I gave my dad an onion for Father’s Day.
As Father’s Day gifts go, it was unusual, to say the least. Generally speaking, produce is not commonly given as gifts to anyone, let alone men on Father’s Day. But it is true – my dad got an onion on Father’s Day some thirty-five years ago.
I was six or seven years old – about the age my daughter is today – and holidays were special occasions. Father’s Day did not seem to have the same importance to me that Mother’s Day had, and I attributed that to the fact that I saw my mom regularly every day. I had a relationship with her. I felt close to her. So it was natural when Mother’s Day came around, I would want to honor that. I may not have understood what “honor” meant at age seven, but even a kid knows how to express love. But Father’s Day was different for me, and at the time I didn’t know why. It just wasn’t as big a deal. I wanted to get my dad a gift for the day, but I had no idea what to get the man.
Because I did not know him.
I did not see my father regularly every day. I did not have a relationship with him. I did not feel close to him. And as a result of this, I did not have any idea of what kind of gift to give him for Father’s Day.
At seven, I understood that gifts should be made of things the recipient likes. In that sense, Mother’s Day was easy, because my mom loved flowers, and she loved the artwork we would bring home from school (at least she acted like she did!), so I remember making paper flowers for her one Mother’s Day – yellow daffodils – and she demonstrated love and appreciation in return.
So I tried to think of what my father liked. And at seven years old, I could think of only two things: cigarettes and beer. Both of those were out, of course. Too young to buy either, even if I had the money to do so, which I didn’t. But what did he like? What did he enjoy?
The only thing that came to my mind was an onion. This is because I had seen my father eat onions all the time. The cutting board of our kitchen frequently smelled strongly of onions, for he would slice off the ends of the onion, then peel the papery outer layers of the onion and leave the remnants on the cutting board, much to my mother’s vexation.
My father would eat the raw onion like an apple — biting into it whole.
At the time, as a kid, the only thing I thought about this was, “yuck”. (Actually, as an adult, I still think “yuck” at the idea of eating an onion like an apple.) But he did a lot of things that I considered “yucky” when I was a little boy – he hunted and killed deer and elk; he fished for trout and salmon and all manner of water-dwelling creatures whose taste did not agree with me; the smoking and drinking were very unappealing. So it was just one more thing about him I didn’t understand.
But I figured, he liked onions – I’ll get him an onion. So a few days before Father’s Day, I got the biggest onion I could find in the onion bin at the grocery store, and in order to make it a surprise, I hid it behind the couch until Sunday morning, and gave it to him as a gift.
I remember the appreciative look on his face, a sort of tolerant detachment that he always seemed to favor me with whenever we did actually interact. He thanked me for the onion, saying it was “real nice”. Eventually, he ate it.
It was not until many, many years later that I learned the only reason he ate raw onions was to mask the odor of alcohol on his breath when he went to work.
My father drank, and my father experienced much loss through the years related to his problems with alcohol. Whether he recognizes the loss of a relationship with his youngest son, I don’t know. He doesn’t really talk about that.
Today, we speak at holidays and such, and when we do, we speak of surface things – the weather, his boat, any luck he may have had at the casino recently… He’ll ask about me, and I’ll give him the “bird bath” version of my life (not going very deep), and he may ask about his grandchildren, depending on how the conversation is going. Eventually, one of us will mention the time and how we ought to let the other one go, and we say goodbye and hang up. And that brief, awkward interaction will last me for another six months, or until another holiday comes around.
No, it’s not the kind of relationship I want with my dad, but it’s the relationship I have. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “fake it til I make it”, but no matter what I have done, I’ve never been able to cultivate any sort of bond with the man. I’ve tried, but I can’t conjure something from nothing. I’m not that good of a magician.
I spent many years in a lot of anger and sadness about my father. I felt like I got “ripped off” in the dad department, when I’d see my friends with dads who participated in their lives and I had a man who lived in the same house with me but was completely unavailable.
I felt like my father never gave me anything other than a legacy of wreckage and loss, of heartbreak and missed opportunity. Gifts no child would want. As an adult, I came to feel such resentment over this – and of course, that resentment was only poisoning me.
When I learned that “forgiveness” was something that I do for myself, and not something that I bestow upon another person once I deem them worthy, I took a big step forward in my emotional growth. A wise person once pointed out to me that to forgive simply means “to see it another way”. If I can see something from another viewpoint aside from my own, it allows space to breathe, to contemplate, to release.
How I could “see it another way” in my father’s case was, “He did the best he could, and his best wasn’t all that good — according to me.” And – he was a sick man, a man with his own wounds, and was unable to give his youngest son what he needed most. But he did the best he could. The truth is, if he could have done better, he would have.
Today I’ve gotten to the point where I am “okay” with this. It is not what I would want for myself, but it’s okay. But every now and then, I get into a little bit of self-pity, and I go down that path of “I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that, I missed out on this, I wish I could’ve done that…” Pointless wallowing in my own disappointment and sadness – it’s a slippery slope into a trap, and I best avoid it at all costs. For when I fall into that trap, I get stuck, and misery ensues. I’ve found the way out of self-pity is to be of service — to get out of self, and into others.
Today, I have two kids who know their Dad loves them completely. They have seen their father dress up in costume, play games, have impromptu Saturday Night Living Room Dance Parties, teach them about life, hug them when they cry, blow raspberries on their bellies while they giggle and squeal, race with them, help them make good choices, talk to them in funny voices, introduce them to art and music and nature and Spirit, dazzle them with my vast knowledge of the universe, and–if I’m lucky–get them to eat a vegetable once in a while.
Nobody taught me how to do this. Nobody told me this is what I should do for my kids. I didn’t read this anywhere. All of this came to me from a simple question: what did I want my dad to do when I was their age? From the time they were babies, that has been my guiding thought in how best to serve my kids – to be the kind of father I wanted to have for myself.
And I’m a fantastic Dad. In a way, I have my father to thank for this — for it was his parenting that engendered this vigilance I feel to be that fantastic Dad. Because of the example he provided in how not to be a father, I have become a better dad, and a better man.
I guess he did give me a worthwhile gift after all. Maybe I’ll thank him for it when I call to wish him a Happy Father’s Day.