It was early in the morning on November 1, 1966, and I was barely four years old. I played with my two-year-old brother on the living room floor while my mother dashed downstairs to move laundry from the washer to the dryer. I still hear the knock on the kitchen door and see the two men in suits standing on the other side of the glass. I pressed my face into one of the square panes. I’d like to say I wouldn’t have opened the door, but I probably would have. It was 1966 out in the country – there were no strangers and no deadbolts. I spotted my grandfather behind them, trembling and leaning against the rail. He saw me and rushed into the house.
“Where’s your mom?” His voice was different, choked and quiet, as he lifted me and squeezed until I couldn’t breathe.
I pointed toward the stairs. My mother was already there, and my last clear memory of that day is of her slumping body as she sobbed and pounded on the cold tile floor.
Coal mines have disasters, and mining town residents keep nothing to themselves. I answered the same questions a million times when someone heard my name. “Yes, that was my father. The roof collapse at #3. He was a roof bolter. He was trapped and ran out of air. Single fatality.”
Needless to say, Father’s Day never seemed quite right. It arrived every year like an uninvited guest and stayed too long. I grew weary of commercials for golf clubs and fishing poles. The perfectly groomed men with neat, unmoving hair and Prince Charming smiles made me painfully aware I was missing something. Something big.
My mother didn’t help in the one way it seemed likely she might. She didn’t get us a new dad. Though a stunning twenty-eight-year-old widow with magazine beauty and a home of her own, she never managed to find a suitable match from the parade of available bachelors. No one ever measured up to my father, and she was not one to let them stay around long enough to prove their worth. A lot of good companions, good providers, and good step-dads got away because she did not know how to love them warts and all. With no central, loving, and physical partnership in the home, my brother and I did not have the benefit of observing an average couple’s interaction. There were no grown-up fights, no compromises, no locked bedroom doors for us to wonder about. There was also no cable or Internet. I learned about relationships from 70’s network television. Starsky and Hutch were the best couple I knew, and The Brady Bunch looked like the achingly real but unreachable dream of a girl like me.
So, yes. I made some of the bad choices you might expect. I looked for my lost father in a couple wrong places. It’s true what the research says. Fathers are our first protectors, our first heroes, our first loves. They are the first men we manipulate and twist around our little fingers. They are the first men to make us really mad. The best ones teach us how we should be loved and respected, and even the not-so-best examples can still kill a spider and run out for milk late at night.
I knew I’d missed something big.
I shared all that to share this:
If you have a daddy, hug your daddy. Even if he’s no good. Even if he’s done terrible things. He’s still your daddy. Better or worse, you learned something.
And no matter what your family looks like (all your family), be there for the children – especially when it’s hard, especially when you don’t think you have the time.
Childhood doesn’t last forever. Your love and influence does.