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The Importance of Being Dad

What's in a memory?

My sister called me a few weeks ago.

“I was thinking about what you asked me yesterday, and I remembered something…’ she said.  We had been talking about our father, and how I struggled to remember anything about him, any sort of proof he had been there for awhile and was, in fact, a father.

I had had lunch a few weeks earlier with my brother to see what I could find out about our father, what he was like, what my older brothers and sisters had learned from him.  

‘What did he DO with you?’ I asked.

‘Did he, I don’t know, throw a ball with you?  Take you fishing?  Teach you how to build a bookshelf?’

My brother thought a minute.  ‘No.  None of that,’ he said thinking. 


Then he leaned forward and laughed, ‘He gave me tips on how to talk to women at parties,’ he said.

Sitting back, the smile faded.  ‘You don’t understand.  Just because we are all older than you, he wasn’t really there for any of us either.’  He paused, then continued.  ‘I seriously don’t remember any moments of learning from him, sharing with him.’

‘Now can we talk about something else?’ 

So then I tried with one of my sisters, who basically said the same thing.  Even though our father left the six of us when I was 5, he wasn’t THERE that much before that.  

‘Did you read with him, talk about books…the world?’ I had asked her when we had talked.

Our father had graduated from Yale and was reportedly very smart.  I do remember that he was disappointed that I didn’t speak French.  We were standing in front of a tall mirror in the living room, it is seared in my mind.  He had been to school in Switzerland, and I guess was fluent in French.

I lived on a farm in Virginia.  I was 5 years old.

‘No,’ she said.  ‘He didn’t read with me, or talk about the world.’  

‘Teach you anything?’ I asked.  She thought a little while longer.  ‘No, not really.’ 

A few days later she called me telling me she remembered something.  I was driving through an early soft rain, heading to the country. 

‘I was salutatorian,’ she said.  ‘Of the 7th grade class, in Lincoln.’

‘Oh,’ I said, smiling to myself.

‘Nancy Brown was valedictorian.  She always got better grades.’

‘Anyway, I had to write a speech and he helped me.’ 

She tells me she thinks our father was proud of her, that he spent a good bit of time helping her edit, talking about the content.

‘And then he typed it out.’

‘Where?’ I asked.  Somehow it was important to know where this momentous event occurred.

‘On the desk in his room.  On an ancient typewriter.’

I remembered a typewriter, the magic of pushing those round keys, and, in a slightly delayed reaction, the striking of the key on the onion skin paper he kept in a thin package on his desk.

‘The one with the round keys?’ I asked.

‘Yes, that very one.’

‘So anyway, he typed it out carefully and then folded it very precisely.  He showed me how to fold it.’

The windshield wipers moved softly back and forth.  Neither of us spoke for a minute.

‘Perhaps that’s where I get my precise nature and love of having things in order,’ she said with a laugh.  

I thanked her for that memory, we said good-bye and I continued my drive through the country.

I thought about it, and thought some more, and tears started rolling down my cheeks.  I really FELT for a minute, allowed myself to grieve.  Not so much the fact he wasn’t there. 

But when my best friend called me when he died (I was married with two children by then), she said, ‘It was as if he didn’t exist,.'  And I had thought to myself, ‘I did my job well.’   

But that day in the car, in the soft rain, I grieved for the poignancy of that caring gesture of a father to a daughter, how it was so important to her in the 7th grade, how it had meant so much.  For the first time in my life, I let myself grieve the loss of something I never had – instead of pretending that it didn’t matter, how you couldn’t miss what you never had, of how not feeling was the safest way to go.  

Thank you to all the great fathers today, and every day, for sharing your world with your children.  For teaching them about books, about the world, about how to build a bookshelf.  

You are appreciated.