It’s been a long time coming.
Roughly 35 years in fact, when my father and I went on a walk that scarred him for life as a parent. It’s that walk that nearly reduces him to tears when he recalls it, that stirs regret and that leads to half-joking, semiannual calls for forgiveness.
Before we go on, let me nip any growing dread that this story arrives at something sordid or a horrific tragedy. It doesn’t. My dad deserves canonization, a spot in the fatherhood hall of fame, the finest coffees served in the sturdiest World’s Best Dad mugs. When not champion dadding, he served his country with the government for his entire career, became a distinguished artist in retirement and made a full-size wooden canoe from scratch with his own hands in his free time. His only sin, and the sin on that fateful walk, was a moment of impatience as a parent.
“But I’m impatient as a parent,” you’re probably saying to yourself right now. Yeah, same. You’re following up with a more pointed query: “When you say ‘moment of impatience’ do you like, literally mean a single moment?” Yeah, I do. One time. That’s the sum total of times my father was outwardly impatient with me.
Which brings me to the day of The Walk. So fancy was this walk that it was officially dubbed a volksmarch — the German hike popularized during years my parents spent in Germany in the ’70s when Dad worked abroad. Back in the United States, my parents, like others searching for healthy hobbies, tromped on volksmarches.
This particular volksmarch found just Dad and 7-year-old me walking through Fort Meade, Md., on a day like the ones in which we are now firmly situated. Freezing predawn temperatures give way as the sun ascends, turning the morning’s cold into a chilly muggy soup. Puffy coats and wool hats and gloves needed in the morning become itchy baggage by the time the sun hits its 10 a.m. mark. This was a time before little kids navigated winter in $200 performance-wear coats and accessories made with sweat-wicking science fibers that guaranteed admission to an Ivy.
My point is, I was 7, I was on a lengthy walk, and my dang wool hat was itchy. I was whining. I was slow. My little legs couldn’t keep up with my father’s near-professional volksmarch stride fostered by recent treks cross-country skiing in the Alps. That’s not writer’s exaggeration. He actually did that for fun in those days.
So Dad was a little impatient. Did I know that at the time? I did not. Because even in this one moment that stayed with him for the decades that followed — this understandable moment of “OH MY GOD, JUST COME ON ALREADY WHAT WAS I THINKING BRINGING A KID ON A THREE-MILE WALK” we have all felt as parents — he managed to exercise more outward restraint than I have ever mustered on my best day as a parent, try as I might.
And yet The Walk is frequently invoked around our family table. Dad, simply put, feels terrible about how impatient he felt that day. Turning back frequently to me lollygagging several yards off the pace, muttering (his recollection, not mine), for me to catch up.
It stayed with him for decades. I guess it stayed with me until we got in the car and went to Dairy Queen, because what I remember most is that stupid hat.
But so embedded in the family’s folklore became The Walk that it persisted through decades. When I became a parent, it assumed real significance for the first time. I took inadequacy and shame that I never actually felt — but that I knew my father felt acutely on my behalf — and tried sublimating it into becoming a better parent myself.
What Dad did every day since that walk when it was invoked was demonstrate what it means to be a parent who can admit mistakes. Who can apologize. A grown-up asking for forgiveness from a child.
It has been 35 years. I’m a mother of two girls, ages 10 and 3. Prime dillydallying years. When I am inclined to hurry them as they tackle a school project or put on their shoes at a speed so slow that it defies scientific laws, I fight the urge with more strength than I alone could muster. It’s my dad’s influence. His gift.
In return, this Christmas, I’m writing to absolve him. He is forever off the hook. The Walk goes back to just being a walk. Because in a moment he regrets, he made me a better parent, and made a better life possible for his granddaughters.
Cynthia McCabe is a Maryland-based writer. Her dad, John Kopkowski, lives in Maryland.