Last year, as I have since moving to the U.S., I sent my father a Happy Father’s Day card. I also called him on Father’s Day to wish him a great day. Father’s Day, unlike Mother’s Day, is always on the same day in my native France and the US.
As always, the man I call Papa made jokes and spoke too fast.
Over the years, I learned to decode my father.
Jokes plus fast elocution equal emotion.
I hung up, a smile drawn on my face at the memory of his light tone and funny stories.
A week later, on my marriage anniversary, an early phone call from my sister woke me up.
Papa got a stroke, she said, you should fly over as soon as you can.
Our father remained in a coma for a week before he died.
This year, for the first time since I moved to the States, I didn’t mail a Happy Father’s Day card to France.
On Mother’s Day I wrote:
“It is said a daughter understands her mother when she becomes a mother herself. But it sometimes takes going far away to grasp the significance of rituals and customs mothers pass on.”
The same applies to fathers.
A young boy during Second World War, my father’s childhood was amputated, and yet he joked about that time of his life as he did about almost everything serious.
He taught me that laughing when we are sad isn’t such a bad idea.
He didn’t have the option of staying in school and started to work at the age of fourteen.
He taught me that intelligence has not much in common with academic knowledge.
He said he was a simple man.
He taught me to distinguish uncomplicated from unrefined.
Now that he’s gone, little things that he told me rush unexpectedly to my mind.
“Never leave a bike in the sun or the tires will get damaged.”
“Don’t water the garden when the sun is at its highest.”
“Fill up your gas tank before it’s empty.”
Annoying when I was a kid, these pieces of advice turned to be so valuable that I pass them on to my children.
My father drove trucks and buses for a living.
The road is a dangerous place to be for many men. My father could have followed some of his colleagues’ ways of life.
Yet he remained faithful to his wife, my mother.
A father’s behavior speaks volumes to his child.
Due to his job, my father was rarely home when I was growing up.
We caught up with three weeks of family camping every summer.
The four of us enjoyed taking long walks during our vacation. My father and I shared an almost identical stride, so we easily matched our paces.
I became aware of my father’s good looks over those summer walks. Once in a while, I would catch the appreciative glance of a woman on my dad’s slender physique and tanned face and a strange possessive feeling took over me.
Coincidentally (retrospectively, it was no coincidence), this is also when I started to attract boys. My father never said anything but his gorgeous blue eyes (still a little jealous that my sister got them) darkened as he glared back at any boy who ogled me with too much insistence.
You could argue that a father should teach his daughter to fend for herself. And you would have a point.
However I dare you to challenge me: haven’t you felt safe and loved when your father stopped with one single glare an insolent boy in his tracks?
Fortunately, my father couldn’t stop every boy to approach me.
Yet I want to think that the way he pushed back a boy he found disrespectful taught me to be selective. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t make any mistakes and that I only met great guys. But he showed me that I was to be respected.
My father was a man of few words but an extraordinary listener of silences.
He knew before anyone the first time a boy broke my heart, although I didn’t say a word about it.
He said he was sorry and that whoever hurt me wasn’t worthy of me. I didn’t comment and he never spoke about it again.
In the years that followed my first love, despite what I believed, I fell in love again, but I remembered of my father’s words and stayed away from hurtful relationships.
As for the Happy Father’s Day card, it remained, through the years, a dilemma.
My father disliked smooth talk. Du baratin, he would say in French, with a shrug. So my card had to be as restrained as possible.
My father didn’t speak English, so whenever I sent him a card with words or sentences in English I had to translate them.
Since I agree that too much sentimentality kills the sentiment, I agonized in the Hallmark section.
No way could I translate in French all those syrupy love poems to my father. Even though 6 000 miles and an ocean stood between us, his embarrassment would have reached me.
When I finally managed to find a card with the least possible baratin, I pondered my own words until I almost always wrote,
Joyeuse Fête des Pères, Papa. J’espère que tu passeras une belle journée. Je t’embrasse très fort.
Talk of creativity and emotion. Yet I trusted my father to read between and beyond my banal words.
I spent hours with him before he passed away. Nobody knows for sure what a person in a coma hears and feels. Used to his silences and reserved attitude, I wasn’t uncomfortable near him. For the first time, I didn’t torture myself about what to tell him like I had agonized over a Happy Father’s Day card in the Hallmark section.
Why did I have to wait so long to tell him so much?
Why did he have to be totally silent and irresponsive for me to open up?
What I’m trying to write is that many fathers demonstrate their love sometimes awkwardly. In response, their children can be confused.
Sometimes, only a life lived long enough is necessary to see love through annoying pieces of advice, a dark glare, or unadorned words of support.
What I’m trying to write is that we shouldn’t wait to tell our fathers how much they count for us. As imperfect and clumsy as they can be, most are there for their children.
Of course, I really understood the invaluable place a father has in a child’s life when I witnessed my husband become one. Through his unconditional love for our children, his unwavering emotional and financial support, and his purposeful guidance, but also through his goofiness, his dark sense of humor, and his countless silly jokes that many men use so well to deal with children, he helped me to understand that men and women are equally able to care for children.
When my children were little I helped them make their own cards for Father’s Day. As they grew up, they stopped drawing pictures and bought cards. They browsed and pondered and reconsidered until picking one. Unlike me, however, they didn’t spend time trying to choose the one with little baratin, and I was very happy about that. It meant that they knew their father better than I had known mine and had no shame to show him how much they loved him and how much he meant to them.
In 2014, we’ve moved beyond the father prototype that my father incarnated in several ways.
We all know divorced fathers who take the custody of their children very seriously.
We all know single fathers who are in charge of their children 24/7.
We all know widowers who raise their children alone.
We all know children who have two fathers.
More than often these fathers work away from home and still manage to run a safe, happy household, as well as mothers would do.
So, as much as I appreciate a full day dedicated to mothers, I also want fathers to be honored and put on a pedestal for one day.
You think they don’t deserve as much attention as mothers?
You think that they don’t do as much as mothers do?
You think that too many are bad fathers?
Yes, I’ve met little girls, teenage girls, young women, and older women who’ve shared sad, devastating stories about their fathers.
I’ve also met many whose eyes sparkle at the name of their father.
Today, I propose a cease-fire between the camp that believes that mothers do an outstanding job and fathers a so-so job.
Today, I propose to thank and celebrate all fathers for the lasting role they play in our lives.
Happy Father’s Day to every father on earth.
P.S. Literature is not always doing a good job at depicting multifaceted, modern fathers. If you want to read or recommend a YA book with a father who is far from being flawless but loves the daughter he’s raising alone after his wife deserted them, try Please, Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King.
Additionally, the author is (in my opinion) one of the top YA authors on this planet.