A Fierce Love

When I asked my friend’s little daughter what her dad enjoyed doing in his spare time, she didn’t miss a beat. Anything to do with me, she beamed. I rejoiced for her, of course, but I also felt a stinging regret. My dad’s free time rarely included his two daughters. And although he’s been dead for over 20 years, I still puzzle over those early days.

Oh, there were moments. Once he took us to a farm and pointed out the curl on a baby pig’s tail. Another time he treated us to hamburgers at an amusement park near our home.

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It’s not that our family was fractured by a troubled marriage. Soul mates, my mom and dad had a relationship that lasted 35 years with hardly a snag. The family photos show themdark-eyed Tom and his beloved Gracecheek to cheek over a birthday cake or embracing at the ocean’s edge. Even after they married, he continued to woo her, showing up on Valentine’s Day with chocolates encased in a fuzzy red heart and on Easter Sunday with a pot of satiny white lilies.

But he seemed mystified by the whole business of fatherhood. Back home after a shopping spree with our mom, my sister and I would model our purchases for our dad, twirling around and praying silently for compliments. Gazing curiously at the starchy dresses and pointy-toed shoes, he’d inquire: Are they comfortable? Sighing, we assured him they were.

He wasn’t one to dole out hugs and kisses to his girls, so when I craved attention I ran to my mom, trailing her adoringly around the house as she vacuumed. You’re the most beautiful woman in the world, I intoned oftenand I meant it.

I agonized over the prim families on Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Were there really dads who wore snappy suits and sagely divulged life’s meaning to their kids? Were there really dads who called their daughters princess? And daughters who cast adoring glances at their dads?

Kids can be horrible snobs about their fathers, and I was no exception. Sometimes I was ashamed because he had only a sixth-grade education. His passions were smoking Cuban cigars, betting at the horse races and playing poker. Try as I might, I couldn’t picture Ward Cleaver poring over the racing results in the newspaper or counting his chips at a card game. Nor could I imagine him blowing a fuse at the supper table after a kid knocked over a glass of milk or, belt in hand, chasing the kids around the house.

Not that our dad ever hit us. The belt was merely a scare tacticand it worked famously. But he must have felt guilty to see me and my sister cowering behind our mom, because later he’d buy us comic books as a peace offering.

Away at college, I’d phone home every weekend. If he answered, I groped for words while imagining what a cinch it’d be for the Father Knows Best gal.

This is Princess, she’d purr.

I took the easy way out: Is Mom there? I inquired.

When I was 25, the unthinkable happened. My mom was stricken with cancer. She had always been the letter writer in the family, punctuating her notes to me with little hearts and tiny X’s for kisses. After her death my dad began writing letters to me on big yellow legal pads, sometimes surprising me with his dry wit. In one letter, he inquired about the health of my overweight cat and admonished me not to spend the enclosed check entirely on cat treats.

In another letter, he proposed that we take a cruise together to the Bahamas. I was intrigued by the invitation, since we’d never had a father-daughter outing before. On the first day of my spring break, I drove to his condo in Fort Lauderdale, and the next day we gathered up our suitcases and headed to the ship.

Neither of us could have predicted that my mother’s absence would be almost palpable in such surroundings. No matter where my father and I went, it seemed we’d forgotten something. I kept imagining how she would have loved the vast ocean churning around us and the snazzy turquoise sky. I kept imagining that I saw her out of the corner of my eye.

One evening I found him hunched over on a chaise lounge on the ship’s deck. He was weeping. He missed her. And as I sat beside him, speechless, I forgave him everything in that moment. I realized that all along he and I had shared something immeasurably precious. Our souls had found their moorings in the same personhis wife, my mother.

Maybe he wore Bermuda shorts instead of Brooks Brothers. Maybe he never taught me how to light a campfire. And maybe he had never figured out how to navigate through the dizzying waters of fatherhood. But he did give me something immeasurably precious.

He taught me about a fierce love that endures forever. And somehow, that makes up for it all.

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