On my 21st birthday my father sent me a card in his distinctive, backward-slanted hand. He had written out a quote from Yeat’s “A Prayer for my Daughter: “May she become a flourishing hidden tree/That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,/And have no business but dispensing round/Their magnanimities of sound…”. He had read the same poem to my mother after I was born. There was no doubt then, nor has there ever been, that I had cornered the market on good fathers.
He turns 81 today, my dad, and I want to share him, just a little, with the world because he has been such a good thing in my life. Lest you should think I am so smitten that I will launch into some sort of smarmy, Hallmark-flavored tribute, I will start by telling you the bad things. My father has a martyr complex that could be used as an example in psychology classes. He is terrible with languages. When he is angry, he rarely yells, but compresses his lips into a thin, white line. My brother and I always recognized this as the most silent and deadly of “cease and desist” orders. He suffers neither fools, nor foolishness gladly, and hates sitcoms. We battled, bitterly when he tried first to teach me how to sail, and then how to drive; in the first case the cause was abandoned, in the second it was turned over to a more objective instructor. Finally, and most damningly, he folds jeans incorrectly so that a crease is created up the front of the leg. (It is possible, although I will never know for sure, that this was not, in fact, a failure on his part, but a clever and successful ploy to get me to do my own laundry).
My father was the only child of an Army officer and the first woman to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of New Hampshire. When he was young, his father was stationed overseas (most often in Aruba), and he spent most of his time with his mother, learning to sew, cook, clean and fix things. As the result of this training, he is a good cook, and taught me how to make souffles, omelettes and quiche, among other things. Big on self-determination, he insisted that I learn how to fix a faucet washer, bone a chicken, and change a tire, for which I am eternally grateful. He fixed all broken things in our house, and built bookshelves, cabinets and window seats. It never occurred to me that there was anything he couldn’t repair or create; perhaps there wasn’t.
When he was five and had missed a great deal of school due to an illness involving a high fever, two doctors came to my father’s house to test him, on the suspicion that he might have suffered brain damage. After he answered a question by demonstrating the meaning of a “trajectory,” the testing was abandoned. When his father returned from the military, he worked as a teacher and football coach at Norwich University, in Vermont. My grandfather, a former college football star, was a garrulous, charming extrovert nicknamed “Chief,” and although my father did eventually play football, he was a more contemplative type, and disliked being called “Little Chief.” Although he is not particularly given to self-analysis (and would, in fact, go to great lengths to avoid being analyzed by anyone) I’ve always believed that dad’s early experiences gave him the compassion and depth that he showed as a teacher, a father and a husband. Although I get a lot of characteristics from my mother, I have always been temperamentally like my father: too sensitive, too analytical, too insecure and unable to relax into being loved and accepted. It is fortunate for both of us that we chose partners with the patience and will to bring us out and buck us up on a regular basis.
By the time I remember anything, Dad was a college professor, first of Humanities, and later specializing in Chinese history. It was my firm belief that he knew everything, and most of the time he did (and does). This was both a blessing and a curse. Traveling in Europe, he would often draw a crowd as he explained to us the design of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, or the symbolism in a Caravaggio painting. This was a good thing, and we were always proud to be with “that guy who knows everything, but he doesn’t work for the museum I don’t think” but the dark side emerged at home, when he was asked a “simple” question about something we were studying in school. Although we might be looking simply for confirmation that John Adams was, indeed, the second president of the United States, we were often given a lecture, after which we knew everything about Adams including the fact that he favored a little cold squab for breakfast. While other people seemed to find this an endearing and enviable quality, it is more complicated when one is thirteen and trying desperately to finish a Social Studies worksheet before “The Partridge Family” starts.
These days, I pick his brain as often as possible. He is an atheist who knows more theology than anyone I have ever met, and he can answer questions about everything from St. Augustine to Taoism. If we watch a movie about Genghis Khan, or the exile of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, he knows whether the story line was accurate, and can often fill in the blanks created by artistic license. He can discuss with any of his grandchildren their respective studies of steam engines, Civil War Battles or condensation, and there is no pulling of intellectual punches; there is no Disney version with my dad. It is my firm belief that in a world of sound bytes and constant sensory input, it is extraordinary for our children to have the experience of listening to a natural teacher who is expecting them to rise to the occasion, hanging in and listening because they are capable and he is willing.
Smart is as smart does, though, and the ability to recite Tennyson at the drop of a hat doesn’t make anyone a good father. I have known many people who were highly intelligent, well-educated and undoubtedly well-intentioned, yet unable to create or sustain good relationships with their children. My brother and I did not need a font of knowledge or a bookshelf designer nearly as much as we needed someone who loved our mother, treated her well, and demonstrated consistently what a good marriage can and should be. We saw a man who, despite being a reserved, Catholic-turned-atheist, willingly and graciously immersed himself in the flamboyant Jewish tribe whence came my mother. We saw compromise, we saw good sportsmanship elevated to a fine art, we saw arguments resolved in good faith and remembered with laughter, and we saw an unbreachable unit of Parents that could not be reconfigured as a triangle, no matter how hard we tried. It was, and is a template to which I refer often, and I’m pretty sure my brother does, as well. [Note: I do not mean to make it sound as if my mother was and is not an equal partner in all of this goodness; first of all, it’s not her birthday, and second of all, she is a naturally ebullient, resilient and social creature who did not have as much to overcome as my father].
Finally, it is just a fact of life that a daughter needs a good father. Not a good father in the sense of material indulgence, or some kind of simpering daddy-daughter adoration fest, but a father who believes from the moment a baby girl is put into his arms, that she can do anything. My father, despite childhood struggles with weight, never, ever made me feel judged or insecure about the way I looked, or what I ate, even during my lumpiest periods. When he thought I looked pretty he told me so, and he still does. Because he has always been critical where criticism was due – particularly in relation to shoddy academic work, vile boyfriends, and terrible life choices (law school, for example), I know that his encouragement is genuine, and it means the world to me. I have always believed that I could learn anything, write anything, and endure anything because he has always believed that I could.
I might wish that he had not passed on to me his cavity-prone teeth, his sun-averse skin or his tendency towards self-criticism, but I cannot imagine a better father for me or my brother, a better husband for my mother, or a better grandfather for our children. I am lucky to have had him as long as I have, and if you have a dad, or a stepfather or a father-in-law (even if it’s not his birthday today) I think you should tell him what he means to you, even if it’s awkward, or things haven’t always gone well between you. If your father is gone, see what you remember about him that makes you smile, or think, or cry, and recognize that he is still a part of you from your crooked left ear to your sense of humor. (The last part is far too smarmy for my dad’s taste; it’s all me. I mean it, though).