Lately most everything I write has been about my mother. Her loss is fresh and deep. I’m still trying to wrap my heart and life around it and all its ramifications.
But today is one of those ubiquitous cultural days when fathers are the main topic of conversation. I’ve found myself thinking of my father quite often lately. Even though he and my mother had been apart for 20 years before he died in 2013, in my mind they are still inextricably linked. I think it has to be that way to some degree: after all, it was their partnership that created me and nurtured me to adulthood, that set me on my own particular course of life. They were my Parents.
I’ve written of my mother’s kindness and selflessness, but my father, in his own way, was just as warm hearted and generous. He grew up during the Depression years smack dab in the middle of a family of six where there often wasn’t quite enough to eat. He became a self made man in a way that’s probably no longer possible in this country - learning a trade and parlaying it into a successful small business without ever finishing high school - and enjoyed sharing the fruit of his labor with people he cared about.
Like most families in the 1950’s and 60’s, my mother tended the home fires while my father went off to work. And like most little girls, his return each day was like the return of a conquering hero for me. I can recall kneeling on one of the overstuffed wing chairs in our living room, my eyes glued to the street waiting for a glimpse of his big black Chrysler sedan. As soon as it rolled into the driveway, I’d tear out the door as fast as my short legs could carry me. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” I’d squeal; he’d scoop me up and twirl me around in circles until I was dizzy with delight.
There was always an element of fun to my dad that was missing with my mom. She was the best of comforters, the most devoted of nurturers. But if you wanted to laugh and have a good time, my dad was the one to beat. One of my favorite memories occurred when I was 15, when he was driving me and a group of my friends home from some event. They all knew of a boy I had a huge crush on and were teasing me about it in the back seat. My dad, who knew where this boy lived, said “Let’s drive by his house and honk the horn, see if he’s home."
“No!” I screamed in horror. My friends were delighted, and so nothing could stop him. We drove past the house, which was (thankfully) dark. Obviously no one was home, but my dad gamely honked the horn numerous times as we went by, “just in case.”
My dad was the one who encouraged me to take chances, to try things I might have been afraid to try otherwise. He had an adventurous spirit that I wish we could have indulged more often.
The only time I recall him ever being angry with me was when I lied about a grade on my report card. “Whatever you do, don’t lie to me,” he said. If you know me, or have read my book, you can understand the irony of that admonition when his own web of lies to my mother was uncovered 20 years later.
For a long time, my father’s defection from our family was the defining point of our relationship. I had been raised to expect better from him, to expect an integrity and loyalty and dignity that seemed to be totally absent from the life choices he made at age 60 when he left my mother for another woman. We were supposed to PROTECT each other - that was the guiding principle of our family life. He had violated that trust in one of the worst possible ways.
After a lot of soul-searching, I finally made peace with my dad and with his actions. We saw each other and talked regularly, and I came to look forward to our visits. But for many practical and emotional purposes, I lost him long before he died physically and I had done the majority of my grieving for him when he packed up and moved to Florida in 1989.
Still, there is much of my father IN me, and sometimes I forget that. Aside from my sensitive ears (neither one of us could stand loud or repetitive noises) and rather prominent nose, I love a family party, like to drive fast, and have a strong work ethic. I can get completely wrapped up in doing something I love (for him it was golf and poker, for me it’s music and books) and forget about my other responsibilities. There is a playful side to my nature that I don’t let out nearly enough.
I think I also have a piece of his warm heart, a soft spot for an underdog, and a generosity of spirit that manifests itself in caring for family and friends.
I still miss talking to him, telling him about what I’ve been up to, hearing him say “Good for you, honey,” when I’d do something he thought would bring he happiness.
The other day someone referred to me as an “orphan.” Typically we associate that word with children, and associate it with their need for care and protection in the wake of their parents deaths. Adult “orphans” have needs too. With no one left to care for us in the particular way a parent does, we feel vulnerable, especially if we are older and a little closer on the continuum to needing care from our own adult children.
Orphan or not, I am grateful I had both of my parents on earth with me for almost 60 years of my life. So much time to absorb their love, kindness, and nurturing spirits. So much time to benefit from their wisdom, even when that meant learning from their mistakes.
I sent my son a Father’s Day card that has a picture of a tiny bulldog puppy standing between the massive forelegs of it’s sire. “Behind every great kid..stands the love of a great dad."
I’m lucky I had one of those.