Thinking About Leftovers

My feelings about Father's Day are a mixed bag. My dad left when I was two years old, and I'd be lying if I said I haven't missed him ever since. Like most divorced fathers in those days, my dad limited his involvement with my sister and me to occasional weekends. I loved those visits. Often we'd do things we didn't do with our mother, such as go to the zoo and get sticky with gauzy strands of pink cotton candy and soda. Inside the zoo building was a compact vending machine from which, for fifty cents, you could buy a molded lion that would slide out the bottom of the machine still warm and smelling of fresh, melted plastic. Other times he'd take us to play in Lincoln Park or out for a picnic on the North Shore of Lake Superior where we'd search for agates. When we didn't have lunch at Nana's, our Dad usually brought us by McDonald's on the way back to our mom's house. At age four or five, I was a slight child, prone to tonsillitis, sore throats, and ear infections, and my appetite was small; I always provided my dad the opportunity to participate in one of fatherhood's most recognized rituals by offering him my uneaten burger and fries.

Things went on this way until Dad remarried and moved to another city, and our weekend visits became less and less frequent. Eventually, my mom remarried, too, and we moved out of state. Visits with Dad dwindled to once a year. I don't remember wondering about why I didn't see my dad more often.

It certainly never occurred to me to blame him for our catch-as-catch-can relationship. To the contrary, I looked forward to visits at Dad's with unbridled joy, and lamented the arrival of each visit's last day.

When I turned sixteen, my dad sold his Central Avenue moped shop, and he and his new family moved to Florida. I remember the last time I saw him that summer before he left. His wife and kids were already in Florida; he had stayed behind for a few weeks tying up loose business ends. He was sleeping in the family camper since, if memory serves me, he had already sold the house. One midsummer afternoon he drove the camper over from Northeast Minneapolis to the brownstone apartment building where I was living with my mother and younger sister. He had come to say good-bye. We went out to lunch at a fast-food place and we ate together, mostly in silence. I hadn't seen much of my dad during the last couple of years, and our time together felt awkward. I wouldn't have been nearly comfortable enough to offer him my leftover chicken sandwich, and I doubt if he'd have eaten it. We had become related strangers.

By then I was old enough to understand the obligatory nature of our odd little visits; it made me ache in a way I hated--that stubborn lump at the back of my throat and the odd, heavy coldness in my stomach that felt like a water balloon filled with ice water. Yet I was too insecure to say a word about this emptiness and loss to him. I don't even know if I told my dad I'd miss him as we sat across the smooth orange plastic table from one another, he eating quickly and speaking little, I belaboring each mouthful of bun and chicken and wishing one of us knew what to say. Probably it didn't occur to me overtly that I could miss someone I had already missed for so long.

But I did recognize the basic equation that Florida is a long way from Minnesota, and no matter how little I had seen my dad up till then, I would see him less in the years to come. This understanding brought with it a heavy sense of finality as we dumped the paper and scraps from our trays into the trash and pushed through the door into the humid afternoon.

It was four years till I saw my dad again; my sister and I were rooming together in a modest Fourth Street apartment during college, and she talked me into sinking a little cash into an airline ticket to Florida for Christmas. It was so strange to enter my dad's new world, to take in his home, his wife, his school-aged children who'd been so tiny last I'd seen them. He'd gone and built a brand-new existence in which I had no trace of history, no place at all. Within a day and a half of stepping off the plane, I developed a raging fever and had to go to bed for twenty-four hours, after which I awoke with a severe case of laryngitis.  

Voicelessness seemed an apt expression of my confusion. I was, by now, much too grown up to keep wanting what I couldn't have from my dad, yet not quite wise enough to know yet that the wanting doesn't evaporate with age.

Consequently, I simultaneously grasped at chances to be my father's daughter (holding his hand during a long stretch of walk through Sea World and liking it no matter how awkward it felt) and rejected the notion that I could ever be my father's daughter (embarrassing him by taking out my own cash at the Burger King on the way home from Daytona Beach). Unlike the summer visits to his house during my childhood, I was mostly relieved when it was time to board the plane back to Minneapolis. I had grown accustomed to being fatherless, and found it decidedly less painful to resign myself to that reality than to reopen a painful hope.

It's Father's Day. I always send a little something to Florida to mark the occasion. Lately, I've leaned toward ordering a treat to be shipped from Harry and David's. But in past years I've sent anything from horror fiction, which he loves, to framed pictures of my children, to the incredibly odd potpourri of trinkets--including a Kenny Rogers Christmas cassette--that I assembled from the corner drug store in a pinch once when we still lived in Center City. It was definitely the thought that counted that year.

But these days, Father's Day is much more than what I send to Florida to remind my dad that he still has a couple of daughters out in the world, and to remind myself of how much his presence, however limited, meant to me as a child. These days, Father's Day cuts a little closer to home, where three brown-eyed children make homemade cards for John, the guy who gets up early with them every morning and makes pancakes and waffles and calls it Breakfast Club. This is the same guy who washes the children's sheets when they throw up all night, and who officiated at the several tearful goldfish funerals we held last summer. I love animals, but John loves them even more: He'll pull over on the side of the road to talk to cows and horses, seemingly unbothered by the flies and the odor of dung and sweat.

He's also the one who's consistently home twenty minutes later than he says he will be even though he drives faster than he should; who's known for drilling holes where none are needed in ill-fated attempts to string speaker wire in innovative ways; who threw away a few hundred dollars worth of cameras on our summer vacation last year in a hasty attempt to tidy up the car; and who, until his last very impressive turning over of a new leaf two weeks ago, was prone to pouting and stomping fits when under duress. This is real life.

But for this displaced daughter, a father's inclinations toward drilling holes and losing cameras (and indulging in very rare episodes of pouting and stomping) pales in comparison to the earnestness of tears rolling down his cheeks as he describes the pain that Sophie, his sensitive, perfectionist eight-year-old daughter, felt when she, at her teacher's request, walked nervously to the chalk board at school to draw the letter k and found out before all of her classmates that her technique was not quite correct and felt ashamed for the rest of the day. This is the same daughter who enjoys a weekly breakfast at the Uptown Diner with her dad--a little ritual they devised together during the winter to soften the blow of returning to school and work on Monday mornings.

It's funny, in a way, that I'm married to a dad like John. On one hand, his love for children and his obvious nurturing tendencies were part of what I admired in him from the very beginning: When we first met, more than eleven years ago, John's nephew and his nieces were babies, and he clearly adored and treasured them. But on the other hand, he takes marriage and fatherhood for granted in a way that's foreign to me: His own parents have been married for more than forty years, and his mother and father have been present as involved parents throughout his life. This is his baseline expectation--and it is the opposite of mine, which is that anything good must be guarded for dear life lest it walk out the back door one chilly fall morning.

This tentative faith in good things is not entirely bad. It keeps me appreciative, walking around in my life like a kid in a candy shop, running my fingers over the shiny, colorful things around me, barely believing it could all be real. Every single day--even the worst of the disjointed, camera-tossing, pouting, stomping, spilling, breaking, crying, hollering sorts of days--there is at least one moment when I am overwhelmed by the reality of these many chocolate-brown eyes, and by the grace of fatherhood in their lives.

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