What is it about fathers? What makes them so large and unfathomable? They can be wonderful advocates and protectors. They can also wreak havoc. A good father is a refuge, a door, a prime mover. Fathers are here to compel us forward.
From my own father, Georg, I learned many things: how to roast chicken (sear at 425 degrees for the first fifteen minutes to hold in the juices, then lower to 350) and how to make a perfect béchamel sauce (low heat, stir constantly). I learned never to carry a package across a border for a stranger. (This was my father’s advice to me when I was 19 and on my way to Paris. Months later, someone did actually ask me to do this when I was leaving France for Greece to visit my ancestral homeland. I declined. It is possible that I sit with my laptop today in Sheboygan, Wisconsin—and not rotting in a Cypriot prison—because of his admonition.) From my father, I learned to appreciate art, nature, and my own thought processes. I learned how to be content by myself, and conversely, how to throw a great party. In all fairness, my mother, Rosanne, played a role in all this as well, but she will forgive me for focusing on dad today.
The developmental psychologist, Erik H. Erikson wrote in the 1985 “Afterthoughts” to his Childhood and Society, (W.W. Norton and Co. 1950, 1963): “…both sexes at one time have experienced both the (madonna-like) inclined sensory response of the face of a mother and the fatherly face displaying the angry, super-conscientious self-insistence of a ‘superior kind’ and its readiness to use what power or force is considered moral at the given personal and historical moment.”
Power. Force. Anger. Self-insistence. Fathers are bad-asses. They cut to the chase, do their own bidding, and some forget to put the toilet seat down. They do not incline their heads in any sort of madonna-like fashion. Hey, they are men. What do you expect? They have a lot of testosterone in them. They can be muscled, paunchy, large, small, bald, hairy, stubbly, or clean-shaven. But they are men first, and fathers second. The one thing that distinguishes men from women is that they have one shorter chromosome in the 23rd pair. And oh boy, does that one little chromosome ever make a big difference.
Fathers, like the sperm they emit, are hell bent on making more of themselves. All fathers are very good creators in their own image. Fathers provide those determined little troopers who shoot out into the wide, salty universe of convulsive delight, surrounded by a multitude of other little troopers, all striving to be The Great Penetrator. Fathers teach us how to be penetrating and determined. Or, in other modes, how to sit for hours on the couch and be content to do nothing.
Although the differences between men and women are well-documented, good fathers are mostly like good mothers. They are devoted to nurturing, and they have their own unique set of tools in the tool box to accomplish this task.
I caught a glimpse of a young father the other day as he walked out onto the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan near my house. The father had a baby in his arms, about eight months old. He whispered in the child’s ear, and pointed out towards the water, then settled himself onto a park bench with this chubby, footy-pajama-clad being on his lap. They were the picture of contentment. They were exhibiting something we might normally attribute to mothers: a quiet serenity, a rootedness in the earth, Erikson’s “madonna-like inclined sensory response.” It was a foggy morning. Maybe the man was not yet awake. Or, maybe he was very awake. Maybe his awake-ness is what brought him outside with his child in the first place. His tenderness was visible even while driving past him at 30 miles per hour. My day started well.
Whatever your relationship is to your father, you must admit that some part of him—good or bad—is most certainly in you. It goes beyond genes, though they do count for something. Whatever it is, and however you deem it, why don’t you phone your father today and tell him you are thinking about him. (If he is technologically savvy, no tweets or text messages, please. Only real phone calls in which you have to talk in complete sentences.) Or tell him that you were very hurt by him, and let him know why. And if he is dead, then call him up in your heart and tell him all these things there.
Fathers, like mothers, appreciate being loved by their children. Remember, they did the best they could. If that doesn’t seem good enough for you, then you might want to think about how you can do better. On this Father’s Day, may you weigh yourself and your father together, kindly, in the same basket.