Contributed by Caryn Starr-Gates
My father is a prince among men, a gentle soul, a loving guy, a real mensch.
My dad has always been there for all of us in many ways, someone everyone could count on. He has been the model for the kind of man my female cousins hoped to marry, and the uncle (and great-uncle) to whom all the young children were drawn. Now he’s a grandfather of four, generous with each grandchild in unique ways.
When we were babies, it was my father who got up in the middle of the night to feed us and walk us until we fell back asleep. In fact, he even provided this service for my aunt, who would call for emotional support when my colicky little cousin would wail away in the wee hours. My uncle slept through it all but my dad would gallantly come to the rescue. My aunt knew he would. He’s just like that.
I remember as a preschooler watching him hold and soothe my baby brother while my overwrought mother rested. As I later discovered, this was not a common occurrence in the early 60’s, that post-Eisenhower/pre-hippie twilight zone. Today, many women expect this kind of help from their husbands but I suspect that fifty years ago, my mother was one of a very lucky few.
There is much else I remember about my dad that shapes my view of him today. Like how he would take me and my little pet chick for a tricycle tour of our garden apartment complex when he was in the army. And how when that little peep died, he simply told me that the lady who’d given it to me needed it back, as he quietly disappeared with it.
I remember learning to trust him when I was about to lose my first tooth, as he tied one end of a string around the dangling incisor and the other end around a doorknob. “It won’t hurt at all,” he said, placing me on my trike and slamming the door shut. He was right, of course; the tooth popped right out and he set it in a plaster bed in a small case for posterity. I still have it.
I remember him commiserating with me over math homework we both had trouble understanding, and helping me write great book reports in later grades. It was during our work on a high school paper that he confessed his secret desire: to be a foreign correspondent. Wow, a glimpse into my father’s soul, a yearning we knew nothing about! I could see him in a trench coat, press pass in hand, running after some foreign dignitary in Bangkok for a comment to send over the AP wire. How he made the leap from journalism to dentistry, I don’t know, but he was a good dentist who patients trusted and liked. My friend declared him to be “painless” which I ascribe to his gentle nature. “Tap me on the arm if it hurts,” he instructed, and he stopped at the first sign of someone’s discomfort. True to form.
How many times did he jog up and down the block with me, teaching me to ride a two-wheeler when I was seven? Probably more than he wanted to—but I learned to ride a bicycle that Sunday morning and we were both full of a sense of accomplishment.
When I got my training bra—a big event for such small breasts!—I couldn’t wait to run into the house and show my father. I lifted my shirt triumphantly and cried, “Daddy, look!” As mortified as he no doubt was at that moment, he managed to mutter some sort of positive remark before slinking away to ponder the ramifications of that auspicious occasion. No telling how he felt when I began menstruating.
As I became a rebellious, obnoxious teenager, he seemed to take more of a backseat to my mother’s discipline and general child rearing. She has always been the dominant personality in their relationship and was always the first line of disciplinary offense. Besides, I was a growing girl/woman and he was ill- equipped to deal with me emotionally. I think those years and all I wrought (followed closely by my siblings) were more than he bargained for in a child, and he receded for a while in terms of direct influence. I believe he was, quite simply, befuddled. Yet he was a constant source of love and caring, as non-verbal as it was.
It has always been difficult for my father to express his emotions—always holding back, a little Type A without the obsessiveness—yet there was never any doubt that our father loved us all deeply and would do anything for us. That’s something that just radiates from him, so even though he would never offer up a spontaneous “I love you,” it simply didn’t matter. We already knew it and still do.
Later on, the years following college were often marred by a stormy relationship, usually because my parents didn’t like, A) who I was dating; B) where I was living; or C) where I was working. But through all the controversy, angry phone calls and hurt feelings, I always knew that the heart of the issue for him was that he loved me and only wanted what he thought was best for me. When I got married the first time at age 29, my father was happy, excited, proud. There is a favorite picture of mine in the album from that day of my sister and I flanking our father, in close-up; he’s positively beaming and so handsome. There is another picture, taken after the ceremony, of he and my ex-husband embracing, stogies in hand and smiles on faces; he had let his guard down so absolutely to give a genuinely warm hug and open up the window to his happiness in the moment. In fact, my ex is the first guy (possibly the only guy) I’d ever seen my father kiss or hug. This includes my own brother. He allowed himself to open up in a way none of us had ever seen before (or since?). Beautiful. When that marriage broke up, I believe my dad was more upset than I was; I know he worried about me for a while.
Now that he is approaching eighty years old, I wonder what his perspective is on his own state of fatherhood. What kind of grade would he give himself? How would he compare it to being a grandfather? Perhaps one day I will ask him; we can sit down and write a report together, just like the old days, about a man I love who is a prince among men, a gentle soul, a real mensch—and a great father.
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