He helped me penetrate the mystery of fatherhood, even if it is a bit late.
Editor’s note: this article first appeared in THE AMERICAN on June 16, 2013.
Father’s Day always leaves me a bit uneasy.
It’s like a pair of really big shoes. Every year, I have to walk up and put my feet in them and look silly because I can never fill them.
And there is more than a whiff of coerced obligation to the whole thing, a sense that “Well, we have a Mother’s Day, so we probably ought to…” You know what I mean.
Fatherhood remains a mystery to me despite the fact that my wife and I have raised a son and daughter and now have five grandchildren. I lived inside that mystery for years — too close inside it to ever have perspective or fully understand it.
Adlai Stevenson — he of scholarly mien, presidential pretensions, and worn out shoes — once observed that “Paternity is a career imposed on you without any inquiry into your fitness.” Indeed, when I look back on my career as a father, it seems as if I was thrust into the middle of a wild and woolly game with only a vague idea of the rules, the boundaries, or the score. It was a game played hard and very fast, and I still don’t know whether I won or lost, or whether the game is even over.
Oh, and there’s another complication. I never saw my father. He left my mother before I was born. I never knew anything about him; never even saw a picture of him until I was nearly 60 years old.
I can’t say that I missed my father. I never really thought about him, that I can recall. I was raised in a strange sort of sitcom of a household with my two brothers, mom, grandmother, and two unmarried uncles — something now called an “extended family.” All in all, it was a happy family despite its fair share of Sturm und Drang. It was what I knew. It was “normal.”
One of my uncles, George McDonald (my mother’s brother), was probably the nearest I had to a “father figure.” I didn’t call him “Uncle.” He was always simply, “George.” He always drove when my twin brother and I went to church on Sundays with our mother and grandmother. After the movie or the dance at the youth center on Friday nights, I knew where to find him for the ride home. He would be nursing his single beer at the end of the bar in the Commercial Hotel, talking with the owner, Red Fiorina, one of his best friends.
If I have learned anything over the years it is that every father more or less writes his own manual.