As Fathers’ Day approaches, I realize I’ve written about my mother many times on this blog, but have not shared much about my father. I don’t like to leave the impression that my father was not part of my life or that I somehow don’t appreciate my father. He lived his life for me, my brother, and my mother. I am who I am partly because of him. He died in 1996, at the relatively young age of 72.
Like many little girls, I went through a period of hero worship with my father. I clung to him. He fascinated me. He was bigger than life in my eyes, even though he wasn’t a particularly large man. When I think of him, I think of him singing or making something or teaching me how to do something. He called me Dooley, for some unknown reason. For years after he died, I would see him when I was out walking my dog and would hear him call me by that ridiculous name.
My father knew lots of songs and he had a beautiful voice. He used to sing when we were in the car or when he was working around the house. Some of the songs were not the most appropriate for children, but I thought they were funny. Navy drinking songs might be a strange choice for entertaining a seven-year-old, but I didn’t care. I just loved to hear my dad sing. My mother always used to try to get him to join the church choir, but he never did. I don’t think he liked the idea of having to “measure up.” I think he got a lot of confidence from his family and from his ability to take care of us. Outside that family unit though, I think he felt somewhat insecure about his abilities.
My father was the oldest of six children. He was born a couple of years before the stock market crash of 1929. By the time his siblings came along, the Great Depression had the world firmly gripped in its jaws. I think most people in the 1930s saw working together as the only way of surviving this financial monster. Individual hopes and dreams did not mean as much as banding together with family and friends to make sure everyone came through safely. My father’s childhood and, also, his young adulthood, was structured in such a way that others came first. He helped raise his younger siblings. He helped his parents during the lean years. He enlisted in the Navy upon graduation from high school to fight in the war.
He did not get to pursue a college education or go to drafting school or learn to play the piano. These were all aspirations that he one day told me he wished he had been able to fulfill. When the time came in his life when he could have pursued these interests, I think he was too afraid of failing to embrace them. I wish he had felt surer of his ability to reinvent himself. It was almost as if he was resigned and reasonably satisfied with what he had accomplished and was afraid that he would fail at a new pursuit. He felt that such a failure would erode what he already had. I think my father’s life was full of accomplishment and success and there is nothing more he could have achieved that would make him any “more than” in my eyes. I just hope that now, in Heaven, he is fulfilling all of his dreams deferred.
My father was inventive and creative. Some artists write. Some artists paint. Some artists compose music. My father’s artistry used a different medium. He built me a purple baby doll bassinet when I was four. He built me a playhouse with a fort on top for my brother when I was seven. He worked with me on a science project when I was nine, building a device that demonstrated how primary colors could be combined to make secondary colors.
My father kept me safe. When I proved myself inept at using a pogo stick, he rigged up a rope on the limb of a sturdy tree in the backyard. He attached the pogo stick to that rope and I was free to bounce without breaking. When all the other kids at school knew how to swing from one end of the monkey bars to the other, I couldn’t even get from ring one to ring two. Daddy took me to the schoolyard on the weekend and practiced with me until I confidently flew from ring to ring as competently as any lemur. He taught me to swim. He taught me to drive. He taught me to sacrifice, not just by example but by noticing when I did something unselfish and recognizing me for it.
When I was a little girl, I think I was my father’s princess. I think he marveled that I was his creation. He couldn’t imagine that there could ever be any fault in me, which is why he tended to overreact when I did something that clearly demonstrated that I do have faults in me. He told me once that he was sorry for sometimes being too hard and too harsh on me when I was young. He said it wasn’t ever because he wasn’t proud of me. It was actually the reverse. He said that I seemed to him to be so wondrous and miraculous, he couldn’t imagine me being anything less than perfect in any way. Therefore, when I did something wrong or churlish or immature, it was a shock and he didn’t always show good judgment or patience in his response.
The very first thing I ever wrote that I tried to publish was an essay about him. A national teen magazine was holding an essay competition and asked contestants to write about the world’s best father. I submitted my essay and never heard back (which should have been a clue to my future in publishing). My father found a copy of my essay and read it. I remember how touched he was. I remember him looking at me in amazement and saying, “thank you, Dooley.”
I do think my growing up scared him. We went through a lengthy period in my adolescence and young adulthood during which he didn’t really understand how to relate to me. I think the notion that I was moving away from being his little girl made him believe I was moving away from him. It took some time for us to figure out how to be special to each other in our new roles… father and grown-up daughter.
Even when we gingerly settled in to a new, deeper, more mature understanding of each other, I was still his cherished little girl. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I probably needed the daddy that still saw me as the princess in a tower who needed his protection. To everyone else, I was strong and in charge and capable. To Daddy, I was precious and deserved a knight in shining armor. It was more valuable than I can say to have had a father who I knew was willing to fight my battles, even though I was completely capable of fighting them for myself.
Happy Fathers’ Day! What memories do you have of your father? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a wonderful day!