One day and perhaps not much else separated George Washington and my father –at least in my childhood mind, and maybe, to some extent, even today.
I grew up in a time when George celebrated his own birthday, on February 22, a day un-glommed into a generic President’s Day suited to the workaday business of a federal workforce. But it’s not something I think the first president would have minded. It seems to me that Washington was his own man, had his own things going, secure in his own talents and resources and thus not needful of all the fawning royal hoopla that some of his day wished to bestow upon him.Washington loved his country and served it, but he had his own life.
My father was born on February 23, and to me, as a child, my self-reliant, independent daddy was heroic, the embodiment of all things noble and good, so that when the birthday of George Washington was celebrated as it used to be, I equated it with that of my father. Or my father’s with his. They were somewhat interchangeable.
No one need care about any of this—what’s interesting here is not my individual perspective on George Washington or my own dear father, but rather the question of how children’s feelings about their own fathers might alter their relationship to their country’s forefathers. What if daddy had been abusive, or deserted our family, left us to shift for ourselves and we had to find our own way, relying only on our wits and luck? Perhaps a cracked liberty bell could ring less true?
Could it be that the dress blues that hung cool and immaculate in the hall closet through the span of my father’s lifetime quietly whispered a mantra that liberty must be defended? Would I have experienced the same patriotic sensibilities that shaped my childhood if I had experienced a different father/daughter relationship?
By the time I came along, Daddy was done with WWII and the Korean War and was finally done with his time in the service. With the help of his brothers and my great uncle he built a home for our family on the old homestead property where the cabin in which he was born once stood– and where one October night he would later take his last breath. The same oak trees he played under as a child also shaded my childhood.
His retirement came during a recession that swallowed up the pride of many men and probably his as well, but for me it was a golden age of unlimited time, happily spent with my father, who called me his shadow, and much to my pride, his “little war buddy.”
His war buddy. Probably nothing daddy could have said to me or called me could have had a greater impact on my life. I learned to change spark plugs, build a fire, fish and most importantly, I learned to watch and listen and how to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. He spent many quiet hours with me, catching tadpoles with the zest of a Jacques Cousteau, and capturing glossy coated beetles during the day and lightening bugs at dusk. He led and I followed, whether it was along winding cow trails in the woods or long straight rows of beans, squash, and corn.
A certain clearing in the midst of the tall pine woods was a magical spot where arrow heads and grinding stones could be found in the dry red clay dirt. His observations and stories of the past created within me an awe for nature and an awareness that our footsteps fall in the footprints of others who have gone before us. We gathered limbs and tied them to trees, laying short branches across them and covering these crosshatches with pine straw to make teepees where my friends and I would lay woolen blankets and eat picnics of bologna sandwiches and potato chips while playing with bubble bouffant-ed Barbie dolls wearing chic sheathes and billowy ballgowns.
Very importantly, daddy taught me how to hold my cards until the time was ripe to rummy– a lesson in the rewards of patience and the sweet pleasure of taking a calculated risk. Even as I washed and ironed my hair ribbons and wore petticoats to Sunday school, I knew myself to be a courageous and strong girl; I was that “war buddy” that you could depend on through thick and thin. I was strong and I was loved for being me.
I am completely humbled to think of the thousands of unearned blessings that have given shape to my life. And this makes me think of others. Perhaps a uniform also hangs in another child’s closet, but there is not a father coming home to hold them on his lap because folds of fabric on a hanger are all that are left. Perhaps like my own children, they will grow up without a father to imbue their lives with daddiness. It is a great loss. For them, and for us all. I’ve always been grateful to those who have picked up a trowel and in their own myriad ways attempted to help fill in the chinks left by the death of my children’s dads. Teachers and coaches, my own friends and beloveds, neighbors and unwitting but helpful strangers. You never know.
But one thing I think we do know. What we know of family is what we come to believe of the world.
Happy birthday, yesterday George. And happy birthday to you tomorrow, too. But today, happy birthday to my father. May both of these men, the one who helped father a nation, and the one who fathered me, be remembered for the way they lived their lives as well as the life they gave to us.