To My Dad
Teach Your Children Well
My father died about three weeks after my sixth birthday. Though my memories of him are few, they are poignant and have left an indelible mark upon my soul. Rather than fading with time, they have only grown more firm through the years.
Here are some of them:
- It is dark, and I am in a crib in the next room, crying - no, screaming - in a frenzy of furor. There are people nearby and light and warmth and laughter. My mother cautions him, “No, John, you shouldn’t get her up. She needs to learn.” But he does, and his arms are strong and welcoming. Indeed I learn. I learn I am loved and wanted but also that I can demand my way with tears or temper.
- He is shaving in front of the brightly lit mirror in our 50s pink tiled bathroom. I am sitting on the clothes hamper listening to a story about a little girl named Joanie who lives in the forest and is a friend and protector of all the animals. “Tell me again, Daddy,” I plead, and he does. I learn the value of a good story and the importance of kindness and bravery but also (mistakenly) that I am the center of all things valorous.
- We are sharing a midnight snack of toast in the kitchen - just the two of us - and the toaster catches on fire. My childhood eyes still see giant flames leaping from the toaster’s metal mouth when in reality it was probably nothing more than a burnt crumb causing a tiny flame. Regardless, my father deftly extinguishes whatever it was and shushes me saying, “Don’t tell your mother.” I learn that my dad is quick in an emergency and considers me a confidante but also that it is okay to keep secrets from those you hold dear.
- We are in the boat he loved to captain on Lake Erie. Hard and fast he would drive and often in weather in which it was inadvisable to go. My sisters are clanging the bell attached to the hull opposite where my father sits at the helm. “Man overboard!” they shout, knowing the acute reaction they can elicit in me. My father says little and only seems to drive faster. I learn that he is in control and that I must deal with my fears as well as those who seek to frighten me but also that I am a bit on my own in the world.
- We are walking hand-in-hand down a sunny, city sidewalk. After receiving a cool greeting from an acquaintance of his, we turn and start up the red rubber-coated stairs to my father’s office. He speaks quietly, firmly, sadly, “Joan, don’t ever hold a grudge. Do you know what a grudge is?” When I tell him no, he briefly explains, and I promise him I won’t. I learn that forgiveness is vital, relationships tenuous, and life’s journey both short and winding.
So here’s what I want to tell all you fathers with time still on your hands. Don’t presume upon the day. This day, today, is all you hold. What has passed is in the past. You will teach your children many things, and much of it will be a mixed bag of good, bad, and indifferent. But know this, you are teaching your children.
In your stories.
In your walks.
In your explanations.
In the way you treat those who love you and those who don’t.
Leave them with big ideas. Make them feel important but not overly so. Rescue them once in awhile, but teach them how to find help independently from you.
Love them freely even as you know you can’t love them perfectly (and children, forgive your fathers their imperfect love).
Most of all, Dads, entrust them to God - the only Father who perfectly gave and gives his best for his children.
And to my dad - if I could, I would say, "Happy Father’s Day, Daddy!"