepted all patiently, protecting us from our fear. He never revealed his own, though he knew well the painful repercussions: special education and a lifetime of medication for my brother, years of physical therapy for me, surgery and radiation for him. We survived, and these confrontations with our vulnerability left us with some understanding of Dad's desire to control the little that he can.

When my brothers and sisters and I are reminiscing these days, we recall Dad's telling us not to jump on the trampoline in gym class, because of the possibility of spinal injury, and the driving directions he devised so as to minimize the number of left turns. Now we find ourselves uttering similar admonitions. We phone my brother to tell him that we read about someone's dying from the same allergy he has, my sister to tell her about the high lead content of certain mini-blinds or to say that we couldn't sleep last night worrying about that electrical cord we noticed in her house which her kids could reach.

Now Dad has a new generation to guide. His grandchildren have caught on quickly, knowing to wag their fingers and say "That's dangerous!" at the sight of cleaning fluid, and owning helmets before they could skate or bike. At the holiday dinner table three-year-old Margaret tells her two-year-old cousin, "That's too big a bite -- you'll choke," while Dad, inspecting the baby's perfect hands, asks, "Does Vincent have a cut on his finger?" As everyone is leaving, we all laugh when my niece bids Dad good-bye: "Be careful, Poppa!"

After a weekend visit to my parents I have my father drop me off at the quiet suburban train station for my trip back to Manhattan. As I wait, I can see his car in the parking lot; I know that he is watching to see that I board safely, without falling into the space between the platform and the train. He waits no matter what the time of day, no matter how many other passengers are waiting with me. Sometimes he parks the car, steps out, and walks up the stairs to the opposite platform. We wave at each other across the tracks. He stands there until the train comes and he sees me board safely and find a seat.

I watch him walk to his car, wanting, as I do more and more often now, to protect him from the world's sharp edges, the way he has always tried to protect us. I wish I could give him the reassurance his worrying and caring gave me. As the train pulls away, I whisper, "Be careful, Dad."

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1997; Vigilance; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 26 - 28.