(The following article appeared in The Miami Herald's "Tropic Magazine" on Sunday, May 23, 1993 as an original and true composition.)
He was a poor choice for a first love, but I was too young and taken with his rugged good looks and the casual way he called me "Girl" to know that. In our early years I would run to meet him at the door on the rare occasions that he came home, and would sit adoringly at his feet, unlacing his shoes, peeling off his socks and rubbing his feet. If he bothered to come home on the weekends, he'd cook a big breakfast on Saturdays and maybe we'd go for a ride to the river, where we'd ride horses, or target shoot, or fish.
I remember Sunday mornings spent lying in bed reading the Sunday papers. I try to forget Sunday mornings when his side of the bed was a big cold emptiness. Oh, there was no shortage of unkept promises, and nights I spent crying, not knowing where he was or when he would come back. But I was young and I loved him, and I was sure that if I were better to him he would want to spend more time with me. So I tried harder to be his "Girl." Sometimes he responded and sometimes he didn't; I never really figured out the right formula. He moved in and out of my life, a dream-like man.
In 1964, when our relationship was unusually stable, I started making plans for a wedding and tried to include him in every detail. But one day he called and said, "Well, girl, I can't stick around for the wedding. I'm moving to Alaska." I was crushed. I cried. I tried to figure out what I did wrong. My mother told me some people just couldn't be figured out.
The years went by; I settled down and had children, moved from Tampa to Miami. One day he called again. "Hey, Girl. I'm back in Florida and I'd like to come see you and your young'uns and meet your husband." Even after all the pain he'd caused me, I basked in his presence, hanging on every word. I knew our relationship was different. My love for him was still strong, but was tempered by the wisdom of age. Besides, he was no longer the No. 1 man in my life.
Then he went back to Alaska as suddenly as he'd arrived. This time he didn't call to say goodbye; I heard from his family that he had left. Once again I searched my mind for clues to where I'd gone wrong, what I'd done to make him leave without a word to me. I really had tried to be better, to be the kind of person I thought he would want me to be. Despite the fact that I was married, I still wanted to know that I meant something to him. After all, he was my first love.
I saw him again in 1985. He was back in Central Florida for his mother's funeral, which I attended. He acted as if he didn't recognize me and avoided me as much as possible. That wasn't difficult since there was a large gathering and we were always surrounded by dozens of others. I confess, too, that after our initial greeting I didn't seek him out.
Two years of therapy helped me put his memory behind me and I vowed not to ever impose myself on him again. It just wasn't worth the pain. When my mother died last year, my sister called to tell him, but I never heard from him. That was hard to take, since he had been close to my mother. But I hadn't really expected him to contact me; it would have been out of character.
This spring, my sister and her children came from Oregon for a visit and we drove up to Central Florida to visit our old haunts, our grandparents' graves, and some of our living family, too. We were
visiting Mary, a long-time friend who had been especially close to our mother, when he came to her door. I had heard he was back in town, but didn't really expect to see him. My heart beat faster when I heard his voice asking after a mutual friend, and heard her responding, "Come on in for a minute. Your daughters are here with their kids."
But my father refused. He turned his back and walked away. As Mary followed him out in the yard trying to persuade him to stay, my sister and I tried to pretend we hadn't heard any of it, making small talk, avoiding our children's eyes. We heard the car door slam, heard him drive away from us.
Mary came back in the house. She looked at us. "I don't understand," she said. "I've never understood him, Mary," I replied. "I used to think it was something I did or didn't do; but it's just him."
A few nights later as we sat on my back porch, Jennifer, my niece, began to cry. "What's wrong, Jenny?" my sister asked.
"Why didn't my grandfather want to see us?" she replied. "Is there something wrong with us? Do you think that maybe someday, if I try harder, if I'm a better person, he'll want to see me?"
I got up and came inside to write.
A happy Fathers' Day to my beloved sons, Jason and Ben. You have embraced fatherhood with grace and love. Your children are blessed by the love you show to them, and I, too, am blessed to know that I am the mother of such wonderful men, husbands, and fathers.
To Ed, my ex-husband, the father of my three sons: Thank you for the gift of these fine children. Thank you for the camping trips, the Boy Scout packs you led, the love you gave and still give to our boys.
To Jim, my partner, a man who loves his children and grandchildren. Who is never too busy or too distracted to show love to all of our children and grandchildren, yours and mine.
To Mike, my son of the heart, who gives of himself as a father and who accepts and loves me, my sons, my grandchildren.
I love all of you. You each have played a part in erasing the bitter memories of my own father and demonstrating what a father should be.