Sunday is Father’s Day, an occasion which, when I was growing up, belonged to the other people but not myself. I only had my father until I was eight, and his imprint seemed so light compared to my mother’s powerful impact on me. Now, as this holiday approaches, I find myself wondering if my father influenced me more than I realized. Or was it primarily his absence that marked my life with expectations of loss or disappointment that manifested differently, but distinctly, with each phase of my life.
More authors write memoirs about their mothers than about their fathers. Some are untangling the complex influences of a mother, as in Ruth Reichl’s For You Mom, Finally, or Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother. (By the way, a decade earlier she did write about her father in The Shadow Man.) Others, like myself in The Woman in the Photograph, are searching for missing pieces of their mother’s life or character, driven to find the wholeness of this important feminine influence beyond the significant but defined role of mother. But fewer writers untangle the personal histories of their fathers. I wonder if it is more of a taboo to uncover our father’s secrets. Must we allow them to keep their positions of authority and strength, or even of blame and weakness, without really exposing their vulnerability? Certainly women have a longer history of self-revelation, and this might give us more permission to feel we are entitled to remove their masks.
Not quite trusting my own literary scope, I did a quick scan of memoirs. It confirmed my impression that fewer memoirs were about fathers, though there is a nice list of those on the Goodreads site. Here are two that called to me: Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Our Fathers by Roger Portman. Including commentary on 18 people who wrote about their fathers, the review says they become detectives, piecing together clues to fill memory voids, assembling material and archival evidence, public and private documents, letters, photographs, and iconic physical objects to track down the parent. The other is And When Did You Last See Your Father? A Son’s Memoir of Love and Loss by Blake Morrison who raises the questions: Can we ever see our parents as themselves, or are they forever defined through a child’s eyes? What are the secrets of their lives, and why do they spare us that knowledge? And when they die, what do they take with them that cannot be recovered or inherited?
So as alway, my suggestion is take this opportunity to reflect on how your father played a role in shaping your own life. What do you actually know about him. If you are so fortunate, take this day to talk with him, to ask him the questions I so often wish I could have asked. Or speak to those who knew him. And most of all, celebrate his life and your own heritage for all it has taught you.
This year my son-in-law is a father of twin boys now ten months old and the importance and grace of his role fills me with awe. For the first time, I feel connected to the holiday. Happy Father’s Day Brett and all fathers.