Not everyone is cut out to be a parent. Some individuals just haven’t mastered the skill set needed to be someone others can rely on, sometimes through no fault of their own. And that’s one of the most vital things a parent must be – someone their child can rely on.
It’s a gift not everyone has.
I have two half-sisters in Marietta whom I met but once when they were little girls. I suspect my father was a better parent to them than he was to my two sisters and me. But by the time they came along, he had the advantage of age and experience, perhaps a kind of maturity that he lacked when he was younger. Fatherhood might have been something he was able to grown into, given enough time.
It didn’t work that way for us, though, and it took decades for me to realize that my mother had been trying to protect me, to keep me from being hurt by my father’s sporadic, infrequent, unannounced visits that left me crying for weeks afterward and watching for him at the window from one Saturday to the next. We never knew when, or even if, he’d be back, so she told him not to come at all if he couldn’t come regularly and at normal hours. It was painful for her to witness the aftermath of his visits.
My youngest son, Jeff, is a father now. His daughter will soon be 21. He reminds me of my father in so many little ways it’s uncanny, though he only saw him a handful of times when he was just a little boy. Jeff’s appearance, mannerisms, some of the topics that interest him – a carbon copy of my dad – but with one significant difference.
But Jeff never gave up, even when Kearsti’s mother refused to let him spent much time with her the first years of her life. The courts were no help back then, so he was forced to fight for his little girl every step of the way. He fought to see her, to spend time with her, fought to keep her with him. And when her mother finally abandoned her on Jeff’s doorstep a few days before her 4th birthday, Jeff quickly filed for permanent and sole custody, overjoyed to finally get to be the father he wanted to be to the little girl he loved more than life itself.
We all have something at which we excel, something that comes to us easily like drawing, carpentry, or negotiating with people to achieve positive outcomes. Being a good parent wasn’t one of them, either for my dad or Kearsti’s mother.
Some of us don’t have the knack for it or had no role model (or the wrong one) to emulate. And some of us are immature and leave the raising of our offspring to someone else and turn our backs on our responsibilities, behaving like free agents. Some of us are afraid we won’t be good at it, and our fear gets in the way. Some parents grow into it gradually; for others, it doesn’t come at all.
I believe that was the case with my own father. He grew up “dirt poor” in Kentucky’s Appalachia. One of six siblings, he didn’t always have shoes to wear or even the barest necessities. As a teenager, my dad was given to the mines, dropping out of school to work in filth and blackness under the constant threat of a cave-in to help support the family. He didn’t like it. Who would? He disliked being told what to do and having to spend his meager wages on things like rent and groceries.
In my parents’ eighth year of marriage, he left us and, soon after, fathered two more girls with the woman he left us for.
In his absence, I took to extolling his virtues and exalting the memory of the man I wanted him to be rather than recognizing the one that he was. He left me wanting, left my younger sister angry, and left my baby sister with no memory of him that survived into adulthood. He became the dream, the reflection in the mirror, the taillights on the car that just turned the corner up ahead and disappeared into the darkness beyond the last streetlamp.
My dad didn’t try hard enough, at anything. He didn’t like having to work every day at the plant, and perhaps it took too much energy to be a parent, too. He never was the father I so needed him to be, and for years I manufactured excuses for the indifference I denied.
Mom took on both parenting roles, a task that was far from easy for her, and she had to do it on her own because that’s how he left her. On her own. But no matter how difficult things were for her, she never let us slip back into the water – she never gave up.
For much of my life, I’ve mourned the memory of a father who never existed. Not for us at least. Maybe he just didn’t know how then, but we suffered for that.
Even as I reached adulthood, it never seemed possible to have an honest and personal conversation with my father, and I regret that I never did. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough myself, afraid that what he would say might hurt me even more than his middle-of-the-night visits. I don’t even know if he missed me.
While my son may look like his grandfather and have inherited some of his mannerisms, that’s where the resemblance ends. Jeff never stopped trying. Never stopped fighting for his little girl. Never stopped trying to be the best father he could be.
I’m certain my father’s last two girls wished him a Happy Father’s Day all those years he was absent from my life, but I’ve saved my wishes for two father figures who earned them the hard way.
Happy Father’s Day, Jeff. You never stopped trying, and I hope Kearsti appreciates how much you’ve loved her since the day she was born.
And Happy Father’s Day to you, Mom, because you had to be both father and mother to us, and I can now appreciate just how difficult that was.