Well before my sister and I were around, in early 1960, my mother and father celebrated their engagement by spending the weekend in a tiny Montana resort town called Red Lodge. Sometime during that weekend, which I imagine was magnificent, my father knocked out a couple of muggers going for my mother’s purse.
Had something similar happened to me, I’d take that story out and polish it at every opportunity. I’d manage to relate it to every situation that happened, and my kids would know it by heart by the time they started elementary school.
In my father’s case though, I didn’t hear it until he was struggling with cancer for the first time, and even then I didn’t hear it from him; My mother told me the story while we waited for my father to be moved to the recovery room after his first surgery. When he felt better, I asked him about it. He told me that he was sober, and they were drunk, and that while he didn’t come out of the fight unscathed, the black eye he got “felt better when it quit hurting.”
My father’s contemporaries were men like Steve McQueen and Johnny Unitas – Men who didn’t talk about their feelings or their actions, but who, nevertheless, felt and acted. My dad has never talked about dragging his father out of a bar on payday before the rent money was gone, but, according to my grandmother, he did. He’s never talked about being a father and a brother to his three little sisters, but according to them, he was.
And that’s not to say that my dad was silent, or taciturn – He wasn’t. He was a Mario Lanza fan, a frustrated tenor, who had a voice for radio. He could whistle like a bird; complicated little symphonies that I’ve never been able to duplicate.
I guess it’s not entirely fair to my father to say that he didn’t talk about his feelings either, because while he rarely discussed his emotions in relation to himself, my sister and I were always completely clear on what his feelings were with regard to us. He has never, ever been reticent about saying “I love you”, and while he may have been occasionally quick to anger over some stupid teenage prank, that anger never held sway for very long.
I remember sitting under the dining room table with my little sister one evening after we’d received what seemed to us to be an entirely unjustified scolding by the person my sister felt sure was “the meanest man in the world..”
“Yeah, I hate him,” I whispered back, and she nodded her head in agreement.
My dad, in his recliner with his paper in his hands, heard us, and summoned us into the living room for what we were both sure would be one of the spankings that he doled out on rare occasions, mostly when one of us had put the other one in some sort of physical danger, like the time I dared my sister to jump off the roof of the garage.
This time, though, he simply looked at us and told us that we were the most important things in his life. His dad hadn’t yelled at him very often, he said, but he had also never said “I love you.” My dad said he loved us very much, even when he was mad, and that we should try to remember that. He also said that we had hurt his feelings. I remember my sister bursting into tears and climbing into his lap. At seven, I felt a little too old for that, but the shame I felt at disappointing him sat in my stomach like a stone until he kissed me at bedtime and told me again that he loved me.
That little lesson, which I’m certain was completely intuitive on my father’s part, stayed with me, and I’ve used it with every one of my kids, telling them the story exactly as it happened, and reminding them that as much as Grandpa loved me, that’s how much I love them.
Because of my father, I’m the person I am today, and because of the him that’s in me, my kids are at least partially the way they are. I see my dad in my son’s crooked smile, and I hear him in my oldest daughter’s laugh. I’m reminded of him when my littlest one sings in the shower, and when the middle one tells a joke she’s heard a million times – one of the same jokes that my dad told me when I was her age.
But the best thing of all is that he’s around to experience this stuff, too – He sees what kind of people his grandkids are growing up to be, and he knows that part of that is because of the love he and my mother showed us, and because of the example they set.
And now everyone knows.
Happy Fathers Day – Not just to my dad, but to all the dads out there who know what’s important, and who make sure their kids know, too.