All good fathers have certain things in common: they listen, are consistent, show affection, and support their offspring in ways both financial and moral. But what makes a good father unique is his art, that skill which makes him different from other dads. It's the habit that is immediately called to mind in fond exasperation when his kids are alone and talking about him, like the scene the "Christmas Story" when a lug nut lost in the snow calls forth the Art of Swearing, as perfected by Ralphie's father (played by Darren McGavin.)
My father in law, for instance, was a Gauguin of Grass Seed. My husband and his sibling remember seeing their dad, an intellectual man with PhD's in both chemistry and pharmacy, moving slowly around their New York lawn, different varieties of grass seed pooled in a Frisbee that he used like an artist's palette. A little fescue in this spot, a little bentgrass there, a little fertilizer spread meticulously on top. BT's front yard was a testament to the tablespoon by tablespoon care he lavished upon it.
As for my dad, he excels at the Art of the Long Distance Drive. There is no distance too vast nor destination too inconvenient nor route too complicated for him to say no to a road trip. With his travel mug full of coffee, some of my mom's meatloaf sandwiches wrapped in wax paper on the passenger seat, and a country music tape to pop into his cassette player, my father would probably set off for Mercury without a second thought, perfectly content to be on the open road (as long as he could time it so as to miss rush hour on Mars.) Our oldest daughter will be attending summer camp 3,000 miles away from us this summer, but only a few hours' drive from my parents' house. I think we were both reassured when I reminded her, "If Grandpa hears you sneeze, he'll pop in the car right away to drive four hours to hand you a box of tissues."
During my college years, my dad always came solo to pick me up in May to drive me home for the summer. Those long, hot, boring car rides with my dad down the Schuylkill Expressway and through the states of Pennsylvania and New York don't deserve to be called some of the nicest memories of my childhood-to-adulthood transition, but indeed they were.
I was usually exhausted, enervated from the semester and finals, nervous about whatever summer job awaited. But it was always comforting to shoot the breeze with Dad for six straight hours, talk about school, the places we wanted to visit, what was happening with family and friends and neighbors. I’ve read child-rearing books that recommend you have your serious talks with your kids while driving – no one is looking directly at each other, and if the conversation speeds up or slows down there’s no awkwardness, you just blame the traffic. At a point when I was creating an independent adult life in fits and starts, there was comfort in knowing that until we pulled off the NYS Thruway, I was totally under the care and protection of my dad.
My meager offering to Dad, in return for his 12 straight hours of driving, was always a mix tape for him to keep. I played him all sorts of stuff that didn't stick, from The Blue Nile to U2 to the Housemartins, but when I brought him The Blasters' Hard Line, we bonded over the rockabilly twang. Here's "Marie, Marie," some of the glue that holds us together despite all the miles between us.
Here's to my dad, and to all the others out there who are proud to practice the Art of Fatherhood.