I will remember this Father’s Day because instead of watching a ballgame on TV, I will be driving my 13-year-old daughter and two friends to gymnastics camp in Pennsylvania.
I wonder if she will remember this day, this simple act of parenting, when she looks back years from now and lays the judgment of memory on me. I do this and a thousand other little things — sending her to a movie with friends, trips to the book store, letting her stay up to watch “Saturday Night Live” — because I care and because I want her to fondly recall her childhood and her dad.
Even before I head out on the drive through New Jersey, even before I try to keep my mouth shut and not act too goofy in front of my daughter’s friends, I’m reflecting on this fatherhood thing, and on my father, dead 20 years this fall.
The man I remember had rheumatoid arthritis that made his hands, wrists, elbows and feet bulbous and deformed. He wore special shoes and had long scars from operations. His voice rasped from the packs of gold Pall Malls that he never stopped smoking. He was unable to play sports or wrestle with me. By the time I was seven, my father had been through two marriages, forced out of the family business and he started following a path that led to small, dirty, cluttered apartments and uninspiring jobs.
My memories of him begin just as his own memories of himself were dying.
I spent every other weekend with my dad, quiet, nice times, fun and low key. I chose our activities, our menus, our destinations. We went to movies, shopped at Toys ‘R’ Us and then played the games we bought while eating pasta covered in Ragu spaghetti sauce. We watched Friday night TV like “The Brady Bunch“ and “Love American Style.” I was given freedom to wander around for hot dogs when he worked at small neighborhood real estate offices.
When I was older he let me stay up to watch “The Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” I fondly remember these ordinary moments most of all. They comprised the total of what he was able to give me for the few years until life pulled me away.
My mother has an old suitcase known in my family as the carpetbag. It is stuffed with photos and report cards, updates from camp counselors, stuff that accumulated during childhood years. I found a photo of my father taken well before I was born. He is in a striped shirt, looking lean and fit, a full head of closely cropped hair. He looks as he did when he got out of the Navy — confident, a man coming into his own as a husband and father. This is the man I’ve heard stories of, how he and my mother shared a sail boat on Lake Michigan with two other couples, how they went out to parties, dinners, concerts. They knew interesting people, Socialist immigrant photographers and sculptors, musicians, writers, architects who had pet monkeys. That man loved and was loved.
The man in that picture is someone I never knew.
In my 20s, I could drive all night until my stomach was sour with caffeine and chips. I had hair, long hair sometimes. I was a very good sailor. My kids don’t know that man.
When my daughter is in her 40s, perhaps with her own children, will she remember this drive to gymnastics camp? Will she think of the English class visual project she left for me to finish, gluing and stapling a six-story balsa wood building together until 2:30 am? Will she tell her children about our annual day trip to Coney Island and being too scared to ride the Cyclone? Or are the most important memories our little games that involve tickling and laughter as the lights are turned out each night or lemon crepes I make on Sunday mornings?
Thinking of my own father makes me wonder how I will be portrayed. Will I come out ahead in legend if I start giving them ice cream with every meal? Can I bribe their hearts with video iPods and ski vacations every winter?
In the end, like my father, I can only give my children what I have to offer at this phase in my life. I hope I provide them with more than my dad furnished me and that they will see me in a fuller way, some day.
On Father’s Day, though, somewhere around the Delaware Water Gap, I expect my kid will be jabbering away with her friends and happy I am nearly invisible in the front seat.
Scott Sager is a Brooklyn Heights dad and writer. Smartmom returns next week.