Father’s Day is set appropriately in mid-June, that tail end of Spring lousy with baseball, beer, and boozy screen-porch sentimentality. Everyone, it seemed, was jostling last month to deliver an encomium to his Dear Old Dad. I, though, am a wallflower at that orgy. I have nothing at all to say about the wonders of growing up with a Pop, or even about the sadness of losing one. My father, y’see, chose to go 1500 miles away and to pretend that I don’t exist.
If you listen to Steve Goodman’s brilliant song “My Old Man” or read this week’s Richard Ford essay “The Song Of The Suburbs,” you’ll get the impression that growing up with a father produces a lifetime of stories. Not true for me. Because my dad left when I was seven, I have barely a cocktail-party anecdote.
I remember him mostly as a self-invented “character”: A jocular, impenetrable, and always larger-than-life fellow who cultivated a drily-amused plummy voice, a jazz hipster wardrobe, and an inventory of scripted “bits” that spared him from any sort of authentic connection to other people. I’m sure that women (and apparently there were several during his marriage to my mom) saw him as charming, dangerous within acceptable limits, and maddeningly aloof. My impression is that he lived his life as though rules did not apply to him, which (as we know from “Mad Men”) can be irresistible.
There is no way that my parents’ marriage was ever going to last. She married him for the exact reasons that he was not marriage material: He was rakish, unpredictable, and spontaneous. She was ostentatious, self-absorbed, and brittle. Their marriage must have felt like the closing act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, or hell, anything starring Elizabeth Taylor after National Velvet). For as long as they could live the edgy life, taking daring cross-country drives chasing nonexistent jobs or mingling in the nightclub culture of Batista-era Miami Beach or working as a bandleader at the Borscht-Belt Catskills hotels, there was enough bubbly high octane in their marriage to keep it going. But, by the time Fidel took power, they had two babies and a suburban apartment in New Jersey. The party was over. After a series of false starts, my old man left for good.
There is nothing remarkable about parents getting divorced. The unusual part of this story is that my father left and never looked back. He didn’t simply disappear, as fathers sometimes do. He moved in with and married his girlfriend, left for Oklahoma and, for almost fifty years, has simply chosen not to acknowledge my existence.
I’ve always known my dad’s address and his telephone number, and he’s always known mine. Perhaps five times in those fifty years, I’ve been in the Oklahoma area and have gone to visit him. Every time, he’s been studiously polite and thoughtful, the way you’d be if a business associate came calling. He takes me to dinner, introduces me to his wife’s family, gives me little gifts to take away with me. And, every time, after he drops me at the airport and promises to stay in touch, he forgets that I ever existed.
I thought of my dad on the day George Carlin died, June 2008. George’s on-stage voice, with its carefully-cultivated tone of knowing bemusement (“Why is it that someone going slower than you is an idiot, but someone going faster than you is a maniac?”), reminded me of my father’s way of talking. So, after maybe five years of silence, I called him. I told him my latest news, which produced no reaction at all. I asked him about his life, which elicited one-word responses. After a short and awkward call, we hung up and he promised to send me his email address. He never did. He has not contacted me in the five years since then.
My old man is 83 next month. I don’t expect I’ll ever speak to him again. So, what have I learned from a lifetime of fatherlessness?
It would be too easy to talk about how I never learned how to be a man because I never had a father. I do suspect that boys watch their dads closely, and adopt or reject their fathers’ values and manner. So, it’s true that I never watched my Dad avoid a brawl, or copied my Dad’s way of shaking hands, or had anyone to teach me how to tie a Windsor knot. But, if that is the only effect of fatherlessness, it’s awfully easy to overcome. We parentless kids know full well that we haven’t learned the ways of the world. We become as intensely observant as someone who’s lost his sight or hearing. And, we learn. It’s not as though I’ve gone through life with my neckties untied.
No, the lasting effect of my fatherlessness is the same as the lasting effect of my motherlessness. When a parent chooses not to be a parent (or is an alcoholic, or mentally ill), the only way that the child can hold his world together is to excuse the parent and blame himself. To blame the parent means accepting that the parent can’t be relied on; that the child is completely on his own; and that all that is left is anger and despair. I found it far easier to believe that my parents were blameless, and that they chose not to parent me because I was so unlovable as to be not worth parenting.
Over a half-century, I’ve learned how to shake hands and tie a Windsor knot. I’ve mostly gotten over my lifelong conviction that I must be unworthy of love (and of the parentless kid’s constant sense of cluelessness in social situations). But, most of all, after many decades, I’ve given up on contacting my old man and believing that I can convince him to be my parent. And that is the most important Father’s Day gift of all.