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Memories of Dads

June 16, 2002

"I'm sure you checked the gas tank first," the passing father said to the teenage boy who was muttering mightily over the stupid lawn mower's stubborn refusal to start. "Of course!" the boy replied with great dishonest impatience. When the father had gone, the boy discovered the tank bone-dry and confronted his own stupidity in private embarrassment. That lesson about motors--and the larger instruction on fathering--were not forgotten. They come to mind still today, even after many other lessons and Father's Days.

There are as many styles to essential parenting as there are dutiful parents, and countless lessons to be learned and passed on during our individual bumpy journeys to and through adulthood and parenthood. For many in modern single-parent families, those "fathers" who teach with patience and above all, love, come in the form of coaches or teachers. Some parental styles complement each other; others conflict. All are essential in shaping the adult-to-be and the fuzzy auras that surround the two sentimental Sundays we annually devote to fathers and mothers, present and passed.

Much of the Father's Day focus, for obvious commercial reasons, is on youngsters acknowledging their male parent with a gift, often a gadget or an item of clothing. It's heartwarming and it sells things. You know the advertisements with too-perfect family groupings reveling in the sand, piling on Dad, everyone smiling and not one jelly stain in sight. If those are real families, we'll eat the new shirts. The Father's Day reality, of course, is closer to a bleary-eyed Dad, who thought he might sleep in, being awakened to accept loving special delivery of orange juice, some of which remains in the glass.

But there is another sort of Father's Day observance, as invisible as the lessons fathers teach, though no less meaningful. That's the time today when sons and daughters pause to recall in the privacy of their own imperfect memories some of the tiny moments with their dads. The big hands and strong arms that lifted them once so high over a scary hole. The hard knees that once bounced so hard, the childish giggles caught in the throat. The weak jokes and firm handshakes. The familiar face appearing in the stands when he was supposed to be many miles away. The perfectly timed postgame ice cream that melted the memory of the Little League error. And the shared, seemingly spontaneous memory of his own athletic stumble many years before.

They can't make Father's Day greeting cards to recall those kinds of memories. They don't have to.

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