When I look back on my life, I realize I’ve been lucky enough to be closely involved with three men who had the ability to take on children who weren’t their own genetic children and love and care for them as fathers. This will post the day after Father’s Day, but I want to say a word or two about these kinds of unsung heroes.
My birth father was a brutal, unpredictable man. I suspect he would now be diagnosed as a clinical sociopath. After my parents’ scandalous, highly contentious divorce and all of the violent, ugly fallout afterward, my mother settled in a small college town in Kansas and met a quiet man she married when I was fifteen.
My stepfather immediately tried to be a good father to me, which meant, among other things, setting limits and being protective. My birth parents had both been irresponsible and sometimes dangerous children, so from my earliest memories I was the pseudo-adult in the house, the one who worried about all my younger siblings and tried to protect them and care for them so they could have as normal a childhood as possible. No one had ever looked after me or tried to take care of me, so I resented my new stepfather’s efforts tremendously.
As the next few years went by and I observed my stepfather’s treatment of my younger siblings, for whom I still felt so responsible although I’d left home at sixteen, I warmed to him. He was doing his best to be a real dad to them, taking them camping and fishing, making them toys, coaching Little League teams, etc. In time, like my younger siblings, I came to call him Dad. When I gave my parents their first grandchildren, he was a doting grandfather, and when he finally died, he died in my sister’s and my arms with all my brothers and the grandchildren around his bed.
At the time I married my first husband, I already had a baby, whose father had died. My late first husband loved my oldest as much as either of the two children we had together, and that was one of the things I loved about him, that capacity to open his heart to a child who wasn’t his own genetically just as much as to those who were.
Later when I was a single mother of two teenagers in the final years of high school and my youngest was only four years old, I met and married a man who’d never been married or had children. He had enough sense not to try to be a father to my teens, who would have only resented him for it, but he loved and raised my youngest as his own. This gentle, totally urban intellectual did the zoo safari, even though he was embarrassed that everyone else had to help him put up the huge tent he’d rented, and when our little one left the tent open to the depredations of peacocks and collapsed the whole tent on his stepfather when they were packing up to leave, he was so kind that he earned a hand-printed, hand-drawn certificate of membership in “The Loyal Order of Peacock Fathers.” My youngest and my husband to this day have a close, loving father-son relationship, and because he was so patient, he and my older two children have a warm relationship as well.
My sister has two sons. One father is a deadbeat, missing in action because he’s never wanted to be financially responsible for his child after the divorce (just as he hadn’t for all of the other children he had that my sister didn’t know about when they married). The father of the youngest paid support but simply refused to see his own son. For these boys, my current husband has been a father-figure. The younger one clung to my husband and waited eagerly for our visits and his to us. My husband used to shake his head on the way home and wonder at the idiocy of the men who refused to have any contact with their gifted, charming boys. At Christmastime, these two nephews, now grown, delight in finding eccentric books and other gifts that will please my husband, often keeping an eye out for them all year.
I’ve seen firsthand what a difference men like this can and do make in the lives of children whose fathers are gone, sometimes dead, sometimes by choice. So here’s a toast to the men who take on other men’s offspring and give them love and a true father’s care, even when it isn’t easy, even when those other men have left emotional damage behind. To Dad, to Michael, to Ben, and to all of the other men out there like them, you are the true salt of the earth!