I don’t know when the late Erma Bombeck, whose column appeared in hundreds of newspapers for 30 years, wrote “The things a dad does.” All I know is that I read it a long time ago, loved it, and saved it. And every Father’s Day, I reread it because it captures a way of life that existed for most of the 20th century but doesn’t anymore.
Bombeck’s piece is short, just 300 words.
“When I was a little kid, a father was like the light in the refrigerator,” it begins. “Every house had one, but no one really knew what either of them did once the door was shut. My dad left the house every morning and always seemed glad to see everyone at night.”
I think of Mr. Butler and Mr. Jablonski and Mr. Tantillo and my friends’ fathers each time I read these words. I think of how their arrival home at night, every night, was an event, like the sun rising over a New Hampshire lake on a clear fall day.
“Hurry. Your father will be home soon!” I’d hear when I was at their houses playing. It was a familiar anthem, said with gusto and excitement. But it was an alarm, too, because it meant that it was time for me to head on home because the man of the house would soon be here.
Dinner time was family time, the evening meal a kind of sacrament, back in the day, everyone at the table, Dad the officiant. After a hard day’s work, this was his reward.
It was something.
My house was different. My father was a police officer who worked nights. His coming home late on a Friday afternoon or early on a Saturday morning didn’t mean my friends had to leave. We just had to be quiet while he slept.
But his being home changed things, too. Even when he was asleep, he was the dad, and in charge. What he said went. Even if he said it from behind a closed door. It was a different time. We deferred to our fathers. Even our mothers deferred to our fathers.
We never knew them, though. Not the way my grandchildren know their dads. They go to work with them sometimes. They visit their offices. They see their fathers working at home. They see them not just as parents but as people, too.
The fathers I knew back when I was a child were a different species, who they were and what they did a mystery just like the light in the refrigerator.
Bombeck wrote: “Whenever I played house, the mother doll had a lot to do. I never knew what to do with the daddy doll, so I had him say, ‘I’m going off to work now,’ and threw him under the bed.”
What fathers didn’t do back then was get up in the middle of the night to comfort a crying child. They didn’t get them ready for school. They didn’t comb their hair, pack their lunches, make sure their teeth were brushed, watch a dance class, shop for a birthday present, wait in line to see Santa, or go trick-or-treating.
They didn’t help with homework or do laundry or vacuum, or make beds or play dates. They didn’t do things that children saw.
No wonder Bombeck didn’t know what to do with the daddy doll.
They drove us places. They slipped us an extra quarter to spend at the movies. They taught us how to ride our bikes and how to drive. And slipped us some extra dollars for gas.
Today’s fathers do it all. They’re like mothers now, who’ve always done it all. Today’s fathers are partners in parenting. And the children see this.
It used to be that Father’s Day was like a B movie at a double feature or the B side of a record.
But not anymore.