My father is an artist, an educator, a writer, a self-taught musician, a storyteller. He was the nurturer of my psyche, and has enriched my life beyond measure. In return, I’ve made sure he will never run out of ugly neckties.
Although I’m pretty sure I’ve been celebrating Father’s Day for as long as I’ve had a dad, I was surprised to learn that it’s only been a national holiday since 1972. Unlike Mother’s Day, the nation’s dads had to come a long way, baby, to earn their officially sanctioned collection of aforementioned bad ties.
Both holidays have historic roots in the turn of the 20th century. Mother’s Day was given a presidential nod in 1914, just six short years after the idea was floated by social activist Ann Jarvis. A reciprocal pitch for Father’s Day, made in 1910 by a Virginia church group, fizzled.
But the idea didn’t die completely. One such effort to see that dads got their due came in 1934, when a group gathered in New York City’s Central Park to lobby for “Parents Day” rather than gender specific parental holidays, a fact outlined in The Modernization of Fatherhood by historian Ralph Larossa.
But Madison Avenue won that battle, not wanting to water down the emotional-spending gold mine that was Mother’s Day.
There is actually a lot more to know about Father’s Day than I first suspected. I’d written it off as an obligatory Hallmark holiday years ago, even though it always feels good to honor my dad with an annual show of tangible affection.
He’ll be 89 this October, and he’s made all the difference in my life.
What I learned in researching Father’s Day is that long before Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote the book in 1946 on the proper care and feeding of 20th century babies, which included a call out to dads to get in the game, a social movement known as “Fathercraft” was gaining momentum across the pond, encouraging dads to embrace fatherhood as a science.
And it was contagious.
New York educator Angelo Patri wrote newspaper columns and aired a radio program geared toward men, coinciding with a series of “father-to-father” books urging dads to step up their game and become Ward Cleavers – before Ward Cleaver was Ward Cleaver. Fathers, according to Patri, should be willing to lead by example, invest emotionally and help their kids grow into upstanding citizens by offering their expert advice.
Of course, backlash came from those fathers who preferred a hands-off approach to parenthood, maintaining that children should be seen and not heard, and real men don’t burp babies. Then television caught on, just in time to bring us TV’s most iconic dad, Ward Cleaver, along with other fictional father figures from programs such as Make Room for Daddy and My Three Sons – role models who brought some sensitivity to the patriarchal mix. From there, it was only a matter of time before the cultural shift in gender roles and equality actually moved us forward.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson, father of two daughters, became the first U.S. president to acknowledge a day for dads with these wise words:
“If the father’s responsibilities are many, his rewards are also great – the love, appreciation and respect of children and spouse. It is the desire to acknowledge publicly these feelings we have for the fathers of our nation that has inspired the Congress to call for the formal observance of Father’s Day June 15, 1966.”
Six years later, President Richard Nixon, also dad to two girls, fixed Father’s Day on the official calendar as the third Sunday in June, with this moving sentiment:
“To have a father – to be a father – is to come very near the heart of life itself. In fatherhood we know the elemental magic and joy of humanity. In fatherhood we even sense the divine, as the Scriptural writers did who told of all good gifts coming ‘down from the father of lights, with whom is not variableness, neither shadow of turning,’ symbolism so challenging to each man who would give his own son or daughter a life of light without shadow.”
Four decades later, Father’s Day is celebrated around the world in many ways, not always in June, and not always with neckties.
But the vital role fathers fulfill in the lives of kids has become indisputable.
The “father factor,” according to fatherhood.org, calculates that there are 24 million children living in the U.S. without their biological dads. That’s one in three. And their calculations go on to explain how it has become a contributing factor to our nation’s worst societal problems, from poverty, child abuse, behavioral diagnoses and obesity, to kids who wind up involved in crime and, ultimately, prison.
As I said, good fathers make all the difference.
My own dad, also the father of two daughters, has truly given me a life of light without shadow.
He painted animals on my bedroom walls and taught me how to craft papier mache beads from wood pulp to string into clunky necklaces. He taught me nostalgic jingles from his youth, like the Pepsi Cola and Hammacher Schlemmer songs, and timeless games, like jacks and pick-up sticks.
He was the one who brought my hand puppets to life, and read the entire collection of The Happy Hollisters in bedtime installments, for months.
He trimmed my platinum locks regularly with the same attention to detail that Michelangelo gave the Sistine Chapel. He took us to the public pool, taught us how to float on our backs and paddle our feet, then coached us from a bench on the sidelines once we got the hang of it.
My father planted miniature rose bushes he called “penny trees.” When the tiny blooms faded and hit the ground, they magically turned into pennies, which my sister and I joyously retrieved from the garden each morning.
Dad taught me to drive. He taught me to cook the world’s best french toast. He taught me that a job worth doing is worth doing right, words intended to slow down his baby girl who was always in a hurry to grow up and get things done.
When I broke the news shortly after my 16th birthday that he was going to be a grandfather, things changed for a time. He got quiet. But love trumps disappointment, if you let it. His granddaughter arrived and launched the next chapter of our relationship, one in which I would begin to understand the truth about parental love, for all its ups and downs.
These days my father lists to the left when he walks and can’t stand for long before his legs tire. When I make it home to see him, the 350 miles between us seems too far. He’s lost vision in one eye. The stories he tells, past and present, are always engaging, and I will listen to them as many times as he wants to repeat them.
I don’t know for how much longer I will have the luxury of celebrating Father’s Day, but for now, I will hang on his every word, tucking them away in my heart where they will stay, for safe keeping, long after he’s gone.