I have had an embarrassment of fathers in my life.
The first one started life growing, and that was pretty much it. He was out of my life before I was even born, really. I’m told that once upon a time he was very smart. I know he was a talented artist, and that he was hopelessly out of place in his own dysfunctional family, and that he married my mom at seventeen.
I remember being five years old and going with him for an afternoon, the first one ever, and I’ve never asked whether he instigated that or my mom did. He took me to a movie. At the mall was a Re-Max kiosk, and they were giving away helium balloons. He got me one with an air of conferring a wonderful gift, and I took it home with the ribbon tied around my wrist so I wouldn’t lose it. It drifted up to the ceiling in my bedroom, and after a couple of days it sank slowly to the floor, deflating. But I kept that balloon for a long, long time.
I didn’t see him again for three years – there was an afternoon once when I was six where I waited by the window for him to come, but he never showed. Around my eighth birthday he took me to the beach, which was a ridiculous thing to do since my birthday is in April and we live near the North Atlantic, but I dutifully made sand castles while he smoked and stared restlessly at the horizon.
I didn’t see him again until I was an adult, and that’s a story for another time. He was a drug addict and an alcoholic, and certainly no father to me, but for most of my very early childhood I idealized him, giving him chance after chance in my mind because the truth was too painful to face up to.
Father number two came along and I don’t remember much about him at all. I know he & my mom married, and had my sister when I was just shy of my third birthday. I know that he did the same dance with her that my bio-dad did with me; the broken promises, the years of little or no contact, the sudden impulse borne of god knows what guilt or pressure that made him suddenly pop up and try to do the father thing. The hurt feelings afterwards, the crying, the disappointment. He didn’t do that with me and I was very glad of it, because he always made me faintly uncomfortable. Still does. He’s an alcoholic too, and has a lot of rage, and the little bits I remember of his time with us feature a lot of yelling, dishes smashing, hitting. So I’m glad I can’t remember much. I have a feeling it’s pretty bad.
(I’ve been to therapy many times in my life, for anxiety and disordered eating. And whenever a psychologist or psychiatrist hears that I have no memories of my second father, they lean forward like turkey vultures and get their pens ready. Drives me nuts. Sometimes, the dead need to stay buried.)
Father number three was around a lot, even when I was very little. My first memory of him was one Christmas, when he made me a wooden chest for my toys. “Don’t get your fingers jammed in the lid”, he cautioned, and then boosted me up so I could hide inside of it, giggling. He came around a lot after Father # 2 got the heave-ho, and helped out my mom in a thousand small ways I never saw. One day as he was leaving he slipped a bill in my hand and whispered “give it to your mom, but not until my car is gone”. It was $100 and bought groceries for us.
I don’t remember any big drama when he moved in. I remember being told that I could call him “dad” when I was ready. He was an incredibly hard worker, and came home covered in sawdust, paint, epoxy. He was tired all the time and sometimes got really angry. But he also bought us water guns and took us for ice cream.
We’d go to the beach on weekends, the four of us, and he always wore a ridiculous Speedo bathing suit and leaped headlong into the freezing water, swimming through the waves like a seal.
He liked to watch Gunsmoke on Sunday mornings and taught me to love Star Trek.
Eventually along came my brother, and then my other sister.
I got older and we clashed, as teenaged girls and their fathers often do. I said some horrible things to him, and he to me.
I never appreciated him.
But when I graduated high school, he bought a suit so he’d have something to wear to the ceremony. When I went away to university, he came to the city one night, and over dinner and cigars (!) he told me that he was always proud of me, but that he never knew how to say it.
And now that I have kids of my own, I marvel at this man, who took up the reins of a family that already had two kids in it, kids who had every reason to distrust fathers, and how he put his dreams on hold to help us the only way he knew how.
Almost without me realizing it, he has become a rock that I lean on. He’s always there when I need him. Never once have I asked for his help or advice, and not had it freely given.
On my wedding day, father number one sat in the church, the brief reconciliation between us still in its hopeful infancy. But father number three, the man I’m proud to call “Dad”, walked me down the aisle.
On father’s day, I think of how fraught with meaning that word is for me. How the cards in the stores with their golf pictures and fart jokes do a huge disservice to the man who helped raise me.
And I think how lucky I am to have him in my life.
Happy father’s day, Dad.