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Good 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 years.

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 the ring.

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 it.)

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 fathers.

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.

—Jo Page

jopage@graceniska.org


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