Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dad's Day

My "Dad," Gordon Penny

It's Fathers' Day, but for me, it is and will always be Dad's Day, and there is a difference. A BIG difference. This is a day for the lucky dads to be cherished, and for the good times they've brought into our lives to be remembered and celebrated. And this is the first Dad's Day since my Dad passed in February. He was not my biological father (or anyone else's, for that matter), but he was my Dad, in ways my own father never managed. He and Mrs. Penny (who fit the bill of second mom quite well) worked 6 days a week, but on their Sundays off, I would sit looking out our front window, waiting for their garage door to open and declare that our day had begun. By the time he had his coffee cool enough to drink, I was there in my usual spot on the garage floor, leaning against the garage door frame. Until he had vinyl siding put on some years later, a spot remained where my Lucky Tiger Rose Oil-covered head would touch and dissolve the paint. He teased me about that (and tried painting over it, to no avail) for years, but I didn't care. I was his Buddy when I wasn't anyone else's (especially not grown-ups), and that was all that mattered.

Discipline from him was gentle but effective; his mere suggestion that something I did (or might be thinking of doing) would be less than ideal was all it took, I wanted to please him so much. It would be years before I would perceive the irony in that. My own father resorted to the belt at the drop of the hat, and still, I paid no heed to what he said to me, and often did the exact opposite of anything he told me to do, just to spite him. With my father, my greatest sense of pride, of coming of age, was when he quit calling me a brat, replacing his favorite term of "endearment" with a new one, more consistent with my pubescent stature. I became a "thug," and the spankings ended, replaced by fistfights which I discovered I could win. But with my Dad, I would never have considered doing or saying anything even cross to him. I knew well what it was like not to have a parent's love, and didn't dare do anything that might push him away. In hindsight, I realize that I wouldn't have been able to push him away, even had I wanted to.

I learned at an early age that a father does his duty, while a Dad cherishes it. While fatherhood can be the result of a fleeting moment's desire, and followed by a lifetime of regret and bitterness, being a Dad is an act of heart and spirit, far beyond the biological mechanism of procreation. What was it that my Dad did that my father did not? There are a thousand little things, seemingly inconsequential acts that, when taken in total, make the most important statements a little boy could hear: "You're a good kid, and your feelings matter to me." He told me that in so very many ways. He took me go-kart racing. Kite flying, with the biggest box kite in the known universe. Flying the model airplane that was designed especially for people like us, because it was held together with rubber bands so we could crash it without breaking anything. And we did. Often.

He showed me my first "men's magazine," a pretty sleazy thing called Adam, which showed me my first pair of Caucasian breasts that didn't belong to Mom or Grandma. Sure, I'd seen the ones in National Geographic, but they weren't the same. He gave me my first beer that was all mine (which was so much better than just getting a sip of some grown-up's). And over the years, he gave me things, little and not so little, the significance of which I would only realize many years later. My first pocket knife, which was summarily taken away when I whittled something that would have been better left intact. My first wristwatch, with a magical "hypnotic" bezel, unlike anything I had ever seen. My first transistor radio, when none of my friends had one. My first television; I was the only kid I knew who had his own TV in his room. It was black and white (of course) about 19", with a round picture tube, and it weighed about 100 pounds. I could watch "Have Gun, Will Travel" all by myself. Later on, when I was a bit older and had discovered "underground" music, he gave me my first FM radio, which I hooked up to an old KLH hi-fi speaker to fill my dorm room with The Doors, Spirit, Hendrix, and the like.

But these were all "things," and as much as I cherished them at the time, the greatest gift he ever gave me was calling me his buddy, and making me feel like he was glad to see me, every time. I wasn't anyone else's buddy back then, and there was nobody else whose welcome was so unerring and so complete. I had friends, sure, but even those friendships were punctuated by the fights, betrayals, and abandonment so typical of little boys' friendships. "Buddy" was unwavering, more certain than the sunrise. When I was with him, the disapproval of other adults just didn't matter, and wasn't even real. Like the woman down the street who would tattle on me for leading her son astray by showing him Playboy magazines, but who would always preface her judgments with, "That Ronnie... Bless his heart." Or the mother of another friend, who would so often "forget" to include me in plans she made for the neighborhood kids. I got their message, all right. I knew I was the "bad" kid. I even realized that the first girl I ever loved was beyond my reach, because she was a "good girl," too good for me. In all fairness, I can't fault the parents of the girls on our block for their disapproval. Let's leave it at that... although "Dad" always wanted progress reports. Nothing creepy or detailed, and not like the teasing I got from the other boys who hadn't yet found anything particularly interesting about the opposite sex; he just wanted to know that I was doing okay with the girls.

He taught me also about what a real marriage can be. He and Mrs. Penny worked together six days a week, but you'd never see them bicker. Mr. Penny had been quite the ladies' man in his youth, and was still a charmer, even right to the end, but it was so very clear that he was, to his core, devoted to his beloved wife, Helen (she was - and still is - a beautiful woman... reminded me of Judy Garland). That devotion was returned in kind. And it was unlike anything I had ever seen, especially in my own home growing up, or even in my marriage. Some lessons take a long time to sink in, no matter how masterful the teacher.

Despite the fact that his mind became somewhat clouded in the last couple of years, he always knew who I was, and always seemed glad to see his buddy again. There were a few times when he thought I was someone with whom he had grown up, but that didn't bother me at all. The bond was there, tested but unbroken, and its definitions mattered little to me. Perhaps we did grow up together, after all. And right up until the end, I pitied anyone who underestimated the sharpness of his mind. They would quickly learn the same lesson that the Cadillac salesmen had learned when Mr. Penny would wrangle unspeakable deals on his cars, while informing the salesmen that he didn't have any money!

After he passed, Mrs. Penny gave to me several things that were important to him, and have now become cherished tokens to me; his prized shotgun (I do wish we had hunted together, but I was wandering in those years), his dress western hat, the professional butcher knife he had bought, but never really learned to sharpen (probably the one thing I could have taught him), and a few things that he held dear through his life, and which I too will hold dear for the rest of my own life.

I don't know whether he regretted never having children of his own, but I can only feel grateful that he chose me to fill that hole somewhat. I only hope that I was up to the task, knowing full well that I was unaware of my role, and would likely have failed him even if I had known what was needed. I was a bad kid, after all. But for all that, I always knew I was loved, without restriction, without demands of perfection, and without the burden of shame. He never once told me my actions were unforgivable, and would chuckle at my misdeeds. I know that I have never been - and will likely never have the chance to be - the kind of Dad to my own children that Mr. Penny was to me. In one way, that is good, because I would hate to think that they would ever feel the pain of my absence the way I've felt since he passed away; a feeling which is growing ever more acute as Mrs. Penny prepares to return to her childhood home in Alabama.

Godspeed, Mr. Penny. And as empty as the words might sound, and as badly as they fall short of expressing, much less repaying what you have always been to me, they need to be said. Thank you. And I think you knew - and know - that I love you.

I think that perhaps experiencing the birth of a child is God's way of sharing His heart with us humans. For a fleeting moment, we step outside ourselves, and our greatest wish and hope is that the child before us knows only laughter and joy. Our only goal in those precious moments is to protect and nurture something we love more than we love ourselves, and thus to touch the very core of Divinity. I suspect that most people who never experience having children are denied this taste of unbridled benevolence, but have no doubt that for my Dad and Mrs. Penny, that greatest gift was never withheld. And to all the Dads out there - including those who fulfilled the spiritual but never the biological - Happy Dad's Day! And know that you may well be the one thing that saves a "bad" kid from turning out really bad.

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