I was a willful child. When I wanted to do something, I did it, regardless of the consequences. The physical consequences of being willful in that family were very explosive. Daddy was determined I would follow in his footsteps and be as good at farming as he was.
Family affection was sparse. Oh, I could take the beatings; they were just the price I paid for doing what I wanted to. It was the rejection that really hurt. Like all those times when someone visited the farm. They would jerk their eyes toward me and say: “Whose boy is that Joe?” Daddy would shoot me a withering glance and say: “I don’t know, but if I ever find out — this kid is gone!”
“What have you done now, Tink?” our visitors would ask.
I would wince at their smirking grins and turn away while Daddy told them, at length and in great detail, all the ways I had let him down, and what a miserable excuse even for a dog’s son that I had been lately.
As I became a father myself I was determined that my children would not feel that same bite of discipline I had. Oh, I was stern, forbidding, and my voice cracked like a whip, sharp just like Daddy’s, but I kept my distance. No, I just never forced my children to seek my goals, but I insisted that they never quit trying to reach the goals they had set, for a day, for a week, a month, a full year, for a lifetime, for an eternity. It worked great, I thought; Each one was different and all of them were coming out winners.
Maybe that distance I kept was just as bad. Family affection was sparse in my family.
By the time only three children of the of the seven were left at home I was mending my ways and it was far too late and there wasn’t nothing I did good enough either. By that time I didn’t know how to change things. When I tried to say something affectionate the kids were just embarrassed and moved to the other side of the room.
I did everything I could to win their affection, games, trips, pretty dresses. It was no go. Then came that fateful Father’s Day., Yeah that affection would have showed up on a Father’Day if there was any, I thought. It never had before. Why had I expected it to be any different this year? There were no cards for me, no presents. Lunch was a simple affair with no family significance. Indeed, Father’s Day wasn’t even mentioned once that day, just like always.
I turned to my bed and lay there staring at the ceiling. Where had I gone wrong, I asked myself again and again. Didn’t they care how hard I had been trying? Didn’t they care how miserable I was?
Then my wife came in with my car keys in her hand. She flipped on the light. “I’m going over to your Dad’s house to tell him Happy Father’s Day. Do you want to send him anything for Father’s Day?”
I stared at her. Even though WE had sent him a card or sent him a small gift each year, I never had. Still, as I thought about it that day, my father had done a lot for us over the years, guilt I supposed as I thought of all he had done. Right then I realized that Daddy had worked hard to be friends after I was grown, then a grandfather to my children. Suddenly I WANTED to give him a real present.
Wanting and doing are two different things sometimes. My mind flipped through our checkbook. It was empty, of course. Silently, I wondered if there were anything in the house that was almost new enough to pretend it was a gift. There wasn’t. I shook my head miserably. There was nothing, nothing. I did not have a thing to give Daddy for a present. My brain was exhausted. I felt more miserable than ever. Then I asked myself, what do I WISH I could give my Daddy for Father’s Day? And the answer came to me immediately.
I sat up, full of purpose.
“I’m going to give him the one present I’ve been wanting all day long.”
“What’s that?” she asked quickly.
She dropped the car keys. They clattered like a gun shot on the tiled floor.
The silence after that was so sharp it was like an explosion as she stared at me. Then she said: “This I’ve got to see.”
She turned around and went rushing down the stairs shouting: “Daddy’s going to go give Grandpa a hug.”
As I came down the stairs with the keys, the three kids still at home peered around the banister. Their eyes were open like they were seeing a spaceman.
“We’re going too,” said the oldest. “We wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Angrily, I shooed them out of my way, but they simply turned with silly grins and followed right on my heels. I scowled at them like Daddy used to do me, but they just grinned even bigger, eyes bright. My wife took the keys so she could drive. It was only 25 miles. Funny that Daddy and I had ended up living so close to each other. The kids were still watching me when we got there even though I had frowned at their chattering and giggling a dozen times.
Daddy heard us when we drove in. He came out and stood on the porch. He looked astonished to see me in the car too. “What in the world are yawl doing here?”
Everything felt so strange when I got out. I didn’t know what to say, or how to go about giving him that hug. It seemed like everyone held their breath as I got out of the car and walked towards him. Daddy peered at them, then me, still coming. he studied my face. I must have looked pretty grim because he didn’t know what to think had happened.
I stopped right in front of him. My voice box would hardly work. “I’ve come to give you a gift for Father’s Day.”
He knew as well as I did, that was the very first time I had ever done that. He looked at me. He looked at my empty hands. Then he looked back at my face. Confusion ran riot in Daddy’s old gray eyes. “What is it?” he asked.
He was too astonished to say a word as I stepped closer.
It was awkward. It was embarrassing. But I put my arms around him and for the first time in my life, I hugged my father.
He shuddered and his voice shook. “Tink, don’t let them see me crying like this.”
So I turned us around so they couldn’t see his tears, and that made mine all too visible, and there was no way to hide them.
We must have stood there for a year or two because there was a lot to say and neither one of us could talk. Suddenly the kids bolted from the car. They ran to us and tore Daddy out of my arms, hugging him and screaming “Happy Father’s Day, Grandpa.”
He hugged all three of the kids, then he hugged my wife too. Last of all, he reached around and snatched me into his arms again then he hugged me one more time, briefly, but with a whole lot of gusto. He was still crying, and you know something? My father hadn’t even cried on that hot day when my sledgehammer had skipped off the tire tool he was holding and it crushed his hand against the rim. I could hear his bones snap one more time. There had been no tears, and no yelling or screaming. Sweat, he had said, then he put that hand inside his shirt and picked up the tire tool with his other hand. We went on working.
The years had slipped by and now I saw many of the things he had done for me and my family. I hugged him real tight and we slapped each other on the back. When Daddy let me go, each of the kids crept closer and hugged me for all they were worth. “Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.”
Daddy? Were they calling me DADDY? Feeling like a Daddy was a brand new experience for me. It was awkward, and it was embarrassing and things got wet all around me. As they hugged me my tears dropped like rain, more urgently than ever while everyone watched, but I didn’t care what they thought. A man has a right to cry on Father’s Day, especially when he gets that one gift he’s been wanting for years.
By nightfall, all my other kids but one had come to hug me. That one child drove all night long to get there, and she was on the porch the next morning to hug me just before sunrise.
I stood there on the porch after she went inside and I gazed at the sun rising from the mists on a totally different world. I could not believe all the changes going on around me.
Who would ever have thought that by hugging my Daddy I would set a tradition my own kids would want to follow?
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