It’s Okay to Feel Ambivalent on Father’s Day
If the saccharine nature of Father’s Day makes you roll your eyes or get sick to your stomach , please read this. Okay?
The other day, my husband and I went to Walgreen’s to buy Father’s Day cards. One for his dad, one for mine, and then I turned to the “Grandpa” section and remembered that I don’t have any grandpas anymore.
My maternal grandfather died in 2005, and my paternal grandfather died this past January. But my husband still has a grandfather, a wonderful guy who survived Pearl Harbor, so we bought a card for him and mailed it to San Antonio, Texas.
I lost three of my four grandparents in the last year or so. I’m 44 years old, so I got to have them in my life for a very long time, and then boom boom boom, they were gone. What’s hard about losing a grandparent, of course, is that it makes you realize you will lose your parents, and that scares me to death.
I think that’s why so many of us get mushy and sentimental on Father’s Day. We’re mourning in advance. Celebrating our dads, sure, but also keenly aware that we won’t have them forever. And I am at heart a deeply sentimental kind of person.
But here’s the thing, though: some fathers suck, and some people never had a dad to begin with.
I’m fortunate. I have a great father, but I recognize that not everyone does (or did). Maybe you can’t buy Father’s Day cards because they’re all so sickly sweet and untrue. Maybe you’re secretly glad your father is gone so you don’t have to pretend you like him anymore.
A study came out recently that demonstrated that reading fiction makes us comfortable with ambiguity. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald said:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
If the above quotation is true (and I think it is) that means we must be willing to say that Father’s Day is both a wonderful and an awful occasion That a man can be a great father and a lousy one at the same time. That we can love our dads, but also hate them.
Normally, we celebrate Father’s Day by holding only one idea in our mind–Dad is great, he gives us chocolate cake–but maybe what you need today is to celebrate Ambiguous and Ambivalent Father’s Day? There’s no Hallmark Card for this holiday. What you need is literature.
The story that made me want to be a writer is by Andre Dubus: “A Father’s Story.” It’s a story about man who loves his daughter “more than truth,” and I highly recommend you take an hour or so this Father’s Day and read it. You won’t be sorry. Here are some other stories about fathers that might help you make it through today.
- Ethan Canin, “The Year of Getting to Know Us”
- Willa Cather, “Paul’s Case”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Babylon Revisited”
- Dan Chaon, “The Bees”
- Dean Bakopoulos, “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon”
- Robert Coover, “The Babysitter”
- Junot Diaz, “Fiesta, 1980″
- Tony Earley, “My Father’s Heart”
- William Faulkner, “Barn Burning”
- Zora Neale Hurston, “The Gilded Six-Bits”
- Grace Paley, “Conversation with My Father”
- John Updike, “Separating”
- Harold Brodkey, “His Son, In His Arms, In Light, Aloft”
- Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”
- Theodore Roethke, “My Papa’s Waltz” (This poem is ambiguity incarnate. Well, all good poems are ambiguity incarnate, aren’t they?)
- Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse”
- Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”
- Daniel Wallace, Big Fish
More? I’m sure there are many, many more stories (and poems and novels and films) that should be added to this list. Feel free to add them in the comments section.
Also, here are Fiona Maazel’s “10 Worst Dads in Books.” (Someone in the comments mentions that she missed one: Pap in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yep.)
May you have a wonderfully ambiguous Father’s Day.
P.S. I have linked to some stories above that should not be available on the internets. If you find a story you love via this post, promise me you will go out and pay for that writer’s book, okay? It’s the right thing to do.