Happy (belated) Father’s Day, all you fathers and daddies and papas. You rock.
I’m as anti-gender essentialist as it’s possible to be without being an Ursula LeGuin character. So, I’m not going to wax poetic about the inherent need for a father’s love. I’m not going to write about the definition of fatherhood. I’m just going to take this as an opportunity to tell you about my dad.
My father was born in rural New Jersey to a well-digger, Wiley, and a home-maker, Roberta, the third of four boys. He grew up walking to school through the flat, gently rolling farmland of Hunterdon County. At eighteen, he traded his hometown for a small North Carolina college town, where he worked as a line cook and studied philosophy and religion.
Before he’d even met my mother, he’d received a Master’s in Divinity from Drew University, then renounced organized religion. He’d biked from central New Jersey to Georgia by himself, then spent some years moonlighting as a professional tenor while working construction for a day job. For a while he worked as a zoning officer, meanwhile marrying and divorcing a few women, and raising some kids (my brother and sister Nina* and Chris*).
I am his only biological child, a blip around the “middle” of his life. He and my mother were married only a short while; he married the woman who would become my stepmother shortly after the divorce. When I was a young child, he worked as a night manager for GM, but soon he was working as a zoning officer again. At fifty-six, he abruptly decided to pursue his Master’s in Education, and became a special ed teacher for the local middle school. He was a member of the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield’s church choir for thirty-three years. He was proud to be from New Jersey. He was my dad.
He died a week before I graduated from college.
I was only just beginning to see my father as a fellow human being when he died. I miss the man he was, but in a ghostly, aching way I also miss the man he would be now. I wish he were here to help me navigate the world, especially as a masculine person. He exemplified gentle masculinity. I spent my entire childhood looking up to him, wondering why he never seemed to be afraid of anything; nothing ever seemed to crack the self-assured calm he exuded.
He’s not here any more, so I’ll have to puzzle out being a fully grown Reading boy on my own. But at least I’m not starting from scratch. My dad didn’t give much advice, and some of what he did impart was patently silly, like telling me that if I was worried someone would find out who I liked, I should ask every boy in my grade to dance. But a few of the things he said to me, and many of the things he modeled for me, were fundamental to my development into the person I am now–I’m not perfect, but most days I’m proud of who I am. I’d like to share some of his words here:
My Dad on Education:
I was never a good student, and it didn’t matter at all. You’re like me, school is too boring for you. You’re too smart. Except you’re awful at Geometry.
My dad was very smart, but I would not have called him intellectual. He’d read the Bible all the way through twice as a teenager, and could recite long passages of Shakespeare from memory, but he couldn’t do math above a fourth grade level and his hobbies of choice were cross-stitch, eating hot dogs, and falling asleep in front of Giants games. My mother, on the other hand, had been a straight-A student growing up, collecting several Master’s degrees before passing the bar and beginning what would be a long career in civil law. She was very strict about my grades.
My dad was unconcerned about my education. He read to me regularly until I started stealing books from his library to read myself: upside-down in armchairs, on the roof, in the neighbors’ bushes; when it was time for me to set the table, just about anywhere was a good place. He assumed my constant reading meant I was smart enough to teach myself anything I wanted to know. Once, though, when my mother had been particularly harsh with me, he showed me one of his high school report cards. It was a colorful collection of piss-poor grades. He told me he’d never been a good student, but it turned out not to matter in his adult life. I was like him, he said, school was too boring for me. I took secret comfort in those words throughout years of unrelenting, immensely stressful pressure from my mother to be a good student. It was a risky move for my dad to tell me I got bad grades because I was too smart for my teachers. It could have contributed to my already considerable arrogance. And maybe it did. But it also made me feel like my intelligence was something he was proud of, something I should like about myself, instead of the burden it felt like when I was being reprimanded for the billionth time for being too smart to do so poorly in Biology.
My Dad on Maintaining a Household:
Drop whatever you want on the floor but don’t let me catch you putting knives away wet.
My dad was incredibly handy. Even my mother (who has loathed him since their contentious divorce) grudgingly admits he was somewhat of a genius at spatial reasoning and building things. He trained me to be an excellent handyman’s helper–I can competently assist roofers, plumbers, carpenters, landscapers, etc… You name it, my dad made me do it, and most frequently during the dog days of summer. Despite my adolescent pissing and moaning, and attempts to escape to the drugstore to get strawberry milk, building things has always made me feel powerful and proud.
He also taught me how to maintain a house. I spent many hours of my golden youth cleaning, and many more re-cleaning because I hadn’t done it right the first time, but now, as an adult, I take good care of my living spaces. I know how to keep them unsullied and functional. And I never put away knives wet¹.
My Dad on Eating:
My dad loved to eat, and he was an excellent cook. He was the primary (and only) food preparer in our household as far back as I can remember. Although my younger sister Alyssa* later showed a genius for the culinary arts, I was my father’s first and most enthusiastic kitchen helper.
He taught me how to make a roux, how to fry a fish, how to make bread, and greens, and mashed potatoes. He taught me to make the perfect fried egg. Really. Ask anyone I’ve ever fried an egg for. A lot of the cooking knowledge he passed on I had forgotten by the time I struck out on my own, but I learned to cook much more quickly because I’d been introduced to the skills as a child.
The most important lesson about food my father taught me was not how to prepare it, but how to enjoy it. One day on the car ride home from school, I was worrying out loud about dieting. I was around twelve, and the girls in my class had suddenly started to care a lot about their weight. My dad listened to me talk for a while, and then told me this story:
When my mother was a child and she was hungry, her mother told her to have a piece of fruit. So she had one, and when she was still hungry, she had another, and another. She got very fat. When I was a child, and I said I was hungry, my mom would tell me the same thing: have a piece of fruit. So I did, but I was still hungry, so then I would have what I really wanted, which was a baloney sandwich. I ended up fat. Eat what you want the first time.
It wasn’t exactly fat-positivity, but my father telling me, an adolescent girl, to eat what I wanted to eat, was pretty radical.
My Dad on Arguments:
Everything is roughly 50% your fault.
I rarely fought with my father, and after our initial warring years, I never fought with my sister Chloe* or any of the siblings that followed. I did, however, have daily blow-outs with whichever female parent I was currently sharing space with. Once, when my dad was calming me down in the laundry room after a skirmish with my stepmother, he tried to explain the concept of escalation. Even if I was in the right at the beginning of the fight, he said, the way I responded to the person I was speaking to could affect how the rest of the conversation went. He gave me a complicated speech about fault percentages, which included a chart. Although I didn’t internalize this lesson until nearly a decade later, it’s now one of the best tools in my arsenal for keeping control of myself in arguments, and building strong relationships with the people I love (and love to fight with).
My Dad on Leaving No Trace:
If you don’t want someone to read something, don’t write it down.
He told me this after I wrote “Keep out of my stuff, brat!” on some construction paper and left it on a chair in my room. The note was a warning to my younger sister, who routinely trashed my things (and then blamed me for their destruction, the little asshole). This crayon-scrawled admonition was a stupid move on my part–my sister couldn’t read yet, but my parents could. Of course, they caught me and punished me for being hateful. In one of his signature post-punishment chats, my dad explained that there was no way to ensure that only your intended audience would read what you’d written–there was always a chance that the wrong person would intercept the message. So you keep the nasty stuff to yourself. You keep the personal stuff to yourself. You keep the incriminating stuff to yourself. He likely would have advised me against writing on the internet at all, but I believe I got the spirit of the law if not the letter: Words are powerful. Use them wisely.
My Dad on Morality:
There are people in this world who are able to do bad stuff and get away with it. You are not one of those people. Don’t do bad stuff.
My dad was an ethical man, but by the time I arrived he had been around long enough to know that raising kids, especially smart kids, requires some moral creativity. He wasn’t (and shouldn’t have been) worried about me interpreting his advice as license to begin a crime spree. But, as pure of heart as I was, there were a few things my parents just could not get me to stop doing, and my unwavering disobedience was giving my stepmother conniptions. Eventually he sat me down for a chat to explain that although it might not seem fair, I was going to get caught and punished every time I barked at the neighbors, so I might as well stop.
My Dad on Gender Relations:
I like raising girls better than boys.
Over the course of his life, my dad raised, or helped to raise, six girls. He raised, or helped to raise, three boys. He told me I was his favorite child. I’m certain he told all nine of his children that, but I pretended he really did love me best.
He also once told me, apropos of nothing, that he preferred female children. I couldn’t have been older than ten. I remember, we were working on our bikes in the gravel driveway of my favorite Victorian (we lived in several once-grand, now decaying Victorians throughout my childhood). He didn’t say why, and I didn’t speculate. The simple fact that he preferred his daughters was mind-blowing.
Even at ten years old I could tell that boys were the ones everyone liked. Boys got to answer questions in class without being sneered at. Boys didn’t have to come in long before twilight to set the table. Boys got to decide what we played, and when, and who could play.
That my father, a man I idolized, preferred my kind to the darlings of society was life-altering information. Maybe I would have turned out just as tough and sure of myself if he’d never said it. Maybe not. But it was such a fiercely validating thing to hear as I was clawing for a position of respect in the increasingly sexist climate of my grade school.
This year my brother William* got in touch with me after nearly seven years of radio silence². He missed Dad. He was wondering if I had any photos. He had just moved out of my stepmother’s house. I took the train up to New Jersey and stayed with him in his new home, the home of two old family friends who had taken him in when he ran away from my stepmother. Over the course of the weekend, William and Joan* (the owner of the house) and I spent hours sitting out in the back yard, smoking and talking about the years I missed. William told me about his life, and I got to know Joan again. The last time she had seen me I’d been ten.
It’s been around a year since William reached out. There are good months and bad months, but I can say for certain that tenuous though our relationship may be, my brother is definitely back in my life. I saw him this past weekend, ate tacos with him and admired his driving abilities as he skillfully navigated us to the movie theater where we planned to see The Hangover 3 in the truck I’d taught him to drive. As we drove, I asked him a question about something I’d said earlier and in a rare moment of raw candor, he told me that he had initially reached out to me last summer because I was the closest thing he had to Dad. Surprised, I asked why. He looked at me sweetly and said “Because you both had blue eyes. You look like him.”
¹I have had three housemates (keep in mind I’ve only lived in four houses since I left college) who were scrupulous (and intense) about keeping their knives dry, and I never once pissed any of them off. Thanks, Dad.
²My stepmother and I did not learn to get along better. She kicked me out of the house when I was seventeen, and very successfully prevented me from having much contact with my brothers and sisters for seven years. William was the first of my brothers to re-establish contact.