In the late 1970’s, my dad won the Mother’s Day Award through our church. He really was the best mother a father could be. When my mother died of breast cancer in 1972, at the age of 42, Dad was left on his own to raise four children, all under the age of 13. I was the oldest. Dad became our everything. He was both parents, side-by-side, in one man — and he deserved the Mother’s Day award like no other mom around.
Some of my memories play over and over again in my mind. I would wake early to the wafting smell of fresh-brewed coffee. Dad was always at the kitchen table, stirring his cup of joe (“full leaded” as he liked to call his caffeine burst), with the spoon clinking around the inside of the cup, a familiar morning song. These days, just stirring my own cup of coffee, spinning that spoon-against-ceramic sound, takes me way back.
In college, Dad was the one I called when I was lonely, or sad, or . . . well, anything. We rarely talked about what was really bugging me, but the sound of his thick-accented voice would bring me back down to earth. Somehow, just talking about a college exam or his trip to the supermarket, would put my unspoken problems into perspective.
It was Dad who taught me that love is a verb. Carrying around a pinch of superstition and having been through WWII, as well as his wife’s terminal illness, Dad rarely said “I love you.” We would argue throughout high school over the power of those words. I desperately wanted to hear them; he was better at showing them. Eventually, I took great comfort in those acts of love — the tiny, everyday gestures and support of growing up.
When I moved West, without a job (sometimes you put on your blinders and just go!), Dad had the baker write on my going-away cake “Good-bye and Good Riddance.” The young woman at the bakery was appalled and thought, for sure, that he was confused. After all, he had a thick Greek accent; “That’s not how we say it here,” she insisted. I knew, when I saw the cake, how very much he was going to miss me — too much to name it. I remember how he stood in the driveway as I backed out, trying to quickly wipe a tear so I wouldn’t see. I think I could actually hear my heart cracking as I drove away.
The day of my wedding, many years later, I rang his hotel room at 5:00 in the morning because I couldn’t sleep. I woke him up but he groggily agreed to meet me in the lobby for a cup of coffee. We were the only ones there. He grumbled through the coffee and I laughed at his complaining. It was clear that he was touched I’d called. I tried to tell him how much I loved him — but dragging him out of bed so early in the morning to calm my nervous heart was all the proof he needed.
Dad was my quiet hero.
Today, I’m married to a wonderful man. My daughters would tell you that he’s more fun than I am (probably true), but he’s so much more than that. He’s become our everything. I don’t know if he’s their favorite (and it’s not a question I want to press, quite frankly), but there was a time when only their Daddy would do.
When our younger daughter was still a toddler, she was quite vocal and forthright about who her favorite was. “Only Daddy!” she would yell if I got near. Once, walking around Disneyland, I tried to take over pushing the stroller of our sleeping two-year-old so my husband could go on a ride with our first born. I don’t know if it was merely the change in the stride, the touch on the handlebars, or perhaps the different breathing pattern, but something woke Chloe up, and she started screaming, “NO! DADDY! DAD-DY!” Poor guy — but I was off the hook, a little heartbroken over the rejection and a little giddy at the thought of that kind of freedom.
I’m not sure what it is about girls and their dads. For a while, they really are our everything. Later, they become the role model against which all men are measured, for good and for bad. Sometimes, just like we do with a film negative, we seek out those areas of light to form the image of what we want and need – working around the exposure to see what’s real. Sometimes, the pictures are developed and clear, making it more difficult to find a reality match. Something from that early relationship is left deep within us; it shapes who we become.
Happy Fathers Day — to all dads and their children — but particularly to the memory of my own dad — and to the man my girls call Daddy.
*My dad used to dig big holes in the sand for us to sit in — kind of a reversed fort. That’s me in one of the sandy holes, and my sister’s foot.