Sunday, June 19, 2016

For those of us who can’t say “Happy Father’s Day” today

Well, of course we can say it to someone we know. I can say it to Jeff and Mike and new-dad Thomas, and to plenty of other men who wear the mantle of fatherhood with their own kind of tenderness.

But for those of us whose own fathers are no longer with us, Father’s Day is one that reminds us of what the word bereft means. It’s been 11 years for me—since I could last extend that greeting, in person, to the man who was my father.

I consider myself lucky, though, that five years ago I was given the chance to write an essay about a meaningful object in my life for the book Holding Dear: The Value of the Real. I chose an object that was my father’s. Here is what I wrote:

The Reliquary Cap

It is a word I have long admired. Reliquary. There is a fullness to it, a smoothness, like water gliding, sliding, over stone. Just enough syllables to slow you for a moment, a split-second pause to reflect and remember. It is a word that helps you observe the memories of what it holds.

Ever since work on this book began, I have asked myself what, should someone ask, my object of reflection/attention/affection would be. A pencil, perhaps, because I still compose the first words on paper. A white stone from one of the outer beaches that my husband and I head to, Mecca-style, early of a Cape Cod morning nearly every summer. The books I’ve had the joy of working on.

But these are objects of the present, things that speak of what’s possible, what will still be here tomorrow (or so one prefers to think). I realize that my object hold no such possibility. Just memories. A reliquary.

It is the corduroy cap that my father wore most days to work. When he came home I would often take it from him and hang it on the three-pronged hook in the room just off the kitchen.

“Country Gentleman” is the label sewn inside. The gentleman part is right but the “country” is laughable. My father was a city boy, Boston-born and –bred, a product of Boston Latin and B.U., the immigrant kid who was perfectly at home walking the streets of the South End at three o’clock in the morning. He ended up in a small town in western New York where you never knew what kind of creature (a squirrel! a chipmunk!) might jump out at you at three o’clock in the afternoon.

He doted on his daughters and I doted right back. I adored him for all the reasons girls love their fathers. But I also admired him, especially because I worked for him.

My father wore two hats: head of the school of business at St. Bonaventure University, and owner of an accounting practice. I worked for him in the latter, starting in junior high. I learned how to prepare financial statements and tax returns from him. I also learned that you never talked about a client outside of the office and that a deadline really was.

In later years, as I wised up a little, I appreciated how extraordinarily smart my father was—far more conceptual and analytical (and shrewd) than I could ever be. Much more logical, and yet so empathetic.

We were close. After he’d retired from Bona’s but still had his practice, I took to calling him at the office every week, from my home office in Florida. We would just chat. It was usually a Tuesday when I called. Our own Tuesdays with Morrie.

When he died, he was 91 and still doing tax returns and what did it matter that I knew it was his time, I was crushed. I helped my mother close his office, and I didn’t mind going through the files but the shoes were just too painful. He kept a pair there that he could slide into when he took off his winter boots. Now they looked forlorn and vulnerable. Empty. I couldn’t bear to look at them and still don’t remember what we did with them.

But his cap was there at my parents’ house, hanging on the three-pronged hook, and I told my mother I wanted it. I’ll have it dry cleaned for you, she said. No, I replied. I want it just as it is.

Because if I buried my face in the lining of it, beyond the Country Gentleman label, I could smell wisdom and love.

My father’s cap now hangs on a single hook in my house, on the side of a bookcase I face when I’m sitting in the large green chair, composing with my pencil.

Can I fully articulate why this object is the one that is most meaningful to me? No. But that’s the beauty of reliquary. It’s a word that holds mystery.
It took me five years after my father’s death before I could write that. I still don’t feel that I’ve done him justice. But I know that I miss him, not just on Father’s Day but on most days. Maybe that’s how we truly honor our fathers.