Since I did such a spectacular job of shooting my mouth off over Mother’s Day, I thought I should try to even things out and make sure that I posted today.
So first, let me say Happy Father’s Day to all the dadly dudes out there. I hope you enjoy your day with your kids. I hope you feel loved throughout the day, appreciated for all that you do and recommited to be a loving role model for your children.
When I sat down to write this I asked myself, “OK, what do I want to say about dads?”
And my answer was silence.
That fact is, I just don’t know. I feel like someone just asked me to write down everything I know about the Pliocene Epoch.
In fact, I recently had a little back-and-forth with a popular blogger (who is awesome, btw) over dads and their roles. That exchange made me realize something: I can tell you all kinds of things dads shouldn’t do, but when it comes to what they should do, I’m stumped.
Welcome to Baggage Claim. Ms. Sammer Johnston, please claim all of carousel 4.
Daddy issues – the cliche’ that keeps on giving
Let me explain. I lived in the so-called nuclear family growing up. My parents weren’t divorced. But in a lot of ways I grew up in single-parent home.
Dad just wasn’t around.
Dad was a military man. He was gone a lot. And then when he was home, it was like we had a visiting dignitary in the house — I had the sense that someone important was under our roof, but I wasn’t sure what to say to him.
I knew, though, that he got the preferred spot on the couch (next to the two-tiered end table) and that I wasn’t allowed in the living room on Saturday afternoon when he watched Creature Double Feature or when he sprawled out on the couch to take a nap.
I knew that if I did something to get him mad that I was in TROU-BLE. I got spanked here and there, but it was his booming voice that I was terrified of. I have memories of getting out of bed one too many times one night and setting him off. As he started yelling, I turned and ran up the stairs like a fire-breathing dragon was chasing me.
I rarely heard the actual words he said once the volume went up, but I’m sure he was making solid points.
If I was asked to bring something down to my dad while he tinkered in his basement shop, I was always slightly nervous — like I’d been asked to deliver something to the principal’s office.
I don’t think that nervousness ever went away. As an adult, I’d find myself pre-rehearsing what I was going to say to my dad when he came over.
Even when I played Barbies with friends, I never knew what to do with the husband. Ken would come home for dinner and then go … somewhere. He also drove the family jeep when it was time for he, Barbie and the two wild-eyed rugrats with nylon hair to go someplace. But that was about all I could conjure up for Ken to do.
More important things
As I’ve said before, I think my dad did the best he could with us. He was born behind Polish lines at the tail end of WWII. His German family went through unbelievable tragedies: his older brother was killed by a grenade; my grandfather was drafted into the German army near the end of the war and was captured by the Russians — after he was released he was unable to find his family for months; my grandmother was nearly starving while pregnant with my dad’s youngest brother, so my uncle was born with no skin on his hands and feet.
And that’s all before my grandparents, already in their 40s, packed up their remaining brood of five and headed off — dirt poor — to start a new life in a new country where they didn’t know the language.
I think it’s safe to say that my dad’s own parents were a bit distracted themselves.
Certainly, my grandfather wasn’t out on the front lawn pitching a ball with the kids. He was too concerned with getting them fed.
I no speak your language
My dad, finding himself the father of three daughters in middle-class America … well, I imagine some days he felt that he’d been plunked down on an alien planet.
Dresses, dolls, The Smurfs, Girl Scouts … what did he know of these things?
Hormones, training bras, broken hearts and drama, drama, DRAMA in his home at all hours … well, that certainly sent him running to his dad cave or to the Chief’s Club to drink it up in a world that he understood.
Messin’ you up
We all have baggage from our parents. It’s inevitable. They hovered too much or not enough. They smothered us with their expectations or they left us alone too much. They were too neat or too messy. Too driven or too lazy.
In fact, I know that as a parent I’m screwing up my kids in some indetectable ways as we speak. I’m sure I’ll hear all about my sins when they get older.
And then I will tell my children this: I did the best I knew how to do at the time. I’m sorry for any mistakes I made that made your life harder. I always loved you and I always will.
So about my dad? He did the best he knew how to do at the time. I suspect that as he got older, he felt sorry that he missed out on the best of his three daughters. He didn’t know how to fix things.
He loved us but he didn’t know what to do with us.
The gifts he gave me
No, dad wasn’t attentive. In fact, I have few memories of actually having his eyes on me growing up.
But that doesn’t mean he gave me nothing.
He gave me the power of my own conviction, although it took me a while to learn how to admit when I was/am wrong. (That second part is a skill dad never quite mastered.)
He gave me a love of travel. Dad had been everywhere. Although he never shared those stories with me, I grew up hearing the magic of far-flung city names tossed about casually, with the insinuation that people who traveled had insight into the world that people who stayed in one place didn’t.
Probably the most important thing he gave me were the lessons he taught on how to be a friend. Dad loved his friends. If you were my dad’s friend, you were his friend forever — his door was open to you and if he got within spitting distance of your house, he was going to stop by for a beer. I have so many amazing, deep and long-lasting friendships that make my life so sweet. I have to credit dad’s example for that.
My dad has been dead for more than five years. I knew he was going to die. Call it a premonition. But months beforehand, in the middle of a random July afternoon, it was like someone inserted the information in my brain. I actually jumped a bit and then said, “Oh my God. Dad’s going to die.”
Then a few months later, a psychic told me that my dad wasn’t “scheduled to be here much longer.”
“I know,” I said. “How does it happen?”
“His heart,” she told me. Right on, psychic lady.
About a month before the failed heart bypass that would ultimately end dad’s life, he and I were in the car together. Just us. I had to pick him up after he dropped off his car for service so I was driving.
I took a deep breath and said — ever nervous — that I had watched a documentary on The Military Channel a few nights before. It was about P-3 planes.
Those were my dad’s planes. He was in charge of keeping them running at the Navy base. He took us on them when we were little and we got to sit in all the seats and try out the bunks and laugh at the toilets.
Daddy’s planes, I thought while I watched the show. I knew he loved them. Watching that, I could see why. How exciting to be master of something so massive. And then to be able to get in it and fly anywhere.
I told him in the car that day, “You know, I felt a had a little insight into you for a minute there. I finally understood why you were never happy with any other job after you retired from the Navy. How do you go to a desk job after working on those planes? I mean, what’s cooler than that?”
He looked at me — a look of shock and confusion, as if he didn’t quite recognize the person sitting in the seat next to him. Then his face softened and he answered, “What’s cooler than that? Going someplace you’ve never been before.”
I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”
And then we were quiet. For the first and only time in my life, my dad and I related to each other as people — not father and daughter — just people who, for split second, understood the same thing and agreed.
In that moment, in me seeing him, I think he saw me, too.
The big, fat, start of a conclusion
So here’s where I’ve ended up after all that — with just the start of what I think dads should do.
I have two takeaways:
1. See your kids. Put your eyes on them. Don’t look away even when you don’t understand what the heck they’re doing. Even if it’s uncomfortable, fumble through it. Resist the urge to withdraw.
2. Let them know you. Tell them all your stories, even if you feel like you’re boring the shit out of them. Don’t let them arrive at your funeral and get an earload from all the people who knew you and have your children walk away wondering, “Who was that guy everyone was talking about? I didn’t know that guy.” Don’t make them have to put together the puzzles pieces of your life after you’re dead.
Father’s Day, Single Momma Style
And now, I’m off to help my kids cook breakfast for my ex-husband. I’ll let myself into my old house and play cook while the kids put on aprons, take their dad’s order and carefully walk too-full glasses of orange juice into the living room.
No, I don’t mind doing it. He’s not a bad dad. We weren’t great being married to each other, but I think we’re pretty good at the kid thing. (And btw, he did the same for me on Mother’s Day. It’s become important to us to help the kids celebrate their other parent.)
Then I’ll meet my older sister — another single momma — for Father’s Day brunch. The thought of it already makes me laugh.
Happy Father’s Day to all.