As Father's Day approaches, my thoughts are with my dad who raised three kids. Mostly alone. Sometimes with a lot of help. But always present. This is one daughter's letter to her father with love.
Now, my dad wasn’t a typical father figure. Not the kind who loved to watch sports or barbecue. In fact, we never even owned a grill.
What he did love was the desert wilderness of Arizona and Utah. He enjoyed exploring the folds of rock and sand with a camera in one hand and a walking stick in the other. I’m sure he felt more of a kindred spirit with the petroglyphs he encountered than his kiddos with the same squinty eyes and golden hair.
Some fathers take to parenthood and others resist. My dad was in the latter. He viewed being our pop as being our friend and wasn’t one to give advice or ultimatums. Most of the time, he’d tell us to figure it out and leave the true parenting to his girlfriend, television, and books.
Yet, he was our biggest inspiration, and the one we looked to for answers.
Our family vacations never consisted of trips to Disneyland or anything commercial. One of my earliest memories is pummeling downhill in his 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser on a road meant for silver miners in the 1800s.
He was never one to stay still. He dragged us down the Rio Grande River for one week, exploring the canyons and crevices.
He demanded we wear fifty-pound backpacks stuffed with dehydrated food and cans of tuna fish into Havasupai Falls to explore the emerald greenness.
He gave us Swiss Army pocket knives as graduation gifts.
Some days he would regale us of his year-long trip exploring Mexico and Central America in the 1960s. A time when no one did that. And his parents disowned him for going.
He was and still is a rebel.
Other days, he’d be out in his garden with his tomatoes, onions, and garlic; the ingredients for his much-loved salsa.
But mostly, he was with his camera. His video camera was his third arm, an extension of himself, and really what he loved most. Before he got tired of the traffic and congestion of Los Angeles he worked for Paramount Pictures.
He screened one of the first showings of The Prisoner before it was a cult classic.
I asked him once if he regretted leaving Hollywood, doing what he loved most, and he replied that it would have killed him. My father isn’t one to not give into his vices. He’d discovered I.P.A. long before craft beer became the rage.
So, he chose to move his family to the high desert of northern Arizona, away from civilization. He had dreams of living off the land in a teepee, growing his own food, and being a part of an utopian society.
I wonder if he would call it naive now.
Would he have ever guessed that Arizona Boring, a short documentary about raising kids in Arizona would win him a filmmaking award?
But this is where I was born and raised. Not in a teepee, but rather in a summer cabin, in between two small towns.
His parents and sisters viewed his choice as crazy. He was supposed to be a dentist and golf on the weekends.
He was supposed to be successful.
What they didn’t understand about my dad is that success for him was getting away from it all, to be outside with his camera. Not sure how he imagined accomplishing this with children. He was what I would call an accidental father. He never really wanted to be a dad.
Not that we didn’t feel his love.
And now that I'm a working mom, I understand the sacrifices he made. How he worked for thirty years at a paper mill, doing shift work to support us. Sometimes he went to work at 10 p.m. and got home at 7 a.m. to see us off to school.
Not one to follow the rules, he showed us alternative ways of being and thinking in the world. Sometimes this meant he said the wrong thing or made you feel uncomfortable. I haven’t exactly forgotten the time he forced me to watch the movie Nymphomaniac and wanted to discuss it in detail afterward.
But I also feel grateful for how he supported my creativity every chance he got. How he would quack like a duck to make us laugh. And how all the girls thought he was handsome and secretly he agreed.
But mostly, whenever I needed him, he came. During the last week of my first pregnancy, he waited with me for the baby to arrive. After my son was born, he would stand guard by his crib and watch him sleep. He remarked how much he resembled him.
I could always rely on him.
I could always count on him to surprise and horrify me. One time he took me to nudist hot springs as a father-daughter getaway. I was the only one in a bathing suit.
Or the time he clipped his fingernails in a busy restaurant.
I remember when an old friend of his asked me what it was like to grow up with my father. This question struck me as unusual because she had known him longer than me, and I viewed her as made out of the same funky desert sand.
But then I made a startling discovery that even among his own chosen clan of hippies and misfits, he was considered the odd one.
I wonder if he realizes I got in a fistfight at school when the most popular girl snarked that he was a weirdo. Her father was a doctor and drove a fancy car.
I wonder if he’s aware that now that he’s older and still fit from his years of hiking, the same people who judged him, now envy him.
Perhaps, he doesn’t know that when he called me the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital to tell me he had discovered that he had another daughter, I could hear the emotion vibrate his voice.
For the first time, it occurred to me that I had only seen him cry a few times. I can't remember if I've ever seen him scared. But, I'm sure that as a single father he experienced worry and fear on a regular basis. When my mother left she only gave him a few hours notice. She moved four hours away and eventually remarried.
I’m sure when she told my father he needed to sit down and cry.
My mother was a part of our lives but not on a daily basis. My dad had support from his girlfriend who became a surrogate mother who stayed for a long time and got us through the first few years. One could argue the hardest ones.
But then she left too.
So, it was mostly my dad and us rugrats. Or pumpkins as he used to call us.
As all parents are for their kids - heroes - my dad was no exception. Some nights I'd fall asleep in his bed waiting for him to come home from the mill. I forgave him for preferring the solitude of the desert than the company of his own children. You can't change who you are. My dad was part-mother, part-father at a time when this was unusual.
Now, when you see a father alone with kids at the park or grocery store you think, oh what a good dad. But thirty years ago, some people might have suspected he was a pervert. All he needed to match his long brown hair and bushy mustache was a white van.
Being a single father wasn’t the first assumption.
And when they did find out he was raising three kids by himself, I think some thought, poor children, how will they ever turn out? No mother. A hippy father. Growing up in the middle of nowhere.
I know his parents speculated. His sisters worried. But we turned out okay because we had him.
What he gave us was the ability to be ourselves in a judgemental world and live like no-one’s watching. And the persistence to pursue our dreams.
As a working mother on Father’s Day, I want to acknowledge how much he’s sacrificed and how raising children is hard.
I want to tell him - I love you Dad. All of you. Even the parts I don’t understand.
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I’d love to hear about your fathers and what they taught you in the comments below.
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