Who's Her Daddy?
My father died when I was 10, and my memories of him barely fill a paragraph: He's watching me tool around on a plastic fire truck as a toddler; he's on the porch serving fried chicken on my birthday; he's calling "Hey, Joe!" to a salesman the day I get the Schwinn Sting-Ray I later crashed in the woods; he's buying a Halloween pumpkin; he's singing "You Are My Sunshine"; he's smoking Pall Malls on the lawn one summer night, letting me stay up while the others sleep; and finally, he's surrounded by boxes, shambling around the charmless apartment he never quite moved into after my mother divorced him, months before he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
It's true: My dad drank himself to death. But that's not why I didn't know him. He wasn't a mean drunk or a binge drinker who disappeared from his children's lives. On the contrary—he was sociable and engaging, I'm told, a raconteur who approached Ted Williams on a train platform in Baltimore in 1954 and talked him out of quitting baseball. I can't say why I don't remember him. Perhaps it's because most '60s dads weren't as involved as they are today, overseeing playdates and attending back-to-school nights, or because I'm the youngest of five and there was only so much attention to go around, or because his job as a Pennsylvania state legislator required travel.
The impact of his absence is deeper than the imprint of his presence, but less palpable: I love the smell of nicotine on men and cry when I hear "You Are My Sunshine," probably because of my dad, possibly because of Willie Nelson. I have the vague but certain sense that he was kind.
When she was young, my daughter, who nearly lost her father to cancer at exactly the age I lost mine to dry martinis, asked whether I ever missed my dad—she called him Eddie—and clearly wanted me to say yes. But the answer was no. You can't miss someone you never really knew.
A close friend has what I consider a perfect father—loving and present, responsible and open—a New Model Dad I've known since my own father died. I observe their interaction with anthropological curiosity and shameless envy. And yet, when I think about children who've lost a parent, it's the motherless ones who strike me as truly tragic. My mother was the one who endured. She packed her kids into our station wagon when I was almost 9, in the summer of 1969, the night after we watched the moonwalk on TV, and took us on a road trip to California, determined to show us a good time before we were flattened in the domestic train wreck she saw coming. She helped us pick up and move on. Because of her, I marvel that anyone can have a shred of self-esteem without a mother’s guidance.
But it turns out there's more to fathers than I knew, much of which I've learned from my husband. When my daughter calls him "Daddy," a diminutive I never used, she owns him: a dad who taught her to cook and play chess, who made sure her first live concert involved fierce women playing loud guitars, whose presence is woven in her history. Her dad is real; mine is a character who long ago shaded into fiction, a reconstruction mostly from other people's memories, which far outnumber my own.
Notwithstanding whatever demons made him drink—from being adopted by emotionally distant parents to ferrying bombs across Europe during World War II—my father and I might have enjoyed a nice relationship had he lived. I saw him for the last time in a dream when I was 21. He was driving our family down a steep hill in a snowstorm as my mother touched his arm and told him he was going too fast. I awoke with a jolt and briefly felt his presence: an existential flash, a wave, an acknowledgment, perhaps even an apology—not so much for what had happened, but for what had not, and never would.