I turned 40 this year, and my favorite birthday gift wasn’t what you might expect. It was a line in a 39-year-old letter, tucked into a scrapbook from my mother. It told of my father singing duets with me in the car on the way to the baby sitter’s house in the morning.
Duets with my father. It’s an amazing image. Even after years of standing beside him in church, hymnals in our hands, I could have sworn I never sang with my father. I sang. He stood silent. Maybe he hummed along on “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, but I couldn’t swear on it.
For my birthday, my mother made me a scrapbook, filled with letters she’d written my grandmother from the time I was born until I was 3. Along with the descriptions of all the lacy Easter dresses and frilly sunsuits I wore (largely gifts from my grandmother), she also wrote a few scenes from a childhood I never realized I had.
I thought I’d had a typical ‘50s-era dad, a man with a gray suit and a briefcase, who disappeared early each morning, and reappeared in the evening, usually to slide behind the newspaper. My mother was at home with four children, maybe not in pearls, but certainly baking chocolate chip cookies, and my dad was off somewhere being a dad.
I missed him a lot. I savored our occasional hikes and card games, and I wished he were around more. As I grew older, I wished I knew what to say to him when I did see him.
As an adult, I’ve always loved him, and felt very proud of him, but I haven’t always known how to maintain a steady feeling of connection with him.
When we’re in the same town, we often go out to lunch by ourselves, or we manage a satisfying talk at dinner. But in between, I miss him.
At work I occasionally overhear my editor picking up the phone and saying, “Oh, hi, Dad.” I feel a touch of envy. Her voice sounds so warm, so full of laughter and easy conversation.
After nearly 10 years, I can’t remember my father ever calling me here. I doubt he has my work number, and I’m not sure I have his.
Even at home, I don’t talk to him on the telephone very often. I’m not certain that he’s much interested in the day-to-day details of my life and I guess he must feel the same way.
So most conversations go something like this: Talk about the weather, ask a bit about his work, tell a few brief details about what I or my children are doing, followed by a yawning silence which one or the other of us remedies by suggesting he hand the telephone over to my mother.
Letters, which we exchange even more rarely, are usually brief and businesslike, which fits the image I’ve always held of my dad.
But on my birthday, I learned that during my earliest years I had a mom who worked full time, and a dad who went to college in the mornings and took care of me, duets and all, in the afternoons.
I had a sensitive, New Age, ‘90s sort of dad in the ‘50s and I never even knew it.
He may have been voting straight Republican, but he was there during my first three years, doing the songs and the stories and the kisses. On my 40th birthday, I suddenly discovered I had the father I’ve always wanted all along.
Sure, he disappeared for about 30 years into a world of grinding tax seasons, irritating IRS auditors and stressful clients. He was a C.P.A. with a demanding schedule.
But now he’s 62. And like a lot of other guys his age, he’s finally back.
In the last few years, I’ve seen a number of amazing transformations: men his age, celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Robert Dole and Robert McNamera come to mind, suddenly softening, shedding tears in public.
A couple of years ago, I saw my dad wipe away tears at my brother’s wedding. This year, in honor of my birthday, he spoke in a voice filled with emotion of his pride and love for me.
Many of these guys who came of age during, or shortly after, World War II were a stoic, supremely masculine bunch. They didn’t seem to own active tear ducts. Not having been alive during their era, I’ve never quite figured them out.
I do know they revered important values, like integrity, loyalty, and duty. I respect that, and I know I personally benefitted from it.
I had a dad who managed mid-life without a red-sports-car, blondsecretary crisis. I had a dad who did battle with the IRS regularly on behalf of his clients, who memorized tedious tax codes, who plugged away, hour after long hour, on dreary audits and tax returns so that he was always able to write out the checks for college tuition, for piano lessons and dental bills, for dinner at Patsy Clark’s the night of my birthday.
I had a dad who was there like a rock in a number of ways that made me feel more solid.
He was at my side, a box of Milk Duds in hand, at nearly every Disney movie I saw as a child. I adored “Lady and the Tramp.” He was more of a “Jungle Book” kind of guy.
He has always loved my mother, which was a larger gift to all of us than I ever dreamed during my childhood. They celebrated their 41st anniversary this month, two months after my birthday.
He scraped together enough money, all of about $1,500, I think, in 1964 to buy a small cabin in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where my best summer family memories were made.
And best of all, he’s still here. There’s still time, for the cabin, for more dinners and hikes. Time even to sort out that telephone call thing.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. There’s still time for our relationship to sing.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by A. Heitner
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