There is no “ex” in father. Once a father, always a father.
My father used to say this to me, though not in these words. He used to say, because I was his only child, his “one and only” (these are his words), that he was the only one in the “whole world” (more of his words) who could call me “daughter.” And I was the only one in the whole world who could call him “father.”
He liked that. And I liked it, too. I liked the idea that in a world where so much changes, and so much is lost, a father, whether by birth or choice, whether a permanent fixture or someone who is in and out of your life, is forever a part of your life.
You can be angry with a father. You can be disappointed. You can disagree with his politics, his lifestyle, with just about everything. But you can’t unfather a father.
“My father and I don’t talk.”
“My father left before I was born.”
“My father died a long time ago.”
“My father” still, even when a father is gone.
He used to be a teacher. She used to dance.He used to fly for TWA. We used to be friends.There used to be a field there and a school over there and this used to be a dirt road. Our lives are full of change and growth and shedding things.
“I used to have hair,” my husband tells our grandchildren. “Blond hair just like yours, Adam.” He shows him a picture of himself with his dad.
“That’s my father,” he says pointing. Present tense. That is my father. Not “He used to be my father.” We never say, “He used to be my father.”
We never say, “He used to be a father,” either, not when a child grows up and moves out and thinks he doesn’t need a father anymore. Not when a child is middle-aged. Not when a child is so old he’s collecting Social Security. Not when a child, no matter his age, dies.
We can quit our jobs, divorce our spouses, and unfriend our friends. But there’s no erasing father from our resumes and obituaries. “Son of.” “Daughter of.”
Father and mother are immutable.
In our culture, though, fathers have been given short shrift in the “let’s appreciate them” department. Maybe this is because what they did for decades wasn’t as visible as what mothers did. They left the house every day. They worked and made ends meet and provided for their families. And fixed things and drove places and shoveled snow and cut the grass. But they did not cook and clean and shop for food and change diapers and wipe dirty faces and give baths and comb hair and take kids to school every day. They were not, most of them, in sight.
They are now. My son is a stay-at-home dad. He makes his kids breakfast. He packs their lunches. He takes them to school. He called last weekend asking for a blueberry muffin recipe. While he was writing it down, Luke, who is 4, ate all the blueberries. My son laughed.
“It’s all about making something together,’’ he said. “We’ll have muffins without blueberries.”
My sons-in-law are this hands-on, too — my cousins’ husbands, my kids friends’ husbands, all the young husbands I know. Collectively, they have turned father into a verb. They know the names of their children’s teachers and their children’s friends. They know who likes rainbow sprinkles and who likes chocolate. They know that purple was their daughter’s favorite color last month, but that now it’s pink. And they know that macaroni and cheese needs to be yellow, not white.
Fathers are not second fiddle to moms anymore. This is no understudy role. It’s a grand sight to see.