Notes on Fatherhood

Learning From the Best

There is nowhere on earth more boring to an eight-year-old boy than a tax accountancy office. Yet if it was a spring Saturday morning, chances were I was holed up in a vacant office of a small CPA firm somewhere in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, probably watching the X-Men cartoon series on a handheld black-and-white Sony Watchman.

You see, my father was a CPA, and the spring months before the dreaded April 15 IRS tax filing deadline were by far his busiest time. My siblings were in college when I was in grade school, and my mother worked retail on the weekends to help pay my brother’s and sister’s tuition. That left my parents with one of two options in the spring when my dad had to work overtime: either leave a pre-pubescent boy, who desperately wanted to be Gambit, home alone for the better part of a Saturday, or send him off to the office with my father.

I didn’t complain too much outwardly, but internally, I was frustrated that I couldn’t enjoy the particularly pleasant weather. I wanted to be able to run around the neighborhood fighting bad guys, or strap on some skates and disregard the helmet my mother insisted I wear. I did not, under any circumstances, want to waste away in a five-person office where it seemed like my dad was always the only one there on the weekends, and the highlight of my day was to see how many sheets I could stuff in the paper shredder before it overheated. I did not, under any circumstances, want to be stuck in an office.

It wasn’t until I was working my first handful of crappy jobs in my mid-20s that it finally dawned on me: my father didn’t want to be in that stupid office either. Not on Monday, or Tuesday, and certainly not on Saturday. The thing is, my father is a bit of a badass. He grew up the fourth of five kids to hardscrabble tobacco farmers in rural Florida, put himself through college, and joined the Air Force as a young man during the Vietnam War instead of waiting to get drafted. He earned the rank of captain and flew combat missions over Southeast Asia for several years before discharging, receiving medals for courage and bravery in the process. He had friends who never made it home.

The US was a hostile place for returning veterans in the early 70s, and he found a horribly soft job market laden with vitriolic, anti-war hiring managers. Attempting to jumpstart his career as a civilian proved difficult, and only became harder when he married my mother and eventually became a father. Through a series of events, including earning a graduate degree from Georgia State University, Dad stumbled into accounting, trading a jet plane for an adding machine. He went to work and was able to cobble together enough money to support a family.

We were never what you would consider poor when I was a child, but if I had a dollar for every time I heard my father say he was struggling to get ahead, or that he was “up against it,” or that things would be different once he finally had “a couple of nickels to rub together,” he wouldn’t have needed any of those sayings. My mother worked during the day and sold homemade crafts to help with extras, but my dad was the traditional breadwinner, which meant he wasn’t around all that often.

He came home tired and often went to bed early. He was usually the first one up and would drop me off at elementary school on his way to work. Sometimes, I’d ask him how work was because I saw sitcom fathers such as Mike Seaver or Tim Taylor talk about their careers around the dinner table. Dad’s answer was always the same: “Work’s work.” He’d have a particular grimace on his face that I only now recognize as boredom. He was overworked, underpaid, and possibly worst of all for a man of his moxie and intelligence, under-stimulated.

Yet through it all, he never complained. A strong believer, he never challenged God for his lot in life and instead “went back to the salt mine” daily. As I grew older, there were times when I was disenchanted with my father and wished that he had played catch with me in the backyard, or taught me to tie a tie, or change the oil, or any number of manly rites of passage. But those acts of service weren’t how he showed his love. Instead, Dad was, and still is, the hardest worker I’ve ever known. He didn’t work out of some strange addiction or desire to succeed and climb the corporate ladder. He worked his tail off doing something he didn’t really like so his children would never be hungry. We never worried whether we’d have clothes that fit. Or whether the lights would stay on. Or whether we would be warm in the winter.

Dad was faithful to his family, his wife, and his God. You could set your watch by his dependability, and while other, lesser men would have shirked their responsibilities and allowed someone else to pick up the pieces of a broken home, my father never did. He taught me that true masculinity isn’t about the women you’ve been with, the title on your business card, or the car you drive. To be a man is to provide for your family and come home every day.

As time marched on, dad’s burden eased. My brother and sister made it through college. Dad was able to strike out on his own and achieve a greater deal of success. Expenses went down, and free time went up. He’s a grandfather five times over now, and he finally has the time to enjoy the little ones running about the house without having to carry the stress of supporting them. Few things make me happier than seeing my dad hold my son, who my wife and I named after him.

I don’t work for status, or for money. I work so that my wife and son never have to feel insecure. My old man taught me that, and if I do as well as he did, they’ll never have to worry. — AJ Bembry, 29, Cleveland, TN

imageThe author with his son, Ellis.

imageThe author’s father, LS, with his son, Ellis.

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The Gift

I’ve been thinking about my father recently. He passed away 19 years ago but I remember him often. We had a distant relationship—most likely a reflection of both the generation he was a part of (he was a Depression child) and his family upbringing.

My father never told me he loved me. He didn’t hug me. He didn’t play ball with me. My brothers and I had a ritual (created by our mother) of kissing my father good night every evening before bed. But the sentiment wasn’t returned. I do have some isolated memories of dad teaching me to ride a bike, or swimming with me in the town pool or in the ocean on vacation. Those are fleeting, but vivid memories. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed him to be with me. To hug me, teach me, tell me he loved me.

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Fast forward to the time I had my own family. My parents had a somewhat nasty divorce, and my brother Don and I talked about cutting all ties with my father. We blamed him and his emotional abandonment for the divorce. For a few months, we didn’t speak to him. Then, one day, Don and I talked on the phone (I was living in the Midwest at the time) and we decided it wasn’t right or good for anyone to blame dad. So we decided to reach out and make amends. It turned out to be a wonderful decision and gift.

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Funny Man

My dad has always been a big jokester. As a child, he pulled pranks on his teachers like putting matches in chalk and filling up mechanical pencils with pieces of hot dogs. When my sisters and I were little, he’d wake us up for school by farting as he walked in our rooms or flicking water in our faces.

His comedic side began rubbing off on me at a young age. When I was in kindergarten I’d repeat all of his jokes to the other kids on the playground. They didn’t understand them (and neither did I) but I didn’t care because I wanted to be just like my dad. As I grew up, I became known as a bit of a class clown. People knew they could count on me to say something funny and lighten the mood.

A few years ago, my dad came to visit me in New York City and we took a clowning class together. Considering that he’s always been the funniest person in my family, it was really beautiful and brave of him to come with me. I got the chance to make him proud by performing with him and sharing the silliness he has passed down to me.

Still, my dad is more than just a funny man. He talks to me about his spirituality and it’s a part of him that I really look up to. He’s taught me to dig deeper into everything, but more importantly, he’s shown me that behind everything is love.

—Cyndi Perczek, Brooklyn, NY

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The Greatest Teacher

My father was a carpenter and built our family home with my brothers. He was a union man his whole life, attending the union meetings faithfully. Because he worked with his hands, he instilled in me a deep sense of respect for all people who use their bodies in such a way.

He taught me that the system was not fair and that I should not have “blind trust” for everything that the politicians (the ones with power) had to say because they were rarely in the trenches with the people. When I took my first anti-racism workshop, it expanded my understanding of class to include the impact of race. This new truth and clarity had me dedicate my life to undoing racism in this country.

I am blessed to have many teacher warriors in my life, and it all began with my dad, affectionately known as Mr. Bee. Happy Father’s Day!

—Sandy Bernabei, 61, Ardsley, New York

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My Dad, My Coach

My dad was blessed with three daughters. And while he’s never once complained about not having a son, what father wouldn’t want a boy to play catch with every now and then? Luckily for him, my sisters and I were quite the Tom boys—we always loved sports, and it’s thanks to him that we were such great athletes.

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Memories of My Dad

When my father was telling me what he thought, he always said: “GITCID, Andi,” which meant “Give it the consideration it deserves.” This photo of him was taken at Valley Forge Military Hospital about a year after he was shot and injured in the 1944 Invasion of Holland during WWII. He was 25.

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My father was a fabulous dancer. He always saved Sinatra’s “New York, New York” to dance with me. I’m sure that he’s dancing up there with his Helen on this Father’s Day (and would save whatever gift I got for him for his retirement).
XOXO to my dad, wherever he may be dancing! —Andi Atamian, 59, Sewell, NJ

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An Unforgettable Game

My father and I loved one another but without a lot of the hugs and “I love you’s” that I showered my daughters with when I became a parent. My dad was one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. He could take apart just about anything and put it back together again without breaking a sweat. He’d spend hours doing crossword puzzles and reading the dictionary. He was old school, no-nonsense, Irish-Catholic—quiet, but with a temper that my brothers, sister and I dreaded and always kept in the back of our minds while growing up in the projects of the Bronx. For the most part, the fear of his wrath pretty much kept the four of us on the straight and narrow, despite growing up in a place where we all very easily could have gone down the wrong path.

imageDad loved the Yankees and used to take my brothers to games when they were kids. I always asked if I could go and was constantly turned down. Eventually, one Sunday afternoon when one of my brothers couldn’t make it, my dad agreed to take me along—with strict orders that I wouldn’t ask to go to the bathroom every 20 minutes and I would NEVER ask, “When will this be over?” I adhered to his rules and loved every minute! He instilled a love of the Yankees in my siblings and me that we all hold dear, even today.

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Good Call

Recently, I was having a bad day so I called home, hoping to talk to my mom. I couldn’t wait for her to pick up so I could unleash a series of complaints on her sympathetic ears. To my disappointment, my dad picked up the line. Our conversation went like this:

 “Hello?”

“Oh. Hi, Dad.”

“Hi, Abbi. How are you?”

“Pretty good. You?”

“I’m good. What’s up?”

“Uh, nothing much. Is Mom there?”

She wasn’t, and I was ready to hang up—until it hit me: I was doing it again. I was ignoring my father—my sweet, funny, smart, insightful father who has done nothing but support and love me for the last 28 years.

If you’re familiar with this blog, you know that I created it last year when I had the stunning realization that I didn’t have a relationship with my dad. Yes, he was technically in my life, as in he and my mom are still married and I would speak to him briefly on the phone and see him when I came home. But he wasn’t in my life, meaning he didn’t know much about it and I didn’t know much about his.

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An Open Letter

Dear Dad,

Over the years, I have written to you about everything from my everyday encounters with others to abuse I have endured.  Writing is my only means of communication since you died of rheumatic heart disease at only 32 years old. Unlike all of the other notes I’ve penned, this one is not spontaneous. I am taking a seminar where they are teaching me how to live life more powerfully and I have been encouraged to set things right with you. But you died when I was three, so my question is: How can I make things right with a dead person? You didn’t do anything. You died.

imagePeople said a lot of different things throughout the  years about this rather unfortunate event in my life—an event I don’t even remember. One thing they would say that bugged me is, “I’m sorry.”  People were always apologizing for your death. I would ask, “Why are you sorry?”  I mean they didn’t cause it or make it happen. They would also say that I had “lost” my father. How could that be?  If I “lost” you, then could I find you some place?

Another wording used was that my father had “passed.” “Passed where?” was my inquiry at that euphemism.  If he passed, then when was he going to pass back my way?

I know people use these euphemisms in an effort to make the word “dead” more tolerable, but when you have a dead father your idea of dead is pretty heightened at a young age.  All you really know is your father is never coming back so there’s no point in sugarcoating it. In the child’s mind, dead is dead and nothing else.

Until we meet again, I will love you forever.

Love,

Kitty

— Kathleen Hughes, 48, Bronx, NY

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Is My Son Going to be *That* Kid?

In his extensive three-year-stay on planet Earth, my son Chandler has gone through a few distinct phases. There was the rock star phase…

 
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He carried his guitar with him everywhere and we held daily jam sessions. 
 
Then, there was his drugs and alcohol phase…
 
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Followed by his sports phase…
 
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He would switch from baseball to basketball to soccer to football to tennis and back again all within about 30 seconds. This phase is ongoing but has become overshadowed by his current obsession:
 
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
 
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