I try to focus on the bright side when I think of my father. I spent a lot of time with my parents, right through my teenage years and college. As a family, we went out to eat, and to shop and travel. But then he died, suddenly, shockingly, of a massive heart attack. I struggle to put a positive spin on that.

If I think of my oldest friend, whom I met at 13, right after her father died, I can be grateful I had my dad a decade longer. When I look around at my students at Cony School, I am saddened by how many of them don’t have fathers in their lives. They may have “Mom’s boyfriend,” who may just be a loser passing through or, worse yet, abusive.

I’m not here to argue about single-mother or two-mother families. This is Father’s Day. It’s a time to celebrate the merits of dads. Let me count the ways my father made a difference in my life.

Boys benefit from having a role model. For girls, a father provides more subtle supports. I remember, when I fretted over some romantic upset, my father saying to me, “Boys are afraid to ask the prettiest girls to dance.” Well, there was no way in the world I was the best-looking gal in any room, but I appreciated his effort.

In most strong marriages, partners complement each other. Both of my parents were sociable, and were appalled by my shyness. It took me about 30 years to get over what today would probably be diagnosed as social anxiety, and that success is one thing I wish my father could have seen. Dad could “talk the bark off a tree,” as we say here in Maine. He was a raconteur, had a quick temper and didn’t care what people thought of him.

My mother, on the other hand, was obsessed with appearances. If it had just been me and her, I’d probably have turned into an agoraphobic. I got in trouble in school exactly twice in 12 years, and by trouble, I mean scolded. I was mortified each time.

But, as I trailed my father when he made his rounds on his Arnold Bread route, I saw there was another way to be. He’d huff and puff if the Pepperidge Farm guy was hogging his space on the grocery store shelf. Dad would joke with the store clerks who checked in his delivery, then strike a deal with the Drake’s salesman: dinner rolls for Yankee Doodle cupcakes. He’d see my cousins walking down the street and honk furiously at them, embarrassing them. It was all in a day’s work.

Dad had different interests from Mom. As a total sports nut, I’m sure he was disappointed in having two girls who were not terribly interested in athletics. To be fair, Title IX, which required equal access to sports teams for boys and girls, wasn’t passed until I was well into high school. Girls didn’t participate in sports in anywhere near the numbers they do today.

I was, and remain, a klutz. I could swim and ice skate reasonably well, but it was not until I learned to play tennis that I found a sport in which I could be competitive. And do you know what my father did? He bought a tennis racquet and played with me. I see now, in retrospect, it was act of desperation. Dad knew I was hopeless at baseball, so he was willing to take up tennis.

He did teach me how to fill in a baseball scorecard, and we all enjoyed trips to Fenway to see the Sox play. Dad and I were also huge Bruins fans during the Bobby Orr years. Since both of us were avid readers, we’d devour sports books like “Instant Replay,” about the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi.

My father had wanderlust, and our family would often pack up and go away for the weekend, to places like Lake George, N.Y. We traveled twice cross-country in a rented camper, having many adventures along the way. I shared his love of travel, and when Dad died, I was making plans to go to the United Kingdom, where I hoped I would work as an au pair for a year, soaking up a different culture.

I didn’t end up doing that, but was able to travel extensively through the British Isles, mostly on my own. My father had taught me how to read maps, choose lodgings and, most importantly, not draw attention to myself by looking like a tourist.

My father did Dad things, and the greatest of those was teaching me how to drive a stick shift. When I was in college, he bought me a 1964 Ford Falcon station wagon. I got into the driver’s seat and drove the thing the 15 miles from my parents’ house in southeastern Massachusetts to Providence College. Dad rode shotgun, shouting instructions at me and swearing under his breath. Mom followed behind, white-knuckled, I’m sure, as I rocked and bucked down the highway.

Dad was far from perfect, but I was always proud he was my father. I knew I was lucky to have the parents that I had; I always felt loved, even when I was failing math. I can see how I am a combination of them both, with my mother’s composed exterior camouflaging my father’s restless spirit.

Where would I be without both of them?

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]


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