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To Kill a Mockingbird


Why do they call it Father’s Day when it’s really Dads we honor?

(originally posted June 16, 2010)

I’m not being specious, there really is a difference between the two, one that goes deeper than a name. It’s Dad we will take out for brunch or dinner this Sunday, not Father. Just like it’s Dad who bought us ice cream when Mom told him we’d had enough sweets for the day. Taught us to ride a bike, then a car, for which he paid the insurance, and repairs when we had the inevitable accident forgetting in an instant all he taught us. It’s Dad who imparted a sense of security to our early lives, even if all he did was be a solid, sleeping presence down the hall.

I love dads, I love the ones I know and the idea of dadness in general. The sporty kind who shows up at school meets, the pedantic, stick in the mud kind, who, it turns out, said a bunch of stuff we try to live up to every day now that we are adults. The tinkers, the thinkers, the ones who cook, even if badly, when no one else is around to put dinner on the table. I especially love the ones who try and fail at a multitude of things in their lives, but hang in there, even when we realize, years later, that they must have been dying inside at how hard success, and sometimes just living, turned out to be.

Fathers, on the other hand, bring a whole different game to the playing field. Check it out: we have Father Time, Father Christmas, the Father of our Country (which in our case is George, but every country has one) and not last, certainly not least, Our Father Who Art In Heaven. Fathers are the big theme winners in the game of life: Time, History, Power, and Religion ~ they hold all the cards. Even old Saint Nick (his other name) the jolly, seemingly benevolent one, is a potential game changer if he deems your behavior warrants it.

These are powerful masculine entities who have controlled history and held sway over every big decision we’ve made in the civic realm from Plato on. So what compels us to call them by a declarative name which by rights should be reserved for the real flesh and blood guy who taught you to throw a soft ball? Where did the practice of calling them Father come from? Does it make the King more user friendly, less likely for us to overthrow? Strengthen our connection to God in a way that deepens it? For whose gain? Forgive me for asking these impertinent questions. One of the great things I learned from my dad was to be unceasingly suspicious.

My dad grew up in an era when good and evil were clearly delineated, where honor, not wealth, was the defining characteristic of a man. He’d gotten all the way through to his mid-30’s a bachelor, and if his life was not completely carefree ~ he supported his mother, four sisters, and a brilliant but invalid brother ~ he enjoyed a quintessential New York high life where Sinatra was the soundtrack and even dames wore gloves to dinner. An exceedingly handsome man ~ Clark Gable with less hair is how my mother once described him ~ while he played all night, he always returned home to his mama (and responsibility) in the morning. The age of Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll in which he was forced to raise his children must have presented epic questions for him, and no small amount of frustration. Short tempered when faced with what he could not control, he barked a lot around the house. But there was no bite to the man when it came to his daughters. My dad’s whole raison d’etre was to see his daughters succeed ~ a goal which required enormous sacrifices that I’m not sure he was ever amply rewarded for. That he didn’t do it for the glory made him a perfectly normal dad and totally terrific.

Which didn’t stop me from being disappointed in him when I was growing up. Historical archetypes have their doppelgangers in popular culture in a way that affects us deeply. I secretly wanted a father just like Nancy Drew's. He never meddled in her business, in fact he was conspicuously absent while she drove around the countryside (in the coupe he had given her) solving mysteries. But he always managed to arrive in the nick of time when she needed him to get her out of trouble.

Instead I was stuck with a dad who told corny jokes and yelled advice from the balcony instead of talking to me in quiet measured tones like Atticus Finch talked to Scout. That I held his lack of erudition against him is understandable, given my age. What’s sad is that even nowadays, when parental stereotypes have gone through so many changes, too often we still miss seeing our fathers for their unassuming virtues. Mine, as it turned out, was blustery but unfailingly brave in the face of moving cultural targets that loaded on financial pressures. He wasn’t Father Knows Best, because he didn’t know what was best ~ who could have in those frightening times, fraught with psychological baggage which seemed to emanate from deep global uncertainty, much like today. If he didn’t know best, he nevertheless wished for the best. Without guile or motive. From what I’ve learned of life since then, this well-spring of loyalty, this selfless pride, is one of the greatest gifts of love we have to bestow on one another.

I’ll let you in on a big secret: Most of what mothers do we do because we don’t have a choice. Instinctive or intuitive ~ it doesn’t matter why, our responses to the great challenges of motherhood are driven by something deep within us, a primordial knee jerk reaction. We can’t help ourselves. A mother doesn’t throw herself under the bus to save her child because she thinks it’s a great idea.

Though I’ve never been one, I get the feeling dads aren’t wired quite the same way. When they stick around, through thick and thin, it's elective, not because their hormones and 2,000 years of genetic imperative force them to. For the ones that do stick it, and despite what you read the large majority of them do just that ~and then some ~ it’s all about character. And choice. Which makes their roles in our lives all that more amazing, when you come to think of it.