On the subject of Father’s Day and cards

It’s Father’s Day, and I’m worried. Mostly because I’m not sure if the card I put in the mail to my uncle will get to Minneapolis on time. In fact, I’m almost sure it won’t. Not that it will matter, I’ll still call him, we’ll chat about life, the Twins standings, and whether, after yet another Boston championship since the time I’ve relocated to New England, my sports allegiance has finally turned (Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics were an unequivocal “no.” Bruins? That could be another story).

We BS in the classic tradition of all fathers and sons, because, well, that’s who my uncle’s been to me for my 31 years. It’s why he’s getting a card that should have been mailed earlier, but sat in my bag before I remembered to put a stamp on it.

In more ways than he may care to recognize, my Uncle (Al, if you’re curious. “Skipper” if you were my grandmother. Again, another story), is partially responsible for me being the man I am today (though I’m sure it’s completely transparent to my aunt and mother. Also, these two women, as well as my grandmother, have equal shares of the blame. Still another story). My uncle is the reason I got into Star Wars – he saw Episode IV in the theater somewhere numbering in the double digits, as he tells it, and thus was one reason I saw Phantom Menace multiple times in the theater (Maybe he shouldn’t get credit for that one). He’s the reason I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the first time I saw Kirk, Spock and Bones beam down to a planet. My love of bacon? He surpasses it. Gets fresh – meat market fresh – bacon and sausage, and has for years. And as an old family folklore goes: My first beer was his. A stolen Blatz when I was a toddler.

He was always ready to pinch hit as a dad beginning early on, starting with the annual father/son “fun run” that was usually held around one of Minneapolis’ lakes. He taught me how to drive (in a cemetery no less. It’s safer there, he said, everyone else is already dead), and twice moved me around the country; once an 8 hour trip to deposit me off at my first college apartment in Missouri, and a two-day, pan-state journey from Missouri to Maine (truly, you have not lived until you’ve seen the beauty of Akron and Hartford all in one road trip).

I didn’t have a dad, I had an uncle, and he was 10 times better, at least in my estimation (I also had a mom, who filled enough roles to supply an off-broadway show called “Raising Justin: I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.” Only later did I know she cribbed this from Cosby). In the basic math of fatherhood one guy was around, the other wasn’t. Growing up the only thing I got from my real father was my middle name, which brought its own stigma. (Granted, not because it came from him – OK, maybe a little – but because Eugene is a funny sounding name, especially in high school. It’s even more funny if your initials are JEE.)

And yet, for everything my Uncle was, he wasn’t my “dad.” A man by the name of Harry who I barely knew was. And this is the part of the story that has a familiar ring to it. That statistic you often see about little black boys growing up fatherless? I was somewhere in that percentage. Growing up without a dad wasn’t a trauma to me as much as fact: You can’t judge whether something is important if its not there. I didn’t wonder why my dad didn’t love me, why he wasn’t with my mother. He just wasn’t there. Early on I developed the kind of pragmatism you needed to grow up an only child of a working mother: Know how to make a meal, know how to get home on a bus, just know how to do. The same kind of logic that told me I couldn’t make a grilled cheese without some slices from Kraft, applied to my father: If it’s not there, it’s not there. You move on and make PB&J.

And so every June the cards went to my uncle.

And then one September a card came for me. It was 2004 and the card, addressed to me at the Press Herald newsroom, was from a Minnesota sender with the same middle as me. It was father. Caught up in the usual afternoon chaos of trying to not blow my deadline, I put the card in my desk drawer and went back to work, telling myself I’d come to it later. The card sat, eventually pilled over with notes from readers (a healthy mix of name calling, praise, and the occasional letter from the county jail that all reporters try to keep at a safe rubber-gloved length).

In the spring of 2009, the card still sat. I was talking on the phone with my mom, the typical stuff you catch up on with your mom – lots of “how’s” questions, as in “how’s Amy, the dogs, the job,” – when she tells me my father died. She found out after running into one of my half-sisters (my mother reminding me that I actually have half-sisters) at a store. Apparently Harry had died that previous January. The conversation ended as typically as it began, a “you coming back here this summer” question. We hung up, and I sat for a few minutes, phone still in my hand, like I was waiting for something to happen. And I was. I was waiting for the emotion that’s supposed to come when you get bad news, when you learn someone has died. But that same old grilled cheese logic kicked in again: If its not there, it’s not there. My biology – and my middle name – were what I shared with my father, and other than that he was an unknown, so it’s hard to mourn something you don’t know. But it’s also hard to overcome the Should Imperative. “Should I feel sad? Should I be crying? Should I reach out to find out more about him?” But it really came down to one: Should I finally open the card?

The thing about getting older is that you begin to appreciate the relationships and bonds you have around you, and the outlines of how they’ve shaped you become more and more clear. That’s just a part of becoming – hopefully – more observant, and if you’re lucky, wiser. It also turns into sharper focus as you contemplate whether you want a family of your own. As much as I defined my father by absence, that created what scientists would call ideal conditions for a void. And I could fill that black hole with an ever expanding list of questions about who my father was, what I inherited from him and what, if anything, that has to do with being a father. I could, and it would be a profoundly edifying experience that could land me a coveted book deal, or, at worst, a This American Life segment. Or, instead of probing what wasn’t there, I could look at what was: The guy who did the work. Biology, and even psychology, make way for words and deeds, so If the day comes when I’ve got to teach a little someone about Star Wars or Minnesota sports, hug them when they fall or make them a sandwich, I’ll know know it off the blueprint given to me by a man I call uncle. I’ll just misappropriate it and call it being a dad.

My uncle will most likely get his Father’s Day card on Monday, after we’ve talked about the Twins, about life at Harvard and about seeing the Sox when he and my aunt visit this summer. I’ll say, in the that joke laden, ball-busting, emotion-stripped language of guys, that I love him. That’s the thanks he deserves for a lifetime of more than just pinch-hitting or being a stand-in, of being a friend and role model more than maybe he even realizes.

There’s a chance, eventually, I’ll open the card still sitting in my desk. But for now my uncle gets the cards. Perhaps one day I’ll get mine.


4 responses

  1. What a great Father’s Day tribute to you uncle. I hope he gets to see it. Really enjoyed my visit to your blog, and will definitely be a regular reader!

    June 19, 2011 at 11:42 pm

  2. Wow. I didn’t expect to tear up, Justin, but I did. More of this, please.

    June 20, 2011 at 12:25 am

  3. victoria ellis

    You make your mother proud
    lov ya

    June 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm

  4. You are a very good writer, you know. Well done, sir. Well done.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:04 pm

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