The Dad He Didn't Have To Be
I am fortunate enough to have a stepfather who has gone to great lengths for me. There for my formative years and beyond. Always a great sense of humor. He's a great human being and I'd like to pay a little tribute to him. He didn't have to do any of it.
Most of you in the AN breakroom have heard me talk about my stepfather....he's been around for pretty much as long as I remember, having met my mother soon after she and my biological father divorced (I was 4). My mother was in her mid-20's, he (my stepfather) was in his late 60's.
By the time I came into the picture, he'd already had a ton of practice. His oldest daughters were already grown and gone, and he had a teenaged daughter living with him when he and my mom met. She and I are close today, to the point that she attended college orientation with me in my mother's place when Mom had just had surgery. Dad is famous for saying, "I'm not very good at much, but one thing I do know how to do is raise girl children." I'd disagree with him on the first count (not being good at much, for he seems to know everything about everything) but wholeheartedly endorse the second (being good at raising daughters).
From the time I can remember, Dad (and for our purposes, I mean my stepfather) has been a major influence on my life. When I was little, he was the person who made sure my struggling single mother had enough food to put on our table and made sure I had shoes that fit. I remember many nights doing homework at his table and eating angel hair pasta, no sauce, only butter and freshly ground pepper from his pepper mill. He fixed it special for me because he knew that's how I liked it. His kitchen always smelled like this killer English muffin bread he makes.
When I was a tween/teen, it was Dad who took me out for 'dates.' By the time I was that age, he was retired from the family business (he and his two brothers founded it) and had the luxury of time. He'd call me up and say, "Hey Elvish, get ready, I'll be there in about an hour and I'm taking you out for lunch." We'd talk about everything from current events to etiquette to the way things were when he was growing up to how things were going at school for me. In retrospect I realize that it was never about the food at all.
In my 20's, Dad helped pay for my wedding. I wanted him to walk me down the aisle, but he politely declined. Looking back, I see what a selfless act that was. He knew that if I'd favored him over my biological father, it would have caused a rift between him (bio father) and me that might have been irreparable. He wanted better for me than that. As it was, Dad still played a major part in my wedding, and I will never forget him bursting into tears when he saw me in my dress and veil. He hugged me and kissed me and told me I was beautiful and he loved me.
When we found out our oldest was on the way, he sat me down and said, "Look. I want you home with this baby for as long as you can be, and I know you can't afford to take that much time. So I want you to sit down and figure out all your bills, including insurance that you'll have to pay while you're out, and tell me how much it's going to be. I'm going to make sure your bills are paid while you're home with your baby." Not only did he do this, he also researched breast pumps and bought me the best one money could buy because he knew how much that would help when I went back to work. (Dad's solution to everything is making a spreadsheet...it's the family joke. My mother almost died laughing when she got on the computer and found this spreadsheet comparing everything there is to compare about breast pumps....)
Throughout my life he's imparted to me all sorts of wisdom. I used to hate when he'd buy me lunch as a tween, and his standard response was, "Elvish, if someone wants to do something nice for you, you should always let them." He's told me bits and pieces of his experiences as a WWII infantryman, although he prefers to leave most of that in the past. I asked him once prior to doing it if he'd mind if I requested his military records from the National Archives. His response, "I don't mind if you request them, but I don't want you asking me any questions about it. I killed people and lost a lot of friends and don't like to relive it."
One of the most touching stories he's ever related to me was about 6-7 years ago when we were talking about faith and religion. He was island-hopping with the Army in the South Pacific, and the natives of the island they were on apparently believed that children with albinism were cursed, so they were left in the woods as babies to die. Apparently out on patrol one day, he and his squad walked past a house where several children, all with albinism, peeped out the windows to get a glimpse of these strange guys walking past. He and his buddies asked their guide what the story was there. "Oh," the guide replied, "that lady goes into the woods looking for abandoned babies. She brings them home and raises them as her children." After finishing this story, he says to me, "You know, I think she probably had it figured out what God is about."
He must've carried that lesson with him. His business hired African-American workers, treated them fairly, and paid them equally to his white workers in the days when segregation was still okay. He anonymously gave to many charitable organizations, and with zero fanfare has helped many more individuals in need than anyone (including me) will ever know.
Earlier this year when I had a situation with my son that involved teaching him proper use of language, he told me in classic grandparent fashion, "You can tell him I say 'damn' every now and then when I get upset." (For the record, he says it more than every now and then, but my son doesn't have to know that.) (And this was one of those "Thanks a lot, Dad, that's not the answer I was looking for!" moments, so I didn't share this with my son in any case. )
Now that he is older (he turned 98 this past March!) it is hard to face the reality that he won't be around forever. I've always thought of him as Superman and every time I see him he looks a little more frail. I'm just a little more worried that he'll slip and fall on something, or that this might be the last time I see him. He doesn't make that English muffin bread as much as he used to, and he's got aches and pains he didn't have when I was growing up. It may have been unfair to have him on a pedestal to begin with, but when I was a child, he was the closest thing to a superhero as I knew. To be honest, he still is.
One thing we still do and probably will until forever is, when I'm leaving his place or he and Mom are leaving mine, is throw the American Sign Language "I love you" sign out the window at each other.
A few years ago at Christmas (I wasn't there....working), his biological daughters were going through the house kind of talking about what each wanted when the time came to divvy it all up (that may sound morbid and selfish, but it was a lighthearted exchange, I'm assured). Mom asked me if there was anything I could think of that I wanted, and try as I might, I couldn't think of anything. That house has been almost exactly the same for 30 years if not more, and while it's a comforting place to me like to no other, everything of Dad's that means the most to me I already carry in my heart. He taught me so much by words but so much more by example.
That lady on that island in the South Pacific may have taught Dad about God. Dad has taught me about God. And about fathers and daughters. And a lot more that I will never be able to articulate here. With Fathers Day just around the corner, this is my way of saying to him, "Thank you, Daddy. I love you."Last edit by Joe V on Jan 29, '15
May 30, '14What a lovely tribute to your father. I had a good one too. They truly are with their weight in gold. Sometimes I think fathers input can be undervalued.Jun 2, '14Wow! That story was amazing. What a good man your "daddy"/"step-father" is. He sounds absolutely incredible!Oct 16, '15This is so beautifully written! It sounds like he is an amazing person. You are so blessed to have him in your lifeOct 19, '15It made me cry...and that's an accomplishment. Most things don't. It just reminded me of both my dad and step-dad who are both already in Heaven, waiting for me to join them someday. Thanks for helping me have a beautiful memory of both of them today. The comment about his military records reminded me of my dad. He wouldn't discuss Vietnam, for the same reasons, word for word.Jan 9, '16What a beautifully written tribute. Thank you so much for sharing. These AN articles keep making me cry. I am currently a single mother to three and always wonder in the back of my mind if my children will ever love another man and treat him like a father figure. Not only have you proved to me that it is possible, but you showed me it is possible for a man to love children that are not biologically his. Thank you again!