My father was not around in any significant way for most of my life, and I say this as a description, not an accusation. He absolutely could have been around more than he was, and the fact that he wasn’t had a great deal to do with his own shortcomings; but it is also true that the context set when my mother divorced him in 1965 or so made it much more difficult for him to be around. He was twenty-two-years old at the time, a relatively brand new father of two young boys – I was three; my brother was a-year-and-a-half – and there were no models around for how non-custodial parenting might be something other than scheduled visitations (which for my father were quite generous) and child support payments. In other words, whatever his personal shortcomings might have been, the system also set him up for failure in almost unavoidable ways. And my mother didn’t help. Shortly after she married George, the man who would be step-father for eight or so years, she persuaded my brother and me that we should call George Dad when we were with him so that he would feel more comfortable, like he was truly part of our family. My brother and I liked George, and – I can only speak here for myself – I thought Dad is only a label. Using it to refer to George did not confuse me as to who my real father was or diminish my love and commitment to him; and I wanted George to feel as welcome as possible. We agreed to what my mother asked and, as a result, referred to my father Larry around the house. You can imagine how well that went over with him.
I have no idea if my mother consciously intended to slight my father – though given what I know of their history, she probably did – but I do know, because I remember how it felt, that my father very consciously took his anger out on us, making us feel guilty for calling George Dad and betraying him. Even for this, though, I don’t really blame my father. He was very young, not much older than twenty five, if at all, and when I try to imagine how I would have reacted at his age, at that time, it’s hard for me to be certain that I would have handled the situation any better. For his part, George, did his best to be present in my life as a father. I don’t think he was at all trying to replace my father, but he was the adult male in my household and he felt that responsibility very keenly. He believed in corporal punishment, and I know he was violent towards my mother, but he was, far more than my father (and I will say this again: through no fault of my father’s) the adult male from whom I received actual parenting.
When my wife and I decided to start trying to conceive, I sought out my father after nearly ten years of not talking because I needed for him to answer some basic questions about my life and the part he has played in it. That was a little more than 13 years ago. Since then, our relationship has been a complicated one, fraught with a tension that is probably inescapable, given our history. When George, who left us when I was twelve or thirteen, and who came back into our lives when his daughters, my sisters, insisted that he do so, I was at first thrilled. He was the only man who had been a consistent father-figure for me ever. Over time, though, I came to realize that he would not, or could not, it’s not clear to me which, reconnect with me as anything other than a child he had known a long time ago. There was nothing in the way he talked to me that suggested he remembered that he had once been a father to me, that he had any of those feelings left in him at all. I say this too as description, not accusation. When George died not too long ago, the fact that we had not reconnected at all in this way made me very sad. It sill does.
I am writing this, though, not to talk about father-absence per se, but rather because I have been thinking about myself as a father and how healing it has been to be for my son what neither of these two men could be for me: fully and vulnerably and givingly present. For this, for him, I am deeply thankful. It has been, for the past thirteen years, the best and only Father’s Day present I have needed.