This is father season. The greeting-card racks have changed from pink (Mother’s Day) to blue. The most popular logo is a small, motorless boat, either a sail or a dinghy; second runner-up seems to be a golf club or a steer horn. But someone might mention that for many potential card buyers, the boat has sailed, the dinghy sunk, and the big brown armchair is forever empty. Perhaps that symbolic image of the unmanned boat carries a subconscious message: On Father’s Day, we also notice who is missing.
While today the motif at the card counter lists toward the nautical, at my home, the theme was always military. My father vanished “in the war” before my birth. My mother, single in the time before single mothers were not scandalized, wore a plain gold wedding band, fibbed and said she had married a soldier. I gathered from her bedtime stories, told always in a special breathless bedroom voice, that she loved my father, Larry.
There were several flaws to her marvelous tale of the aviator who flew with his pet dog in the cockpit. Would the Air Force really allow a pilot to bomb an unknown nation while flying with a pedigreed boxer named Butch? I bought the Butch angle entirely, but even at 4, I knew the United States was not at war, and “overseas” was a touch vague.
My mother, Rosie, announced my father’s death to me one day on a New York City street. “We had sad news this morning. His plane went down …. ” She hesitated, improvising: ” … in Europe.” My father became nonexistent in a profound manner. Now, of course, knowing the story is false, I speculate regarding my mother’s enhanced detail: “He burned, without a trace. His uniform, the ribbons-even the medals melted.” My father’s dog? Surely Butch had not gone down with the plane? He flew with a bandanna round his neck; he was an ace. I still thank my mother for sparing Butch. I might have had to lose a fictional father, but I could not have recovered from the death of his mascot. Thank God, my mother reported, “Butch did not go on the final mission.”
The specter of my military-hero father faded like the photograph we kept: The blond man, almost invisible in the initial overexposed image, paled by the light that had damaged the original photograph, soon vanished altogether, into the smoke of the cigarette he held. My father seemed to become a negative of himself; an apt metaphor, for each year, as I grew, I doubted his authenticity more, wondered more who my “real” father was. I had what is called a “twist” of fate: When I was 8, my mother died, and I was left to be raised by her two bachelor brothers. So a dual fathering began, albeit late. But the two sweet men who raised me were my uncles, known as “unkies” in our home; I never called anyone “Dad.” The Father’s Day cards remained unpurchased. My uncles hoisted me high on their shoulders-I rode the surf at last. And for that, I remain grateful.
The father story frayed and cracked with the photograph. At 18, I did not qualify for benefits for the children of veterans. At 19, I married a man who was blond and whose name rhymed with Larry. Lost father found down the aisle? Literature abounds with daughters seeking the unknown father, the good father, the bad father. Enacting the drama that never played, I was reluctant to give up on my teenage marriage; it lasted for decades, then ended in divorce.
One thing my husband did for me, though, was to uncover more facts about my father. My husband did what I lacked the nerve to do: quiz my uncles. And so, at 23, I discovered that while my father had been in the air corps (how apt), he was not shot down (except by my mother), and there had been no war, save the one between the sexes. The news bulletins continued: His name was not the name on my birth certificate. My mother had, again, fantasized and named me Laura Shaine; my father’s name was actually Laurence Moore.
For some years, I searched the phone directories in his alleged birth state of Alabama, and I envisioned that blond man, bleached in the glare of Southern afternoons, languishing like a Tennessee Williams lead on an ante-bellum porch. In the visions, there is always a reunion in which I appear, wearing a picture hat, in bridal white, and his eyes meet mine. An unseen woman behind him asks: “Who’s there, Larry?” And he answers, his gaze turning away from me: “No one.”
I have no idea why this fantasy, so filmic, is also so complete. Perhaps it bears some flimsy relation to an untested truth-that my father, having never appeared to claim me, would reject me on sight.
Father’s Day is now marked by the current craze for televised reunions between parents and children who have never met. I’m always seeing Leslie Stahl stand in some small town, perhaps by a gazebo, declaring: “In a few minutes, we will see the father [or mother] she never knew, who walked away from this gazebo 32 years ago …. “
Until recently, those of us who were parentless had few options. Now, cyber-searches are easy, adoption agencies in several states have relaxed the laws that once sealed records forever, and parent-child reunions are taking place at quite a clip. On the news, famous football coaches are reunited with the sons they never saw, who now become devoted fans. Physical resemblances are noted. On prime time, there always seem to be huge extended-family cookouts: “I have a father! I have a sister! I have a daughter!”
I haven’t had the reunion or the cookout-and, perhaps to my own surprise, I don’t want one. My dad can remain in the dark. I don’t want to go on Dateline to surprise him. Perhaps I find some value in the mystery; maybe I even resent the extinction of wonder that might occur. I feel similarly about overly detailed family videotapes. Who will need to see in 2025 the images of everyone gnawing chicken legs, indulging in unedited conversation? My own maternal grandparents appear, with dignity, in their posed portraits of the distant past. I prefer them that way. No doubt my forebears gobbled goulash and screamed “Get over here, Hymie!” But I don’t have to relive their mundane moments. As far as Father, I clutch my single sepia photograph, with its dubious authenticity, and know that we did not become a sideshow.
I have a more cynical Dad Day apparition: Trailing television cable, I find my father, an ignorant cracker, no longer blond but bald, red-faced and screaming, in a nursing home in Alabama. This time, he does want me-to spring him, and support him.
I choose not to search further for the man who walked away so long ago. Let his fate remain unknown, his records sealed. Leave me to my imagination, my romantic aviator or the squawking redneck, whichever Dad I conjure this day. I choose fantasy over an attempt to eclipse time and accelerate love that would have taken a lifetime. This may be my idiosyncrasy or even my failing, but I think, as I study the card racks full of rudderless boats and golf bags awaiting the clutch of a male hand, that it is a matter of taste. I pass the Dad displays and, cardless, go my way on Father’s Day.