I have very few childhood memories of my father.
The ones I do have are cast in hazy filters, like Polaroid photographs antiqued by 30 years time. Remembering my dad back then — well, it’s like recalling scenes from a movie I hardly remember. I’m not sure which details are fabricated and which are genuine.
There’s a kitchen chair, vacant at every meal. There’s his briefcase sitting by the door. The smell of Old Spice aftershave and coffee as Dad kissed the top of my little head. The sound of his fancy shoes across our hardwood floors and the creaking front door as he left for yet another forever-long business trip.
Mostly, that’s it — the sights and sounds of his leaving moments.
Even fewer, but far more precious, are the memories in which my father was present. I see my dad, laughing in the sun, lifting me onto his shoulders, and frolicking in the ocean waves. I feel his hands gently pushing me on the backyard tire swing as my heart soars — higher and higher, higher and higher.
A little girl loves her father that way, if she’s given the chance.
But there is one memory that exists with painful clarity. There I am, staring through the back window of an ’89 station wagon. Waving goodbye to the white house that represented everything familiar in my world. And there’s my father, standing on the front porch. Waving, waving, until our car rounded the corner and headed for a new city and a new life. A life that wouldn’t include him.
You see, I was the child of an absent father.
Growing up in small town, USA, that meant calling an uncle to attend the father-daughter dance. Asking a soccer coach to be an escort onto the football field for homecoming. It meant reading a school flyer that asked dads to volunteer for spring sports and throwing it away because it would only make my mother feel guilty.
It meant a million tiny reminders that there was a hole in my home.
In fourth grade, my teacher asked the class to color a picture of our family. I drew my mom, with black curly hair and red lips smiling. I drew my brother with green eyes and braces. I drew my older sister with a side ponytail and pink sweatshirt. I drew my cat with a crooked tail. And then I scribbled a picture of my father and turned it in.
“Lauren, you forgot to color your Daddy’s face in! He’s missing his smile!” Mrs. Campbell handed my paper back.
“No, ma’am. I just couldn’t remember what it looked like.”
My teacher frowned and sent me to the school counselor’s office for what would become the first of many, many therapy sessions. It’s not easy to unravel the mess that a disappearing parent can create, but that’s what we went to work doing: learning to trust, learning to love, learning to give people a chance before writing them off.
I guess it worked, because years later, I met a fun-loving, blue-eyed boy and fell deeply in love. I trusted this man. He hung the moon. We were young, dumb, and poor, and so naturally, we decided to marry. Both of us were college students with minimum wage jobs, who had no business going out on our own.
Which, I suppose, is exactly why we did it.
On the day of our first anniversary, I came home from class, threw my backpack on a dusty floral couch, and started sobbing. There was an overdue electric bill, dead cockroaches in our crappy apartment, and $8 in our bank account.
What were we thinking, getting married? How are we ever gonna have a happy family if we can hardly keep the lights on?
That’s when my husband emerged from our bedroom with Krispy Kreme donuts and two burning candles. He sang “happy anniversary to us” to the tune of the birthday song. We blew out our candles and made a wish, then ate our donuts cross-legged on the floor. When we were done, my husband pulled $2 out of his back pocket.
“Wanna go to a movie?”
We spent the rest of our afternoon in the dollar theatre, watching a 2-year-old Disney movie from a scratchy reel. I remember watching my husband laugh in the faint blue light of the cinema screen. I remember thinking what a miracle it was that I had a husband who stayed when things were hard. And I remember thinking it wasn’t possible to love somebody more.
Then we had two children.
This morning, as the typical daily chaos unfolded around me, I watched in awe as a fully present father jumped, headfirst, into the fray. We are a team, this man and I — wiping butts and taking names.
You turn on Mickey Mouse, and I’ll toast the waffles.
You pack the lunches, and I’ll change the diaper.
Did you pay the tuition for preschool? I’ll grab the checkbook.
I watch as my husband makes his coffee, like he does every morning, with the baby on his hip. He holds her little hand safely away from the mug, telling her it is “hot-hot.” She repeats the word, and he squeals with delight.
“Honey, did you hear that? She said hot!”
My heart is about to burst, and I return to the task of unpacking my son’s backpack. I empty it’s contents onto the kitchen counter: a wrinkled pair of shorts, old apple juice, and a blanket.
Then I notice something crumpled up at the very bottom of his bag.
It’s a piece of construction paper and scribbled across the top in his teacher’s handwriting are the words “my family.” I feel my breath catch in my chest. I spread the paper out, smoothing the wrinkles, and tears burn in my eyes.
A little boy in a blue T-shirt, his little sister, his mommy, both of our dogs, all of us are there. And his daddy, holding a fishing pole and wearing a baseball cap.
In eternal crayon evidence, my husband is there. He has a face. And he’s smiling.
My children have the father I never had. I am so, so grateful.