As a child, the day always confused me. I felt vaguely disappointed. But I was never quite sure why.
Because it always fell on a Sunday, there was no real way to celebrate it. My father was off on Monday and Tuesday; weekends, he worked. Once in a while we might meet him for dinner; more often than not, he came home around bedtime.
It didn't matter, he said. Why go to a noisy, overcrowded restaurant--the same place that offered you comparative seclusion any other night--and wait for a prepackaged, overpriced meal? Better to skip the hoopla.
Father's Day was one of those makeshift holidays. Dreamed up, like Mother's Day, to suit the needs of retailers who were only too delighted to remind you at least four weeks in advance about Dear Old Dad. Notice: The Mother's Day sign comes down and the Father's Day announcement goes up in its place.
But that was his style: professed irreverence, the dramatic protest. There was another part to him--a softer, sentimental side. This was the part that read poetry; launched into Shakespearean soliloquies; wrote bittersweet copy as a newspaper reporter. This side cared very deeply about the day; wanted me, his only son, to prove that I cared too.
Trouble was that all the messages, the delicate nuances passed unspoken. Guarded apparently by some deeply held male notion that too much sentiment is a dangerous thing. He wanted me to care; and I, in turn, wanted him to make a fuss about my caring. Nothing particularly difficult. Yet between us we kept a loose conspiracy of silence, settling in the end for mere inference.
I will give you an example.
I was 10 or 11 years old and had just spent the better part of my allowance buying a Parker ballpoint pen for him. The pen had cost less than I expected, and I was still wandering around with a dollar or so left. On the way home I passed a candy store with a small plastic statue in the window. "World's Greatest Dad," it said. Naturally, I bought it.
I forgot what he said when he saw the gifts. But it doesn't really matter. Long after he stopped using the pen (or lost it, or left it forgotten in some desk drawer), the statue remained, perched on a bookshelf in the family living room. As I grew older, there were other gifts--shirts, electric shavers, ties--more expensive offerings. But the statue was special. A silent bond. Five years ago, at the time of his death, it was still there.
Last year, my older son--just completing his kindergarten year--gave me his first Father's Day gift. It was a series of drawings, some related to the occasion, others apparently culled from his inexhaustible enthusiasm for "Star Wars," rocket ships, planes and guided missiles. "DEAR DAD," read the cover sheet, "HAPPE FATHER DAY LOVE ERIC."
It was a wonderful gift--the kind of treasure that only a 6-year-old can produce.
Of course, I thanked him appropriately.
But I was feeling oddly ambivalent. It was as if he already knew more about Father's Day than I did.
I had intended to put the pictures on a wall of my office. Instead, they stayed in a drawer in our house.
The other day I ran across them again, buried under his most recent first-grade penmanship lesson. The letters, I noticed, were capitals, strung together loosely like beads, words stumbling off in different directions. I observed the misspellings. Notice, by contrast, his first-grade work; the improvement in his writing.
But what was I doing? Why was I focusing on this? Here was his very first Father's Day gift in my hand, a living, breathing emblem of trust. Was I so blind that I had to continue working out that conspiracy of silence between my own father and me?
Eric tells me he is now working on this year's Father's Day gift. He drops little hints, tells me not to ask. But his enthusiasm is contagious. What is it? I wonder. Another drawing? Something else? I only hope it's something as memorable as last year's gift. And more than that, I hope I find the words to tell him so.
In the meantime, I put his pictures from last Father's Day on my office wall. A year is a long time. But better a year than a generation.