Just in time for Father’s Day, my 78 year old dad became my father.
Technically, Dad became a father for the first time when he was 21. It was 1960. Back then the job description of a father was: provider of sperm, room, board, driving lessons and unflinching dispensation of hard-won life lessons and character-forming punishment.
In their first documented family photo, my mom is 19 (but looks 14) as she holds my newborn sister. Oblivious to the camera, Mom’s entire body curves over her newborn, seemingly ready to climb inside her baby’s mouth if need be. Dad is 21 and stares into camera as if searching for the escape hatch to release him from this doting family scene.
Since it was 1960, cameras were not also phones/calculators/music players and credit cards, the next family photo is of Dad watching his daughter. Dad grins broadly at camera, hands on hips as my eight month old sister furtively gnaws on a power line.
These were not unusual family photos for America before the 1980s. Mothers were depicted pregnant or parenting and fathers photographed working, sporting, carousing or simply being men while in the background, their offspring were courting electrocution, drinking untended beer cans or pulling the heads off unsuspecting kittens.
This is not an attack on my father. My father was the dad he knew how to be, the father he was raised to be, which was not much of a dad, but a whole lot of man. After fathering three daughters, which he had zero idea of what to do with, and varied careers he also had zero idea what to do with, my dad sacrificed the meager security of dead-end jobs and normal family life to pursue his dream. And to everyone’s surprise, including his own, Dad succeeded. He became who he passionately determined to become. He left us to fulfill his destiny. And while he’d occasionally visit, he never truly came back.
Neighborhood dads dutifully escorted us to Father Daughter dances. High school and college graduations were commemorated by grandparents, aunts, uncles and Mom. Each Christmas, after Mom had decorated the house, tree, bought, wrapped, hid and then placed under the tree all the gifts she knew we wanted, Dad would swoop in as the conquering hero- trumping Mom’s months of effort. One Christmas Dad gave us each monogrammed briefcases. We were still in elementary school, and briefcases weren’t at the top of our Christmas wish lists but since the gifts were from him, we gushed over the hand-tooled leather as if it was John Travolta’s eponymous record album.
When people would praise us, his daughters, Dad always said, “I had nothing to do with it. Their mother did it all.” Which was true but sad. And completely acceptable at that time. A modern American father wouldn’t be caught dead saying that about his children.
These days, dads strive to be as essential to the nurturing and moral compass shaping of their children as mothers. Back then, dads turned basement playrooms into damp, dark bars. These days men wrap their babies to their dad-bods, simulating the intimate connection of pregnancy. Back then, dads teased their kids for crying, bullied their kids into being tough, and were the ceaseless reminder that if wishes were horses, even beggars would ride.
Before our dad knew it, we were all grown up and all that was left was to do was pay for college. Meanwhile Mom continued to mom, control or smooth out every moment of our adult lives.
Then, in the 1980s Dad and his second wife adopted two newborns. It was adorable to listen to him gush about feedings, bedtime readings and fret about ER visits. Was it that our culture had changed or our dad had changed? And when Dad became a grandfather, soon after losing his loving mother, he poured his more open and wounded heart into our children- while still teasing and mocking us, because that’s what dads did.
Then Mom abruptly died. The loss of her was global, flattening her three biological daughters, our families, her four stepchildren and their families and many students, bookclub-mates, friends, relatives and everyone she ever met.
After 79 years of kicking Earth’s ass, Dad has managed to surprise even himself by outliving every hard-living, hard-charging and hard-drinking male relative. Hence, when a mom-sized hole ripped open our lives, Dad, fully aware of his own precarious position in uncharted territory, strove to bridge the gap.
Two years ago, Mom and her husband flew out for my sister’s oldest son’s high school graduation. That was the last time my sister saw our mom alive. So, this year, defying everyone’s low expectations, with bad knees, fading eyes, crippled back, feet and hands, Dad flew three thousand miles to celebrate the high school graduation of my sister’s younger son.
For four furiously fast days Dad reveled at his grandsons’ accomplishments, their fashions and wild mops of blond hair, watched Grace play at the seashore, fretting over waves crashing four feet away from her. For the first time in forever, we didn’t argue politics while gulping buckets of wine required to make dinner with Dad feel less obligatory. Dad admonished our fast driving, admired our husbands for putting up with our quirks, laughed at our jokes and while still a rabid, unapologetic interrupter, allowed us to finish more sentences than at any other moment in our communal recorded history as family. Basically, Dad became our mom.
And now, the day before Father’s Day, I regret not even just sending him a Father’s Day card.
So here it is.
Happy Father’s Day to a brave, fierce father- all the braver for your ability to embrace change. You didn’t harden into a crouton of an old man- a crusty conservative endlessly arm-wrestling our beliefs (instilled by our ever-loving liberal mother). Thank you for recognizing our need and attempting to mom your three heartbroken middle aged daughters. As you face the final chapters of your life, thank you for unabashedly celebrating us for who and what we are- your large, complicated, adoring family, which you had everything to do with.