Commentary: To the fathers no longer here but still always here
It’s been 32 years, more than enough time to raise a child to maturity, since I’ve celebrated Father’s Day. My father died in 1982, when I was 20, so I have a very clear memory of him, unlike my niece, whose own father — my brother Jonathan — died when she was 2. And my mother was almost 30 and had three children of her own when my grandfather passed away. She remembers the man she calls “the first and best love of my life” as if it were just yesterday that he coaxed her to sleep with “You Are My Sunshine.”
My mother and I are the lucky ones, with memories to sustain us in the absence of arms to embrace and a voice to comfort. My niece has only glimpses of a life culled from snapshots and third-party anecdotes. It’s not enough, because my brother loved her with his whole being and she will never quite understand that passion.
I, on the other hand, was blessed to be the firstborn child of a man who didn’t look at gender before he decided to fall in love with his offspring. He often told the story that he waited and waited and waited to pick me from the hospital nursery, choosing “the best.” This was his way of letting me know that I was special, and that he selected a girl on purpose.
Later on, it occurred to me that waiting and waiting and waiting, as he said, could also mean that there were slim pickin’s left at the hospital and I was the infant equivalent of marked-down baked goods, but I’m fairly certain this was not his intention. Not at all, given the way he treated me growing up.
Why am I writing these things? Yes, today is Father’s Day, which provides me with an opportunistic moment to wax poetic about the men I’ve known and, platonically, loved. But I don’t need a Hallmark holiday for that. Celebration of good men is never dependent on the whims of marketing geniuses, just as being grateful for mama or being appreciative of secretaries (oops, “administrative assistants”) is not a once-a-year obligation. It’s something we harbor inside of us, in our deepest recesses, or we don’t. When we don’t, artificial cards and what Italians call frasi fatti, empty words, mean less than nothing.
So the fact that my 32nd Father’s Day without a father to fuss over is upon me doesn’t make me sad. I carry my father in me, in the pale and freckled skin that made my Italian relatives suspicious, in the belligerent way I refuse to lose an argument, in the inexplicable craving for scrapple and giblets (“the part of dinner that jumped over the fence last, Christine!”), in my sympathy for real underdogs and not those who whine themselves into professional victimhood, and in my awe at this imperfect, sublime legal system.
Oh, and in my absolute adoration for Motown. Daddy once said that we had black blood flowing through our veins, the way we shimmied to Little Eva and the Shirelles, and I was embarrassed to ever say that publicly until a black classmate at Villanova saw me shamelessly plagiarizing Marvin Gaye at the Law School Show and said, “Girl, you got soul in you.” Daddy, if she said it, we’re covered.
This one is for those of us who had the blinding light of an over-the-top papa shining down on us, making the world an exciting place filled with promise. It is especially for those of us who had that, and then lost it to the inevitable losing wager with death. It is a way for us to say that we may not have them with us in the flesh, but you will never rip their memory from our DNA or strip our hearts of their heavy presence.
I am reminded each year, on Father’s Day, each year since 1982, of the words of Dylan Thomas, who poked a rhetorical finger in mortality’s rhetorical eye when he wrote, “And death shall have no dominion.”
The truth of the matter is that it does have dominion over our present hopes, and it can make orphans of 2-year-old babies and 30-year-old women.
But if we appreciate how precious a good father is, one who gives both life and love and laughter, every day that we remember is a celebration.