In my family we never celebrated Mother’s or Father’s day. In fact, we were discouraged from really talking much about it. My mother, the clear captain of our familial ship, would always tell us it was a Hallmark-created holiday (subtext: not real or worthy) and that she didn’t need a card on one particular day of the year because, as she would so enigmatically add, “everyday is mother’s day”. You can imagine how confusing this sounded to a young girl. I got her gist, that the holiday was somehow inferior and unnecessary, but what about that ‘every day is mother’s day‘ bit? Did that mean she knew we loved and appreciated her every day of the year? Because we were not a household that ever said ‘I love you’ to each other. And we certainly never thanked her for all the things she did for us – we were kids, after all. Her statement always felt a bit dark, even a bit angry. Young though I was, I was definitely aware of my mom going through life with a certain mother-as-martyr sort of attitude. (I too share this tendency at times, but hope that I counteract it by apologizing to my son when I do express a similar sentiment; I always assure him it’s my greatest joy – albeit exhausting sometimes – to provide him the things he needs.) So was she being sarcastic? Did she actually want some props on her day? Or did she truly feel contempt for the whole thing? Each year I’d feel a strange sort of dread at the two holidays. My father himself was simply silent on the subject of his own day. We never mentioned it, never uttered the words “Happy Father’s Day” to him, never gave him a card that I can remember. It just was not what we did. But in that it was what the rest of the world seemed to be doing, deep inside I was always very conflicted about these two holidays.
It was five years ago this week that my ex husband’s third child, and second son, was born. I had made plans to be here in New York around his girlfriend’s due date, as it was just too much to bear to remain in town for the birth. My ex was still living in our home then, staying some nights with me, some with her. By June he still had made no plans for his future living arrangements, so I began to make my own. I’d come here in part to escape the birthday of that new child, and also to convince myself that a move to this place was the next necessary step in my life. As planned, his son was born while we were here in Greenfield. I felt as if I were in some bizarre, waking dream when he called me moments after the birth and excitedly recounted all the details. (See “Birth and Baptism”, a post from June 13th of 2011.) I just sat there, in my car, cell phone to my ear, feeling almost dizzy. Almost in my body, almost floating. Adrenaline filled my veins and my body felt cold with shock. I had known it was coming, why did this hurt so much? Why didn’t I stop him from talking? Why was he saying all this to me? Was I truly hearing this? I don’t think I said much back to him. I just remember thinking, my husband has two sons now. And a daughter, older than our son. How could any of this possibly be? This was my son’s father. My husband. Our Daddy. He belonged with us, his real family.
Father’s Day was a couple of days later. I was out doing some errands on that beautiful, sunny day when I pulled into the huge parking lot of a local box store. I had NPR on the radio, and some music came on. Not just some music, but nylon string guitar. I knew that sound immediately. Two decades with a guy who pretty much lives only for the ‘sound’ and you just know. I stopped driving. I remember pausing, looking up at the huge, white cumulus clouds. Thinking how small I was in the world, how far I’d run, and yet… here he was again, sharing my tiny bubble of personal space. But I couldn’t turn it off, I was curious. Was it just an anonymous sound bed? I held my breath… Then a familiar male voice, one of the regular NPR guys came on. Said who it was we’d been listening to. Said he was a dad, too. Then, in a smiling and warm tone wished Fareed a very happy Father’s Day. Again, that cold feeling shot through me. Would they have been so gushing if they knew? Fuck this! Fuck him! He’s just changed forever the life of his one, true son and here he is being lauded as a great dad! They forgot to say “father of three, but only one by his wife!”. It all still felt unreal. I was a thousand miles away from him and yet still – here he was, in my face, keeping the hurt as fresh as possible. It was the single hardest decision I have ever made, but in that moment I knew that Elihu and I could no longer live in Illinois. I finally knew on that Father’s Day that our lives had truly changed, and so had our home.
Back in Chicago we’d known a guy who’d had two families. At the same time. I never got how it worked. I had been told that he was not with the mother of his first four kids, but still, you’d see them together at his concerts – and their relationship wasn’t quite clear… He had two children with a younger gal, essentially the gal he was currently ‘with’, however there seemed to be an overlap in ages, or at least a very small window between the ages of the kids from the two families. Sometimes you’d see both families – all six kids and the two moms – sitting not very far from each other at one of dad’s shows. I’d watch them, looking for clues, for something… I couldn’t fathom how this was tolerable, especially when I’d heard that the first – and older – mother had not been part of the decision. Back then it was stuff of another world altogether, but now it’s my reality. I do understand that plenty of folks separate, divorce and then go on to make new families, but this overlapping thing still just feels creepy. I also know that mistakes happen, that we all lose our thinking selves when passion and physical desire overwhelm us – yeah, I know. I get it. And strangely, my heart goes out in some way to those poor guys who discover they’ve left an unexpected child behind – cuz that has got to suck. And also, I’m pleased to see these dads of multiple families try to step up as best they can. But seriously, how can one give oneself fully to more than one young family at a time? I can better understand having different families at different life stages – but having several sets of small kids at one time that all need their dad – I just don’t think anyone’s gonna win in that situation.
Thankfully, I think my son’s fared pretty well in spite of his less-than-favorable dad situation. As I write, they’re Skyping. (Dad had to take a break moments ago to Skype his daughter in London – it’s a busy holiday for him. !) I don’t flinch anymore though. It’s become our life. And while I’d still like to speak one day with that ‘other original mother’ of that Chicago fellow to better understand how she deals with it, I have enough of my own experience at this point to feel at home in our unique family situation.
As to my own father, he’s not even aware of what day it is. Doesn’t mean Elihu won’t make a card and we won’t stop by for a visit. But just yesterday dad greeted me with a “Happy Thanksgiving”, then cheerfully acquiesced when I told him it was actually a fine Spring day. He always easily adjusts to being corrected, then seems to forget all about it seconds later. But he still retains memories of his life, and he does know he’s my dad, and in spite of his having once called Elihu ‘his favorite nephew’, in spirit, at least, he recognizes Elihu with his heart. Yesterday I had my own sudden and unexpected memory of my father pop up… The wild roses had just burst into bloom and every breeze carried their scent. The perfume brought back a snapshot image of my dad from years ago… One Spring, when I was about twelve or so, I played Edward MacDowell’s “To A Wild Rose” as part of my end of year piano recital. When I rejoined my parents afterward, I saw that my father was crying. It stunned me, that my playing could move him so. It also shocked me because until that moment I’d never seen my father cry. Or show much emotion. I’d seen him happy or mad, but not much else. As I said before, we were not an ‘I love you’ sort of family. That was a moment that changed me in some way, and changed the way in which I saw my father. He was touched, and so was I. And I knew for sure then that he loved me.
My son is lucky that he has his dad in his life, and that he absolutely knows his father loves him. I also feel lucky that I’m still able to see my own father and tell him that I love him too. And a little later today, that’s what we’ll do. Because no matter what some may feel about the artifice of the holiday, I think the idea of celebrating our parents on one special day out of the year is a good one. Happy Father’s day to all you dads.