Friday, 4 September 2015

A Few Good Men - The Other Fathers

I grew up without a dad. Most of you already know that. I have written about it many times. Sometimes just a memory. Sometimes a letter. And sometimes just a mention here or there.

It wasn’t always easy but it wasn’t catastrophic either. Of course, my Mum had a lot to do with that. She was our Mum and our Dad and she did an incredible job. In many ways I believe I have grown to be the woman I am BECAUSE of my absent father. But that’s a whole other blog post!

So today, on the figurative eve of Fathers Day in Australia I am writing about the ‘other’ fathers in my life. The men that taught me all the good things that I needed to learn about all those dad-things. My experience has taught me that fathers come in many forms and wherever I can I like to acknowledge and celebrate that.

Uncle Arthur
The most constant male role model in my young life was my Mum’s younger brother Arthur. I’ve written about him before here but what I want to say about Uncle Arthur is this. He was only ever in my life as an Uncle and only part-time, as Uncles tend to be. My Opa [his father] died when I was very young and my other Uncle, Marcel, lived away so Uncle Arthur became the ‘man’ of the family by default. He would never have admitted it. That was just the way he was. But he did all the ‘man’ stuff required for the family. He moved the furniture and serviced the cars and fixed the houses. He was gruff and scary when he was grumpy. You did not fuck with my Uncle Arthur. But he was a strong and caring man who taught me many things, without even trying, about what life could throw at you and how best to dodge the shit. 

He was also pretty cool. One night, driving down Marion Rd in his Buick [he had THE COOLEST cars] a carload of hoons excitable young men pulled up next to us at the lights. I was in the front passenger seat and they started revving the engine of their souped up piece of shit car and yelling out lurid comments compliments at us. Uncle Arthur smiled at them and turned to me and said ‘You ready?’ ‘Yep’ I answered wide-eyed and unsure of what I needed to be ready for. And then the lights turned green and it was on like Donkey Kong. Those poor bastards blokes didn’t know what hit ‘em. It was exhilarating. He was shifting gears like a racing car driver and had his signature look of determination on his face. I was so excited that I was squealing and giggling and being totally not cool. At all. And then he slowed down and laughed and his dimples seemed deeper than ever. Like a little boy. As a girl I never understood the treasure that moment was. But as a woman, when I remember that time, I see how it impacted me. It has stayed with me for thirty years so far. He showed strength and fun and vulnerability and an unwillingness to back down that I’m sure made a mark on me. 

He has his own kids and grandkids who have missed him every day since he died eight years ago.  I know they will feel his absence this Fathers Day, as I do too, but they are so fortunate to have had that man as their father for the years that they did.

My Step-Dad Sal
Mum started dating Sal when I was a teenager. Before Tinder and RSVP.COM you had to meet people in person. Often by chance. I remember the day she came home and told me that she had ‘seen’ this man who worked a couple of boutiques down from her. “He’s GORGEOUS!” she gushed and I rolled my eyes. I was a teenager – that was the standard response to anything my Mum said. So their relationship began like a fairtytale. Really. They courted and went on dates and there was this new man in our life who had never been married or had his own children. But nothing phased him. He stepped into our ready-made family with a willing and generous heart. The relationships between my brother and I and Sal developed naturally and organically and as a result he has become the most present male in my life. He rode in the car with me and walked me down the aisle at my wedding. And then he handed me over [with enthusiasm and relief probably] to my husband. He only just managed to get through his speech as father of the bride because he cried like a baby. Really.

When something is absent from your life for such a long time, it’s often hard to recognise that you ever really needed it… or missed it. I managed to build quite a thick skin when it came to yearning for any kind of paternal support or contribution to my life. I just figured I was surviving without it, so couldn’t really need it. The simple logic of youth. But having such an engaged step-father softened me. He taught me the virtues of good, reliable men and he restored my faith in their existence. After years of going without, I finally had someone else to lean on. And his shoulders were so broad that he could take everything I threw at him without buckling. I can’t tell you what that does to a young woman’s self-esteem, because I don’t really know. What I do know is that I’m confident my opinions of men in general changed, for the better, because of my relationship with Sal.

My sons are his grandchildren as if bound by blood. He was at the hospital while my first son was being born and then in the birthing suite with my mum when he was less than an hour old. My boys call him Nonno and even though they know he isn’t my ‘real’ dad, to them there is no ‘realer’ grandfather. So they are second generation Australian with a French, Dutch-Indonesian, Ukrainian heritage and an Italian grandfather. #mongrels.

When I was growing up, we celebrated my Mum on Fathers Day. It just seemed appropriate. But then she got married to my replacement Dad and it’s always been Sal’s day ever since.

My father-in-law John [JP]
I miss JP. His death five years ago has left one of the biggest holes in my life. I hit it off with JP from the moment I met him. Truth. When Mark brought me home to meet his parents for Christmas dinner, JP poured me a vodka shot and we immediately fell into a rhythm with each other that stayed with us until, literally, the day he died. Even on his actual deathbed when he was beyond words and I gently cooled him with a damp cloth during his last hours, I felt our connection. And I had already begun missing and mourning him.

It’s hard to explain exactly what it was about him that I resonated with so much. By all accounts he was a kind man who worked hard and liked a joke or three, but it wasn’t that. I met him the year he retired so he was very present and perhaps that helped lubricate our relationship. He was always just around. Helping Mark out around the house, fixing and renovating and gardening. He helped set up the liquor store and then when we sold that he helped out in the warehouse – packing up orders ready for freighting. He knew all our staff by name and they all loved him.

Mark spoke to him nearly every day and that really made an impression on me. They touched base on everything. Family issues and developments. Church politics. International politics. What Mark was ‘wasting’ his money on that week. What Mark was ‘neglecting’ that week. If he ever called and I answered the phone, he was happy and willing to talk to me before and sometimes in lieu of Mark. He’d also happily tell me what I was ‘wasting’ money on or ‘neglecting’… as if I was one of his own. In fact, I always felt like one of his own.

When our first son Nathan was born – he was nameless for nearly a week. Somehow in the preceding 9 months of hell pregnancy Mark and I hadn’t agreed on a name yet so we were scrambling in the days before we left hospital to come up with something. We consulted with both sets of grandparents. ROOKIE MISTAKE. Do not EVER consult with grandparents about the name of your child. JP called me morning and night in hospital after scouring borrowed baby name books and the internet [he was VERY tech savvy] with ridiculous helpful suggestions of popular traditional Ukrainian names. He was so earnest and committed and I treasure those moments we shared. He made me laugh and then he laughed with me because he never took anything personally and was never scared of rejection. It made him very easy to be with. He put himself out there with us as a family all the time and made himself available to us as often as he could.

When I brought Nathan home it was JP who would drop around during the day and bring me food. Usually some soup he had made or his famous Bolognese sauce. He would invite himself over and rug the baby up and sit him outside in a rocker and talk to him as he tended to the garden. “Why don’t you go and relax?” he would tell me “Nathan is fine with me.”

He would make me cups of tea and stand in the doorway with his back to me chatting as I breastfed. He adored his grandsons and couldn’t get enough of them. He took them for walks and fed them some of their first solids and held them until they fell asleep. He played with them and talked to them and showed them everything he could. And I believe he nurtured Mark’s role as a father by pure example.

When he was very sick and going through treatment he moved in to our home with my mother-in-law and I was honoured to wait on him for those weeks. Every day I made him breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. I have always shown love by cooking for and feeding people and I showered him with as much love as I could. It was heartbreaking watching him die but the impact he made on my heart is significant and I will always be grateful for it.

So this Fathers Day I do have a lot to miss but so much to celebrate and I give thanks to the other fathers in my life.

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