Father’s Day Without a Father
One summer when I was eight, I was staying at my grandparents’ house, and there was a tiny carnival in the town square. My favorite game at any carnival was the cakewalk. It was the Saturday before Father’s Day, and one of the creative volunteers had made a cake with a giant blue and red tie.
I eyed it with envy. I wanted to win the cake with every part of my little being . I wasn’t entirely sure why I wanted it so badly, because I didn’t have a father. I mean, obviously I had a biological “Father,” but all that I knew of him were a handful of pictures of him visiting me when I’d turned one, photos in which I was sitting in his lap holding his guitar on a yellow bean bag on the floor.
I had a father but I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. But that June day of blue skies I wanted a father I could win the cake walk for, and I figured my Uncle Alan was as good as any. My grandfather had already died and my Uncle Tom, who often took care of me at my grandma’s house, wasn’t a dad despite being the most generous caretaker in our family.
That afternoon I spent every dime I had buying tickets and playing against the spinner, hoping it would land on my number.
It was the glory of surprising my uncle with a whole cake that I wanted to badly, a gift that would acknowledge his great commitment to my favorite cousins. At the end of the day, I had used all the cash I’d been given but left the carnival with no cake and dejected.
My mom had been open and honest about my dad. She’d loved him and he hadn’t loved her back, and nothing was going to change that, not even me. She’d loved him something fierce for his cosmopolitan worldliness. She’d come from a little farming village and he’d come from the big, sophisticated city of Montreal. He rode horses, golfed, and played the guitar. He had smart clothes and stylish shoes, ones that he used to walk away from my mother and me to pursue his graduate degree in psychology back in Canada.
I finally met him when I was in my twenties. I’d spent the first half of my life fantasizing tearful reunions and sharing heartfelt exchanges with the man responsible for my life, and now have the second half of my life coming to terms with the fact that my biological father would never be a man who cared about me.
This the briefest way of saying that Father’s Day has never really registered as a holiday for me.
One of the reasons we give gifts is to bond and solidify our connections through celebration, surprise, and appreciation. But when it came to my dad, the gifts from him were oddly disconnected. Red roses for the wrong birthdate, wrong month, and year. Once, instead of a promised ring, he retrieved a Mezuzah from the Shoah foundation with symbol of his own name. There were promised trips cancelled and a complete refusal to buy me a wedding gift, since as his note stated he simply couldn’t think of something worthy so best not to send anything. Most people have deep and enduring connections with their fathers, so these faux pas can be overlooked, recipients of such inappropriate gifts able to reason, “It’s the effort that counts.” Only, granted I had no such connections, my father’s “gifts,” more often than not, were worse than a disppointment.
So, when I had children, I worked endlessly with my kids to help them show their dad how much they loved and cherished him. We’d bake him angel food cakes decorated with berries. We made art. We took him to brunch, lunch, and dinner. We bought him everything from T-shirts to a Star Wars Toaster. He wasn’t into material gifts, though, so I’m not sure we ever really “got” him what he wanted.
I’m re-listening to Jimmy O. Yang’s memoir How to American on Audible, and it has me thinking about paternal relationships. Yang’s book is a funny take on his unlikely rise from ping pong star, to stand-up comedian, and even a DJ at a stripper club, before he made it famous on the HBO show Silicon Valley.
Yang had lived in Hong Kong as a child with his parents and brother. His childhood was steeped in traditional Chinese expectations, ones in which he was to respect and honor his parents’ wishes, and to be successful by being obedient. His father thought that the American belief that doing what you love would bring homelessness not success. As a teen, Jimmy moved to Los Angeles. He was torn between the overwhelming freedom and individualism he found there, and his parent’s values that he should put his family above all else, including himself.
Listening to Yang’s memoir, I feel a sweet tenderness when he talks about how his father cooks dinner every night but advises him not to do that. “That is for women,” his father tells him, “but I must do it because I am a better cook.”
I felt envy creeping in, imagining Jimmy making rice every other night for the family dinner, awaiting his father’s criticism. Oh, to have that kind of attention, even a critique, sounded like heaven to me. I romanticized the structure and routine, Yang and his family safe and content. Even though I’d never experienced the Eastern version of obligation and obedience, I still wondered what it would feel like to be protected and cared about that deeply by your father.
I’d been raised on the opposite end of the Western spectrum, by a single mother, because my father was so driven to achieve his personal goals that he left after getting my mother pregnant, never to return, or pay a cent in child support — my father following only his dreams of success, leaving a family in his wake.
I’m no Beyonce, I didn’t make Lemonade. It’s taken me the better half of fifty years to make sense of my father’s decision to leave my mom and me. I’ve had to work with feelings of insecurity and the pain of knowing I’ve unwittingly passed some of these anxieties and abandonment worries onto my children.
When it comes to giving, I’ve learned it cannot be separated from receiving. Our ideas and beliefs are often entangled with what we want and what we are willing to receive. What do you or your father believe is okay give and or receive? From my dad, I wanted the moon, but he didn’t have dust to spare. I admit, I’ve been slow in being able to discern the gap between what others are capable of giving and what they give.
I can buy the heck out of a present, but authentic connection takes more than a gift. It takes care, empathy, and acceptance.
As Father’s Day comes, most of us think about connecting with our fathers and father figures. It’s a day that challenges us to understand what our fathers believe — were they raised with strict rules about how to provide, what to provide, and how parenting would be measured by their job, their income, their status in society? Or were they free to pursue their passion, free to leave the confines of their family of origin? Did they make it big in the eyes of their own fathers? Or do they find themselves lacking?
Each of our fathers lives somewhere on that continuum from selfless, obligated, duty-filled family man to narcissistic, self-conceited, careless sperm donor.
I believe all men want to be the hero of their story. As children we are informed by the choices our fathers make and the decisions that impact our lives for better and for worse. And if we choose to be parents, we are faced with deciding what we want to share and pass on, and what to change for the better where we are able.
I have friends who adore and admire their fathers and want nothing more than to be just like them in their dedication to family. I have friends who are dream dads. I also have a friend whose ex-husband went missing four years ago and hasn’t spoken to his children since. I have friends whose ex-husbands require restraining orders. I have a friend who is sitting in hospice awaiting his father’s death. This may attest to the fact that I have a wide variety of friends, and each of us has a unique relationship with his or her father. Our fathers are usually not scripted by Hallmark, nor do they fit easily on a calendar.
I needed a nudge from a girlfriend to write about this topic since it wasn’t even on my mind. When I was wrestling with what I might say, I had a dream about my grandfather. I only have two memories of him.
The first one is visiting him out in the field and him trying to get me to climb up to him where he was sitting in a giant International Harvester combine. I couldn’t do it. I was too small, and it was too high.
Other memory I have is when he took me to the Adrian Mall for a piece of Russell Stover chocolate. He let me pick out my own piece from the gorgeous glass case and we sat in front of the little fountain that anchored the shopping mall, savoring our rich treats.
Once, I awoke crying, “Papa, I miss you. Why did you have to leave so early? I needed your help, so much, to deal with my parents’ choices.” As I lay weeping with a grief I hadn’t known before, I cried myself back to sleep. When I awoke, I felt a strange feeling of peace. I looked at my grandmother’s wedding ring that I wear (see video on the giftsthatchangeus.com website that explains how it is one of my most prized gifts.) I twisted the ring around my finger and realized I loved it because it had been chosen by my grandfather for my grandmother.
I was wearing a piece of the paternal love I thought I had spent my life missing.
As you contemplate the father in your life, I hope you can honor the father you have, the father you wanted, and the father you need, and to give that to yourself or another. I have long since forgiven my father, who cannot forgive himself, and therefore blames me for the problems in his life. I don’t have to punish him or myself. The gift of appreciating someone in full total, with their back stories, their lies, their well-meaning intentions, along with their highest self is a gift we give them and ourselves. I wish you the ability to celebrate with words of gratitude, gestures of appreciation and gifts that connect.
Here are some ideas for the father in your life:
1. I’ve never met a man who didn’t love to sit on the loo and these are the best money can buy
2. A less expensive way to support a healthy sense of humor and elimination
3. The car of his dreams
4. Or a symbol of the car he dreams about
5. A trip to St. Andrews
6. Or just a pair of cool Jack Nicklaus socks
7. Tickets to Austin City Limits Music Festival
8. Or maybe a premium membership to YouTube Red without ads
The only visit my father made in 1971.