Dad, Bad Dad
Actually, it’s OK that I’m writing a late Father’s Day column.
I have a good excuse, not having had a father for over 30
But maybe a little gratitude is overdue. As fathers go, the
one I lost was one worth living.
It’s been so long I don’t really even know what it means to
want a father. In some ways I guess I continue to long for
him, but it’s undefined. It’s foolish to long for a myth.
But I can’t long for the actual Dick Page either—because I
didn’t get much of a chance to really know him.
I know things about him, though.
When I was at his cemetery this Memorial Day the garnet-colored
gravestone reminded that garnet was his birthstone and that
we used to pick up garnet chips when we found them on back
roads somewhere in the Adirondacks. For many years I wore
a garnet ring. And then somewhere I read that garnet brought
bad luck. Given circumstances at that time, I stopped wearing
Standing by his grave I remembered how my college counselor
told me to get in touch with my anger at him. She was a product
of the times, insisting that all women are angry at all men
and that a girl who had lost her father harbors a particular
rage toward him. If I wanted to be healthy, I had to get mad.
Problem was, I wasn’t. How could I be mad at a man who had
died? It was not as if he had wanted to leave.
My counselor gave me Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy.” I think
she thought—apparently forgetting Plath’s tragic marriage
and eventual suicide—that Sylvia could help me out. Same as
me, her father had died when she was a kid.
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time.
The poem is proof positive Plath was in touch with her anger;
and it was supposed to jumpstart my own. (But truly, there
is nothing more laughable than a college-aged tragedienne,
deep into her Gewürztraminer, reading “Daddy” to herself,
alone in her dorm room. I embarrass myself even thinking of
Plus, it didn’t work. I just was not mad at my father. He
hadn’t died before I had had time to kill him. He had died
before I had had time to know him.
I still think that’s an important difference.
This recent Memorial Day I stood by the gravestone and almost
felt close to him, absurd as that sounds. The last time I’d
been to the cemetery was years ago with my ex-husband and
our daughters. He is now remarried, with a new set of kids.
He tends to forget our kids’ birthdays.
He is gone. He made the choice to leave.
So as you can imagine, Father’s Day is a weird day around
my house. I tend to forget it, not having celebrated it for
so long. My girls tend to dread it, remembering that they
once did celebrate it and now can’t. Even if they wanted to,
in the country where their father lives, the day is observed
in a different month.
I have tried to tell my daughters that, if we have lost our
parent—a mother or a father—we get a strange kind of second
chance to find, throughout our lives, little pieces of father
and little pieces of mother in other people. I have tried
to tell them that this a fruitful and comforting endeavor.
That, no, this will not replace Daddy. But that it will provide
some sense of being fathered.
I’m pretty sure they don’t believe me. Either that or they
know I’m gilding the lily. True, throughout my life I’ve known
some fatherly men and I have appreciated that quality in them.
But I have never found a father more present for me than the
one who has been, for decades, absent.
But for my children, their absent father is, truly, absent.
And they have friends, whose dads (or more rarely, but it
happens, moms) are absent.
And we all know of truly horrible parents—parents and step-parents
whose poisonous presence in their children’s lives is a worse
nightmare than death. If Sylvia Plath had wanted to hurl vitriol
on daddies with truly “brute, brute hearts,” she’d have done
well to pick up the newspaper for ideas. Not every man who
claims to be a father deserves to be—or deserves a day.
If honoring a parent is to mean anything, it has to begin
with an honorable parent. Father’s Day is not for fathers
who are simply living. It is not for fathers who are simply
there. It is not for fathers who hurt and shame rather than
hug and shelter.
It is for tender fathers, wise fathers, fallible-but-humble
fathers, strong fathers, fathers who teach their sons to be
And, not to be forgotten, it is for dead fathers—for my own
father—who perhaps wanted nothing more fervently than to be
able to go on being fathers.