fathers day

You’ll never know: A Father’s Day Tribute

1975. I am six years old and I am riding with my dad in his Buick Skylark. Maybe it’s a Chevy Malibu. Whatever the car, it’s the size of a small tank with an endless front hood, Batman-like tail lights, and bench seats that are equal parts cushion and spring, and 100% bounce.

It is a moment that is forever etched in my mind.

carseatMy dad and I are riding in the car. It is a Saturday morning. I know this because the mood is light–the weekend is here and the day holds much promise and possibility. It is summer because I am wearing shorts and the windows are cranked all the way down. I don’t remember where we are headed. I don’t care. I am riding with my dad–alone. ALONE. Not one of my 6 brothers and sisters to bother me. No one to share the front seat with. Yes, the front seat.  I sit across from my dad in the front seat, my legs dangling over the edge of the embroidered nylon bench. No seat belt to trap me in. Just me and my dad cruising on a weekend morning.

The car glides around a bend and I fly across the seat, toward him. I stay there. My bony leg next to his. My elbow resting on his lap. I watch his hand dance along the steering wheel, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He’s so cool. He’s my dad.

As I bask in this time alone, he starts to sing:

You’ll never know just how much I miss you

You’ll never know just how much I care

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you

You ought to know, for haven’t I told you so–a million or more times

You went away and my heart went with you

I speak your name in my every prayer

If there is some other way, to prove that I love you, I swear I don’t know how

You’ll never know if you don’t know now

I am awestruck. “Again!” I cry. “Sing it again!”

He protests, realizing he is vulnerable now.

“Please?” I beg.

He obliges. You’ll never know…

We drive on. A dad serenading his son. I feel like the most important kid in the universe.

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For a while after that, on the rare occasions when my dad and I would be driving alone, I would ask him to sing that song. It turned into our little duet, as I would echo the last part of each line. HOW MUCH I CARE…MY EVERY PRAYER. It always made me happy, and could serve to draw him out of a mood if he was a little brooding that day.

And then, like too many things in childhood, it just stopped. One day, I stopped asking and he stopped feeling comfortable singing it to me. There were many times when we would be driving in the awkward silence of my teenage years, where I would think about that song, where I would wonder what would happen if I requested it, where I would laugh in my mind at the absurdity of my dad singing to his son, now almost an adult. I never asked, though, and as the song implies, now I’ll never know.

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About nine years ago, I heard that song in, of all places, Disney World–the happiest place on Earth. The land of make believe? I was walking down Main Street by myself. It was nighttime and the crowd was thin. I had never heard the song performed by anyone but my dad, yet here I was, being serenaded by the lilting voice of Alice Faye–I checked. My dad had long since passed away, and now I had an infant of my own. I looked up in the night’s sky from the streets of the Magic Kingdom. You went away and my heart went with you…

Yes, a piece of it did. But larger pieces remain behind. Embedded in my first-born son, and soon thereafter, his brother. There are many car rides for us now–smoke free with them tethered safely in the back seat. But I try to remember the glory that can transpire between a father and his son in the more subtle moments of life, on an insignificant car ride, on a random weekend morning.

Car rides that may, in fact, last a lifetime.

 

 

Why Fatherhood Matters

Excellent essay from Stephen Marche in latest Esquire. What really captivated me was this insight:

As the patriarchy is slowly dying, as masculinity continues to undergo a constant process of redefinition, fatherhood has never mattered more. Having children has always been a major life marker, of course, but the demise of other markers of masculine identity has given fatherhood outsize importance. The old religious rituals gave way long ago. The post-dynamic-capitalism of the moment has taken away the replacement methods of proving yourself. Making a living is principally a sign of good luck. Owning property is a sign of your parents’ status more than it is your own. Combat itself is now gender-neutral. Only fatherhood is indisputably masculine, which is why when you ask men when they became men, they usually answer when they became a father or lost a father.

Do yourself a favor, and read the rest of the article. Ladies, don’t skip this one–it really conveys so much of what men are thinking and struggling with, particularly in the modern world.

Read more: Why Fatherhood Matters – Fathers Day – Esquire

Visit us at Esquire.com

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Special Father’s Day Edition

Happy Father’s Day to all those out there who signed up for this wild ride known as parenthood. Here are some highlights from my sons’ greetings.

This is a cut out that Hayden (7) made for me. Perhaps he found a picture of me from the eighties wearing my parachute pants. That’s a microphone in my hand–the kid knows I have a big mouth and love being the center of attention.

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In his card to me, he wrote how my favorite thing to do in the world is “play with him,” and my favorite place to eat is McDonald’s (btw, I haven’t eaten fast food in years, but I know someone who loves to go there:).

And here is a picture Owen (8) made for me. I think it is the most frightening rendition I’ve ever seen of myself. I look part chicken, part zombie, and 100% creeper.

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It is part of a school scene he drew, since I am a teacher. The drawing looks like it could be a public service announcement for stranger danger.

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Owen’s card for me featured a series of fill-in statements (his responses are in italics). My favorites include: My dad can do many things! I think he’s best at…laughing, because he sounds like the Joker from Batman when he laughs, and My dad is as handsome as a…monkey, because he has so [many] hair but none on his head.

So, to all of you dads, grand dads, dads-to-be, and anyone who is a father figure, I hope you find some time to reflect on the difference you make in the life of others. I know this monkey enjoyed the time spent with his boys.

 

Father’s Day: What did I know?

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 

When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 
Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love's austere and lonely offices?

My eyes widen as I read each word. This poem–I feel like I wrote it. How could someone else capture my thoughts so perfectly? I feel raw. Exposed. I am sitting in a college classroom on a damp, dreary Fall afternoon, and this poem makes me feel warm, yet I have chills. This is how I feel about my father. This is what I have been trying to articulate in my mind for eighteen years. I think of all the gestures he did to show his love–silently, at times begrudgingly, but he did show his love in the mundane tasks of keeping house. And no one ever thanked him. We may have said the words as we dashed out of the car or grabbed whatever was in his hand, but there was never an exchange of thanks that involved eye contact and a firm hand shake or lingering hug. Affection was quick, obligatory.

And I DID fear the chronic angers of that house. There was always so much anger. It began with my parents and enveloped each person that existed in that small home–nine of us–ten if you include Anger, which certainly felt like another sibling living among us.

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I will never forget the day I first came upon this poem. Freshman year at The University of Scranton. A survey literature course. Robert Hayden–my literary brother. It was this poem–Hayden’s words–that provided me with one of mybooks_clip_art_by_zenoracle-d4qi2lb first experiences of what language could convey. I was in awe that a few lines of verse could so profoundly summarize my relationship with my father. I credit this poem for being one of the reasons I became an English teacher. The written word can speak to a reader in many personal, powerful ways. The experience can be incredibly private and eye-opening, yet the reader need not reveal to the world that “this is me! These words are my own! I’ve had the same experience.”

I have gone on to teach that poem in my classroom, and whenever I do, I am reminded that somewhere in the room, there probably is a young man or woman (or ten) who sees themselves in these lines–who hears their own fears being echoed in the voice of the poet: “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” That line has become sort of a mantra of mine as I have aged, as I have reflected on my childhood and my upbringing. What did I know? I knew my dad loved me, yes. He was a good man. He wanted to be a better man than he was, and he did love me. And yet, he was very lonely. Surrounded by his wife and seven children, but alone. And austere. His firm and unbending sense of discipline made him very austere.

My dad died eighteen years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I wish he got to know me better. I wish he was able to meet my lovely wife, and see his beautiful grandsons play. I wish he got to see me as a father. I think he would be different now. I know I am. I am not afraid. I no longer live in fear of the chronic angers that filled my childhood. But in my mind, I recall the blue-black cold of the rooms that hold the memories of my youth.

Flash forward twenty some years. The college freshman reading poetry is now a father himself. He wants to be a good father, but he fights the anger that has lived in him for so long. Indeed, it has subsided, but it still lurks. He loves his sons more than anything. He cannot help it. He knows this is the circle of life. A boy cannot understand his father until he is a father himself…I see now Dad, I do. I see how hard it must have been for you. I see that you were living in a much different time, a time when men were only worth the pay check they brought home–and yours never seemed to be enough. A time when feelings and emotions were never discussed, let alone understood. I see the man who was incredibly bright, but never had the chance to go to college. I know you loved us, but the pressures and chaos of that household were too much to bear. And as part of your legacy, I have inherited some of your struggles–as a husband, a father, a man.

I grapple with this often, almost daily. I know the kind of dad I want to be, the kind I set out to be every day, but then I see my frustration creep in, my impatience, my arrogance. Lately, I’ve been reminded of this innate struggletrainer_fall2012-38 between father and son when dealing with my second born, Hayden (I do not think we arrived at his name accidentally.) Hayden and I fight–a lot. I know it is because we are so similar in personality. My friend Liz, over at The Kovies, told me that “God doesn’t give you the child you want; he gives you the child you need.” I now know that I needed Hayden. I needed him to see myself as a boy–difficult. Caring, loving, and sensitive, yes–but also difficult. I bear witness to my frustration with him. I am trying so hard to be present in his life, to show him my unconditional love. But he challenges my patience, and seems to bring out the worst in me sometimes. And yet, we love each other very much. I snuggle with him in his bed, and he takes walks with me and the dog. He knows I love him, and I am able to show it in ways that my father did not–could not.

In the past month, when I’ve tucked Hayden in at night, I’ve become frustrated by our exchanges. I’d say, “Good night, Hayden. I love you.” And Hayden would say nothing–NOTHING! At first, I tried to ignore it, or I would add a passive aggressive “I love you, too, Dad” before leaving his room. Still, no reply. One night, after no response, I implored,”Hayden, I said I love you.” “I heard you.” “You’re supposed to say ‘I Love you, too, Dad.'” “Sort of,” he says, head buried in his pillow. “Sort of?” I yell. “It means a little,” he explains–to his father, an English teacher. I walk out, incredulous. On another night, I try again. Still, no reply. “Hayden, I know you love me.” He shakes his head “No.” “Yes, you do!” Again, he shakes “No.” “Do you love Owen?” He shakes his head “No.” I feel comforted by this. “Do you love Mommy?” A big head nod “Yes.” So big of a nod, his chin almost hits the floor. I refuse to surrender. “Well, I love you Hayden, no matter what.”

trainer_fall2012_web-38In the past few weeks, we’ve made progress. Now, when I say it, he says “Okay.” That’s all. “Okay.” I leave his room frustrated, but I’m trying to be okay with “Okay.” Still, my mind reels: All I do to show this boy how much I love him every day. Not just the basics. I coach his baseball team (even though I suck). I volunteer in his classroom. I remember to buy his favorite cookies…How can he not know how much he loves me???? Then, it dawns on me. Not right away–it’s a gradual epiphany: Oh, I see. “What did I know of loves austere and lonely offices?” The role of a dad can be cold and austere regardless of the amount of affection we show our kids. It feels cold, because we are often the bad guy–the punisher, the disciplinarian. And lonely. So lonely. We love our children so much, yet watch them push us further and further away toward their eventual independence. What did I know? Not much, until I had children of my own.

Once again, I am comforted by the words of Robert Hayden. Decades later, his poem still beckons and consoles me. I am glad I realized this in time to celebrate Father’s Day. It is a day filled with mixed emotions. How does one celebrate a role that is so layered and confusing? How do I reconcile the past and the present? Well, this year, in honor of Hayden’s refusal to return my “I love you,” I thought of another poem–a song–that reminds me of my father. It is probably the most tender memory I have of my dad. When I was very young, about four, I recall sitting in the front seat with my dad, alone! No seat belt to tether me. Just me sitting next to my dad.  Six brothers and sisters and I had Dad all to myself in his big, thick-cushioned, blue Chevy Nova. I remember driving with the windows down, the breeze mixing with the smoke of his cigarette, and he began to sing me a song:

You’ll never know just how much I miss you
You’ll never know just how much I care

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you
You oughta know for haven’t I told you so
A million a more times, you went away
And my heart went with you

I speak your name in my every prayer
If there is some other way to prove that I love you
I swear I don’t know how
You’ll never know if you don’t know now …

On the rare occasion when I was alone with my dad, I would ask him to sing me that song. It only happened a handful of times, before I got too old to feel comfortable requesting it. Well, Dad, I didn’t know then. But I think I do now. And I wish the same for my son. Someday, Hayden. Someday, you’ll know. And I hope I’m around to bear witness.

trainer_fall2012_web-38You’ll Never Know:  music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon