This is a letter of sorts – to my father. It has been a long time between messages. Dad and I live very different lives, reside in different states, and hold different points of view about the frequency and level of communication required between parents and offspring.
When I was a kid, the Father’s Day presents I purchased were mostly books, because I knew that my dad appreciated ideas. But we rarely got into the “idea” behind Father’s Day. Each of us pretty much considered it a gimmick, a drummed-up sales tool designed to market greeting cards and cheap sentiment.
The word “love” has not been a part of my dad’s vocabulary. He was taught to be stoic, a hard worker, a decision-maker and the master of his family. I’m certain he believes that in order to address these roles, he needs to distance himself from matters of the heart. Glimpses of tenderness that might spend a fleeting moment revealed in an unguarded smile or moist eye are quickly camouflaged by a demeanor calling for coolheadedness and a rejection of things emotional.
Over the years, we’ve come to understand each other in ways that only best friends are able to do. But Dad and I have gone our entire relationship without saying how much we care.
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It is because I have my own kids, my father’s only grandchildren, that I am beginning to learn about celebrating Father’s Day, both as a parent and as a son. My daughters are too young to notice the crass commercialism involved in holiday merchandising. They cook for me and make me presents, or buy them at the market, and the little cakes or trinkets turn into treasures and tasty morsels, enhanced by their enthusiasm. The profit-makers of the world may be “using” my kids, but it turns out my kids are “using” them right back. The girls see this day as an opportunity to express their love. So be it if they do this by drawing pictures or buying me garage sale rejects. They help me understand just how wonderful it feels to be appreciated. And they make me want to pass along my own expression of love and gratitude to their grandfather.
So, Dear Dad: When I was 7, you took me to the magic shop and introduced me to a great hobby. When I had a troubled summer, you planned long hikes for us and showed me the beauty of the forests. When I was in the service, at war, you wrote me letters and sent me packages. You’ve helped me to feel good, to feel better, to feel proud. You accomplished these things in silence, with a quiet tenderness that is part of your style.
You taught me to hold back the tears, insisting that they were not an appropriate reaction to anything short of catastrophe. I believe the line that you and most of the dads used back then was, “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Yet, when I got sick and you had to retrieve me from camp, prematurely ending my summer and my summer friendships, I sat curled up in the rear seat of our car, bawling all the way from New Hampshire to New Jersey, and as I recall, the only thing you said was, you were sorry. But then, you leaned back and gave me a pat on the shoulder. It helped. Sometimes, when things get hard, I recall that gentle touch. It still reassures.
You were taught to express love through actions. That’s a fine way, one I have adapted and incorporated into my own life. Only, I’ve decided it is time to add another technique. Your granddaughters have shown me a method of communicating feelings that is immediate and extremely effective. They look me in the eye and tell me they love me. I look them right back and say, “I love you, too.”
I’m not with you today, but I thought I’d tell you, and anyone who happens to be reading this, that I also love you, dad. Happy Father’s Day.
Postscript: I wrote the above many years ago. My father died before it could be sent, and the pages were mislaid. I recently came across them and published this belatedly, thinking I should add an additional note to my father:
“Hey dad, turns out they created Father’s Day for several reasons: to sell cards, to express love and to remember.”
Charles Kraus lives in Seattle.