I have a difficult time conjuring up Father’s Day from my childhood. It’s not like Mother’s Day, where I can remember details of my wish to please Mom with flowers and gifts. Perhaps that is because I am a mother and my memories of my own children’s attempts give new meaning to my own misguided fervor. Perhaps it’s as simple as Father’s Day mixes in with school getting out, the 4th of July and the joys of summer. Perhaps it’s because my desire to please Dad went beyond one special day.
Dad was a mystery: sing in a booming voice early each morning; barn chores before breakfast; dash off to Ma Bell before I could wipe the sleepers out of my eyes; work overtime when he could, which was most day, including weekends; home after I was in bed; a barn-check before his late supper, pants off at the door, so as not to mess up Mom’s clean floors; and low murmurs as he and Mom cuddled on the couch watching Johnny Carson until they fell asleep and one dragged the other off to bed.
I was the girl-in-charge. I got the cows in, milked Old Belle, put the kicking chains on Light Foot and milked her, too. Old Belle had teats too big for my hands to get around; she was about impossible to milk without digging in my fingernails. She looked back at me with her wet nose and big brown eyes as if to say, “Where’s Dad? I prefer the expert.” If I was lucky, we had calves to nurse the cows. All I had to do was turn them loose and they did the work. Easy-peasy to lead them back to the pen, drunk on warm mother’s milk.
I never wanted to let Dad down. He showed me how to disc a field, and I stayed out there until I got the job done. He showed me how to test the fence, and if there was a ground, I walked the line until I found it. Besides, for one thing, I had Bonita and our dog Bernie right along with me, and that was super-fun; and for another thing, if the cows got out, it was me and Bonita who had to get them back in. Once, my cow Lady Bird broke out while she was having her calf. The calf’s two front feet were on their way out, pointing right at me as I chased her down the road, back into the pasture. That about scared me half to death, seeing those hooves coming at me, and Lady Bird acting like she never even knew she was having a calf.
Dad gave me all kinds of problems to solve; he especially liked to give me math problems. He tried to teach me how to work them out in my head, which I never did get the hang of. I suppose that’s one way I let him down.
Bonita said I should shut up and stop arguing with Dad, ’cause when I kept it up like that, everybody got in trouble. Dad’s bad mood leaked out on everyone. She knew just when to squawk and when to shut up. Bonita had big cow eyes like Old Belle’s. She could speak to Dad just by looking at him. That’s why I got in trouble for doing stuff like throwing out the last bacon rind, when Bonita wanted it, or putting a gob of mustard on Bonita’s hotdog because she said she could eat the whole jar. I had to use my mouth and a bunch of logic to get Dad to see my side.
Dad was pretty proud of my report card, ’cause I was super-smart at school. He gave me a whole dime for every “A” I got. Still, he said I had no common sense, which was a big puzzle to him for all the school smarts I had. I suppose once you have it, it’s hard to remember that common sense comes from experience, and a little girl has to get some experience too. No common sense was another way I let him down.
Dad loved the way I could make up a funny joke, like when we counted Volkswagen Beetles on our way Up North. We each had a color, but we had to wait until the car passed before it counted. I had the red ones, ’cause red is my favorite colors. I spotted one up ahead.
“Step on it Dad. It’s a bug,” I shouted out from the way-back seat. Dad’s eyes lit up and his smile washed over his face like I was the quicker than Nestle’s Quik.
Mom laughed, and said, “Deli, how do you come up with things like that?” Mom knew how to shine a spot light on anyone. Those kind of words were what I yearned to hear from Dad. He might have said them, but I never heard them.
As new adults with young families and careers, Bonita confided to me: “Dad treated most of his daughters like they were china dolls. We couldn’t let him down, because he expected little. You he treated like a son. He loved us all, but he respected you.”
Mostly I let Dad down by being just like him. Hard working and soft-hearted, stubborn and empathetic, self-conscious and needing attention. We have the same sense of humor, and neither care for practical jokes. We can’t help but sing out loud, even if off-key. We both yearn to be recognized, but deflect compliments.
I tried hard not to let him down. Today, with more than a little girl’s experience, I see Dad wanted me to be more than him; better than him. Common sense tells me, try as I might, that is more than I can do. Not then. Not now.
Father’s Day, I hardly remember; my father, I do: the way his smile washes up one side of his face and across his eyes; his sense of mischief, his interest in people, his quick temper, his easy forgiveness. I see him in my mind’s eyes, in my children’s and grandchildren’s faces, and I see him from my insides out.