When I was in kindergarten, I was a Bluebird. It was a junior-level Campfire Girl, like a Brownie is for the Girl Scouts, but with blue uniforms and sashes. I was abundantly proud of my uniform and of being part of my troop. As a freckly-faced, redheaded, adopted, only child, with the only single parent in the whole school, fitting in did not come easily for me at that time, to say the least.
Our troop met at Mrs. Longo’s house for our meetings, where we would have the kinds of sugary snacks that my mom didn’t allow, then play games and do crafts. It was all very exciting and grown-up, I thought.
One day, Mrs. Longo announced that our troop would be having a Father/Daughter Picnic. Everyone was very excited, but I was perplexed. My dad had died before my first birthday, and I was uncertain of the protocol around a Father/Daughter picnic when one didn’t have a father. I sat for a moment, feeling sad and confused and then had a great idea. I approached Mrs. Longo and asked if my mom’s boyfriend could escort me to the Father/Daughter Picnic. It made perfect sense to me. He’d been with my mom for several years and was a lot of fun and liked me a whole lot. I felt sure he’d be up for the job.
Mrs. Longo looked me, tilted her head quizzically to one side, and said, “But it’s a picnic for daddies and their little girls. I don’t think boyfriends are the same thing, do you?”
Nearly 40 years later, I can still remember the way her brown hair was styled (in a 1960’s-style flip, even though it was 1974), the color of the carpeting in her den (burnt orange), and the way my mouth went suddenly dry. “No,” I said clearly. Then I turned around and walked out of the den, into the foyer, where I retrieved my little school bag, and then straight out the front door and the 1/2 mile home. When I got home to my mother, I calmly explained what had happened. And then I never went back to Bluebirds.
Some of us didn’t have the luxury of the kind of dad who married our mom, got her pregnant, and raised us. When my birth mother sprung the news of my impending arrival on my birth father, she was met with a stammering confession that he actually already had a wife and four kids living in another state. So much for our happily ever after.
My adoptive parents certainly loved me, and my adoptive father didn’t want to die, but that was his destiny, and nobody could change it. He left an amazing legacy a mile wide and twice as deep, but nonetheless, he is someone I know only through photos and related stories. I wish I had had the good fortune to have known him, but our lives intersected for such a brief time, I can’t really say that I do.
But I was one of the lucky ones. One after another, men lined up to fill the void. To assume the role and all its attendant responsibilities. My bear-like grandfather with his burly chest and loud bark, who allowed the six-year-old me to put rollers in his remaining hair and take pictures of it. My mom’s boyfriend, Van, who taught me to build the best snowmen (and ladies — his even had boobs), and read me the Sunday comics in different voices for all the characters. Countless uncles who doted on me and gave me advice and told me I was pretty and smart and wonderful.
And then, finally, there was my dad. Insane enough to volunteer for the job when I was 13 and in real danger of becoming a bitchy, know-it-all teenager, he didn’t just tolerate my presence in his relationship with my mom, he embraced it. He has told me, on more than one occasion, that he didn’t marry my mom in spite of me, but — in large part — because of me. “You deserved to have a dad, and I knew I could be that for you, ” he told me a couple of years ago.
My dad didn’t tell me what to think, he taught me to think for myself, even when it meant that we had bitter political arguments. He didn’t tell me what to do, he showed me how to make good decisions. He taught me about consequences and apologies and changing a flat tire and cooking a cream sauce without burning it. He gave me solid, honest advice about men, and never judged me for the unworthy ones — “All part of the learning experience,” he’d say. During my first month of college, he sent me a box of condoms and pamphlets about AIDS and STDs (I became the Safe Sex Dispensary for my dorm floor…), and after my separation, he sent me a care package of tools and related DIY books, because “Every single mom has to take care of herself.” And when people tell me that I’m a lady, I know that it’s his influence they’re seeing.
When he left my mom, he refused to leave me. I was confused, and angry, and would have let him go, but he stayed in touch, even when it fueled my mom’s anger and cost him in more ways than one. As the years went by he continued to introduce me as his daughter, and kept me in his will (even over my step-brother’s strenuous objections), and wrote me long letters in his perfect penmanship about the books he was reading and the boats he was sailing.
We have talked plainly and openly about the irony of our relationship and how it confounds a lot of people. But to us, it makes sense. I am his daughter and he is my dad.
I opened my local paper today and discovered an editorial opinion piece poached from the Seattle Times — my dad’s local paper — along with the cartoon drawing posted here. And I took a moment to be thankful for all the men along the way who worked extra hard to make sure I know what it means to have a father. To all of them, wherever they are now, I say thank you from the deepest, darkest parts of my heart. Not every guy will sign on to change the life of a little girl who is not even his own, but the ones who do re-define “Dad.”
Here’s the op-ed piece:
Happy Father’s Day.