This is a story of three fathers.
The first was Harold. He became a father six years after he married my mom, and he became my father eight years later. His children were both girls, which was a shame since he had so much to teach a boy about rebuilding carburetors and wiring electrical outlets. In a different time, he might have invited his daughters into his garage and his workroom, but it never occurred to him. He taught me plenty of other things – how to ride a bike, how to pack a car trunk, how to grill a burger, how to do more than just worry about a problem.
Memories of my dad are comforting. Standing at the bathroom sink, I lean back against him as he envelopes me in his arms and washes our hands together, mine inside his broad, callused millwright’s hands. On a winter morning transformed by a blizzard, I hear the repetitive scrape of his shovel, carving neat paths from the house to the street and alley. (To this day, the sound of shoveling evokes the word “cozy” for me.) Finally, we are standing outside my childhood home. He takes me in his bear hug – he gave the best hugs ever – and surprises me with tears. I promise I’ll be back for Christmas.
That hug took place just before I got into the car with my new husband, about to begin our marriage in Colorado. That husband is the second father in this true story. Having children was not at the top of his wish list, but Chris and I did not have that conversation before we took our vows. In my dream of married life, we would be the Waltons, close and happy with our seven kids, only occasionally cross with each other, nothing that couldn’t be solved in fifty minutes. The episodes of our reality did not, unfortunately, turn out that way.
When I found myself pregnant a month after the wedding, it took him some time to buy into my TV family fantasy. We had a beautiful daughter, and three years later, a beautiful son. But this outwardly happy family could not last. My husband, their father, was violent, alcoholic, a chain smoker. He was inexorably sinking on a bewildering downward slide, taking his wife and kids down with him.
He could be loving and good-natured with them. I have a great picture of him teaching the kids to fly a kite, all three of them wearing white shirts and faded jeans. But he yelled at them, he tore them down emotionally, and at times he used them as my surrogate, especially after we divorced and he took them away for occasional visits. I look back on that and know that a weekend of freedom for me was absolutely not worth the misery he caused them with just a few shouted words, just a fleeting scowl on his face. If I had it to do over, they would never have been alone with him.
When the alcohol killed him at age 47, his children were devastated. So was I. He wasn’t a monster. And you only get one father. I worried that he had damaged them, that they would grow up either seething with rage or hiding from the world, unable to trust anyone. But they did not. As grim as their memories are, and as hard as they had to work to engage in college and friendships and careers, they made it through. Their father hurt them, but perhaps he made them wiser and more compassionate. They know a good life isn’t handed to you free. I am proud to be their mom.
And so we come to the third father I want to talk about. He is, of course, my son. I say “of course” because I know this follows logically. Most sons fall in love, marry, have children of their own. But for me, there is no “of course” about the path my son has taken. To you, his path may not seem remarkable. But I took nothing for granted for so long, this felt like a miracle.
When he and Shanna called to announce their news, I made so much noise my husband figured it out before I ran downstairs to tell him. This was good, since I was crying too hard to speak. When Dan called me at work a few months later to announce there would be two babies, identical girls, I cried at my desk. I don’t cry at the drop of a hat. My son having a baby, two babies? That’s worth some happy weeping.
Dan has been a wonderful father. He held Vera and Jane seconds after their birth. I have seen pictures of him bathing his newborns, holding their slippery bodies with utter confidence. Even with the challenge of twins, he’s got this.
One of my favorite pictures shows Dan holding three-month-old Jane at our Thanksgiving table. She has been sobbing like the world is ending, and he has picked her up without missing a beat. It’s what a good parent does even if he’s trying to eat and hold a conversation. He’s facing away, talking and picking up another bite of food. Jane is looking at the camera, exhausted, her eyes big and wet. Her head rests on her dad’s shoulder. She’s a saggy little sack of potatoes, but you can tell she feels calm, and loved, and safe.
This is the picture of a good father. He gives his child comfort and security without having to think about it. It’s what every child deserves. We don’t need Father’s Day to celebrate that.