The father she knew and loved wasn’t with her for long, but long enough that she never forgot what a good father could mean to his daughters.
There are three joyful years in my early childhood that redeem the memories of my later pre-teen, tween-teen years.
Our house, a butter yellow, slim four-plex that housed my mom, dad, sister and the 4-year old me keeps my memories shiny and new as I reflect back. My father, late to the sensibilities of life and a matrimonial upstart, took a stab at being a dad, and in the years of 1976-1979 he knocked it out of the park.
Fathers, if you ever regard yourself in the role of father as diminished, or as the number-two parent to your wife, I invite you to reconsider. The role of father may be intangible in definition, but it is equally important and the need and use for your involvement will live in the mind of the adult child that is to come. What you give them will be almost subconscious, it is so natural, but it will lead your offspring to places they feel most comfortable.
When I was four, my sister and I would snatch Monarch caterpillars off a chainlink fence down the street from the house where we lived in Dover, New Hampshire. We would place them carefully into emptied mayonnaise jars. Once everyone was settled, I would take off to catch frogs, which would also be carefully relocated to empty jars. I’m unsure of the origin of these empty jars, but we had enough to line the floorboard of the sun room. The surface of the jars reflected the chrysalis, the glass overlay making the transformation occurring inside all the more magical.
The good days also include dad plopping lobsters in the bathtub and us squealing as they scrambled up the side and then slid back under the water, picking blueberries off the bush as we checked for black bears, who didn’t like us stealing their spoils. We skied, shopped, hiked mountains, roller skated and had a grand time when I was a preschooler.
My father went to work every day, but I have no idea about his destination. I just knew that before I left for school he was gone, and right as the dinner plates hit the table he reappeared. The worst thing that ever happened between us was him giving my sister and me bare-butt spankings. In retrospect, the humiliation of showing Dad our naked fannies should have been punishment enough.
It was good in the butter house. My mom wove macramé plant holders, we ventured into town to hide under the clothes racks, then ride the plastic ponies outside, and the neighborhood kids played ball in the rich old lady’s manicured backyard.
My father was the go-to for skinned knees, and I remember thinking he was tall and handsome, a rescuer. I slept well when I was young, except when I would wake up sick with the occasional kid bug, but even then, he was there. He was involved, and I realize as an adult this was a rare thing for the time, when mothers mostly stayed home and fathers mostly stuck to the backgrounds.
He and mom were playful, swatting at each other and laughing at jokes over our head. His love protected her and flowed onto my sister and myself. It makes sense that when he pulled himself away, we all withered inside.
My father supported our curious minds when we wanted to explore, play, experiment and dream. I told him once I wanted to ride in a plane and I wondered what it would feel like up in the air attached to nothing. He chartered a plane and he and I rose up into the sky. As I looked out the small, smudged window at the bouncing landscape below, I couldn’t believe he had cared enough to bring me soaring. And I hoped I wouldn’t throw up.
He spoke of taking my sister and me fishing to a lake which held poisonous snakes, treating us as genderless kids who could play softball and zip down the slopes on one foot; I never heard a word about him wanting a boy. It didn’t occur to me until I was older that he might miss a namesake, because I never felt different, as if I couldn’t do anything a boy could do.
Back then, he believed in my sister and me. We were smart and could do anything, even as he would thump his fist on top of our heads and shout, “Think!” if we couldn’t get a difficult math problem. I read early and my sister was a mathlete. We were night and day, one light-haired, one dark-haired. My father had the near black hair, my mother the burnished honey. I thought my hair made me more my father’s daughter while my sister’s hair marked as my mother’s daughter. The ties that bound us were defined in my small head, it made saying goodbye to him unbelievable.
The groundwork my father laid in those years sustains me as an adult when I remember losing him. I was eleven and he was unraveling, gone for days at a time without a phone call, unemployed, hanging around the house, engaging in unstable schemes to make money, fancying himself a painter, writer, a rare coin broker. He would buy us the biggest dollhouse, he assured us, when the money came in, and then we could get dolls that looked like us. Wouldn’t we like that?
Yes, that would be lovely, but so would getting the leak in my ceiling fixed. The old pan catching the rain water in my room was so embarrassing when friends came over.
I knew the spring was uncoiling in our family, I fought the loosening of it in my stomach and I suffered panic attacks derived from events I couldn’t grasp. I did not know this new Daddy, who was busy and spent time on other subjects besides his family. My sister and I shoveled multiple long sidewalks leading out from the house we would eventually lose to foreclosure as he stood in the dining room window with a mug of cocoa, occasionally tapping at the glass to indicate a spot we’d missed.
Then he was gone. Out of state. Not out of mind.
Fathers, I want to tell you to forge your memories with your offspring, to hold them close and whisper promises you intend to keep. These are the moments your children will revisit when they need them. Your everyday, minimal moments become fused with their being, expectations, and beliefs. Your love is the pavement to better and best in their life, and when you take it away you crack the foundation of their progress and hope. You take away their road to anywhere.
We are not close, my father and I, and he is not the same man he used to be, the father I adored from ‘76 to ‘79. But his absence has taught me lessons I needed. People do get on, when their loved ones die, because to stand still in grief is to die, too.
And when you go willingly, people get over that as well, but instead of releasing their grief and finding their way through closure to a greater being, or to inflexible resolution, when a person leaves of their own volition, doubt remains. Leaving may be liberating for the parent escaping whatever persecuting demon, but for the child left behind, it is the opposite. It’s the first brick in a mental, pessimistic prison. My father held the key.
I don’t know if I will be able to forgive my dad for convincing me it was okay to love him, when he lied and took it all away. I wasn’t okay with that broken pledge for many years, and I struggled to believe I could be loved myself. I pushed people out of my life because I reasoned that if your father can walk away from you because you’re not a valuable person, it is only a matter of time before everyone else will.
The better lesson is this, because he walked away, I know my value. So I thank him for leaving me. I thank him for ending the treatment that haunts me as much as memories do. I thank him for leaving because I am that much closer to my children and I will never abandon them. I thank him for leaving because it taught me to be introspective in my relationships, it gave me greater compassion for others, it strengthened my empathy.
There are plenty of bad memories that could bury the good, but I will remember my father putting a worm on my hook, chasing my sister and I around the house with a flapping cow tongue as we squealed, his slow-cooked spaghetti, the deft, graceful movement of his hand as he drew still life in charcoal, the field trip to his technology firm where we saw a computer that took up a whole room, the drawing book he gave me and the drawing lessons in which he was my instructor, him hollering over the wind and pointing out a tornado as he shepherded us inside the apartment complex, how he howled with laughter when I peeled up my dead pet frog off a neighbor’s driveway, sitting on his lap as he taught me to use my new Christmas calculator. These are the memories that reassure me I am the daughter of a father who wanted to love me for a little while. So maybe someone can love me even longer.
A child may expect a father to be gruff, hard, with a rough voice, and boundless power. A superhero in jeans. I thank my father for giving me that. I thank him also for being soft when I expected the opposite, for proving men can be gentle and caring and delicately cradle a crippled butterfly. They can hold you when you cry, their hands a subtle, constant weight on your back. Fathers can smile and give you props when you tell a funny joke that’s not clever at all because they want you to feel good, more than they want to be right.
I was amazed at the determination it took to buffer that strength, so it amazes me too when my fiancé replies with a warm, caring voice to my children. Fathers, you hold a unique power, to elect to live as a paradox. You are pillars supporting your families, capable of morphing into a healing place to fall.
The father that I knew, miss and love died in 1979. I am grateful for the three years I had with him.