When I was growing up, I never gave much thought to the celebration of Father’s Day, but I don’t think anyone else did, either. In elementary school, we made construction-paper cards and started marigold seeds in paper cups to bring home for our mothers to celebrate Mother’s Day, but I don’t remember any similar activities for Father’s Day.
Although the idea of honoring fathers on the third Sunday of June had apparently been around since 1910 (the first year that some states officially recognized Mother’s Day, which became a national holiday in 1914), it took quite a while to gain traction.
In 1957, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, sounding a bit exasperated, wrote to Congress: “Either we honor both our parents, mother and father, or let us desist from honoring either one. But to single out just one of our two parents and omit the other is the most grievous insult imaginable.”
Government bureaucracy being what it is, it took another nine years before a presidential proclamation designated the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day, and it didn’t become a permanent national holiday until 1972.
It’s probably not surprising that Father’s Day went unnoticed in my home, where there was no father to honor. Our father passed away in 1958 (on the day after Father’s Day, as a matter of fact), a year after Senator Smith’s rant. I was born in 1959, so I never knew my dad, but I did grow up with the three best older brothers in the world.
The night our father died, this is how my brothers heard the news, from the well-meaning but misguided minister who had been called to the house: “Boys, the time has come for you to become men. Your father has died.”
They all remember those words, which really did bring their childhoods to an abrupt end, as if they heard them yesterday.
And boy, did they step up.
When I was born, they were 15, 13, and 12, and they were the first father figures in my life. They were the ones who put on the storm windows in the fall, took them off in the spring, and fixed things around the house for our mom. With their overdeveloped sense of responsibility, they got newspaper routes to help with the family finances and stayed away from any kind of trouble throughout their teens.
When we arrived at camp for the summer, they put in the dock and float, installed new spark plugs in the outboard motor, and moved whatever heavy objects needed to be moved. (Andy chipped his front tooth carrying an iron crib down the narrow stairs from the loft for me when I was a baby.)
They picked me up and carried me on their shoulders—my mother used to say that my feet never touched the floor for my first few years. Later, they helped with my homework, taught me to play cribbage and chess, and let me help them build things in the shop in our basement. They introduced me to organic gardening, cross-country skiing, and classic country music—all things I am still enjoying four decades later.
And, long before anyone had come up with the idea of nurturing kids’ self-esteem, long before “IALAC” (I Am Lovable And Capable) became a mantra, even before Mister Rogers told us how special we all are, they made me feel lovable and capable, confident and special.
They all became wonderful fathers who raised amazing children, who in turn became wonderful parents raising their own amazing children. I like to think it helped to have me to practice on.