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Someone to Watch Over Me
Reflections on Father's Day
It does seem rather peculiar to begin a piece about fathers with a story about a mother, but you’ll see the reason soon enough. My mother believed in fresh air and good education above all else, which is how it came to be that this Montreal miss attended high school outside of Boston. The school provided rigorous schooling, although I remember nothing of the quality of the air. To say that I was out of my element is an understatement. The girls all had two long sticks in their cupboards. (They referred to cupboards as closets, much to my confusion and consternation, and removed the letter U from their words.) These turned out to be lacrosse and field hockey sticks, two pieces of equipment unrecognized by me. Also never used by me.
The other thing that they all seemed to have were fathers. Some were famous mayors of cities, and they landed on our soccer fields in helicopters. Some were gentleman farmers tending their gardens full of lavender in Vermont, somehow able to make tuition for their daughters. To make it more complicated, many had step-fathers.
I was familiar with the concept of a father. Indeed, I often wished I had one myself, and the truth is that I did, for two years, but our first few years of life are generally not the stuff memories are made of. The tragedy was his, dying young, missing out on so much. Coming after two boys, my gender was appreciated. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in Carousel, “You can have fun with a son, but you gotta be a father to a girl.”
Every year the school hosted a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day, during which one’s parents of the appropriate gender came, sat in on classes, ate in the dining hall and generally learned what was going on. This was in the 1960s, long before single parenting was even a thing, although of course, it was a thing as I was living it.
Some genius, the Headmistress perhaps, decided that those of us without fathers should serve the tables. So it happened that I became the apron-clad waitress to my friends as they sat entranced by their father’s words of wisdom and bright ties. It was a low moment. Weirder yet, I thought this was normal. I learned early that what we are used to becomes our norm, and we seldom question it until we are able to step back an inch or two.
Towards the beginning of each year in elementary school, we were all asked to stand and give the teacher pertinent family information. I was sunk from the very beginning; no one had a mother named Faiga. And absolutely every kid had a father. When I was asked his name, I never knew what to say. Did I answer what his name used to be, or maybe still was, or did you even have a name when you were dead? And if I spoke his name, did I include the word “late”? Maybe I should just announce that I didn’t have one, but that seemed unnecessarily embarrassing. Should I glance slightly upwards as if he might appear on the ceiling, and if he didn’t, then wasn’t it respectful to look heavenward? It was a conundrum. Why couldn’t they just use last year’s information so I didn’t have to go through this again? In fact, I looked down a lot, making the teachers wonder why this child didn’t seem to know even the simplest information.
At the end of Grade Four, the father of one of my classmates committed suicide. We all wrote notes and made pictures of him and tried in our ten-year-old ways to be kind and thoughtful. I was intensely grateful that the next fall there would be another student without a father. Father pull aches and craves and covets. It can be secretive, strong and yearning. And plain mean.
I am well aware that living fathers can mess you up too. Philip Larkin wrote to the distress of many, “They f*** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.”
So what’s the answer? Being an orphan has little to recommend it. Being motherless is only handy when one is a teenager doing something one shouldn’t be. I never heard the words “Don’t tell your mother.” I never heard parents fighting. How do we weigh unfathered versus badly fathered? Absence aches, but sometimes so does presence.
I never had to worry about not being seen by my father, by his being too busy for me, by his preference for another child over me, by having to fill his big shoes or live up to his unrealistic expectations.
At least Papa didn’t preach or have a brand new bag, nor was he a rolling stone, although having Mick Jagger as a dad might have been cool. Or so not much.
Fathers are not compulsory.
But I bet they are darn nice to have around.