Father’s Day weekend is upon us, and this year I am having all sorts of conflicting emotions about Father’s Day. I am musing a lot about my relationship to this weekend and am thinking about the past, present — and surprisingly — the future as it relates to Father’s Day.
To me, Father’s Day has always been about my dad, the late Henry Joseph Fitzwater. My daddy was a very quiet man, but he wielded a big stick (literally) in my life. He married my mother at a very young age in her life, and they had me shortly after they married. Sometimes I think my daddy may have resented all the changes that came into his life as a result of being married and having a son, but c’est le vie.
I grew up in a very poor household, but never seemed to know our financial situation as there was always food on the table, a roof over our head, and always clothes on our back. Despite whatever resentment he may have had about his lot in life, my daddy worked his tail off to support his growing family. He worked two jobs, sometimes three, to take care of us. It was a work ethic that is inculcated into the very fabric of my being.
As a result of his having to work so many jobs, the upkeep of the house and yard fell to me at a very young age. My daddy always had a list of things for me to do, from cutting the grass to sweeping out the garage and basement to trimming the bushes and plants — I had to do all these chores for him from the early echoes of my memory. He was a fastidious man and was a taskmaster if the work wasn’t done properly. I remember him coming home from work one day and checking to see if I had cleaned and swept out the garage. I thought I had done a darn good job of cleaning it for him, but when he came home, he was madder than a hornet. After the usual beating, he took me in the garage and pointed to the trash cans in the corner of the garage.
“How come you didn’t move the cans and sweep behind them?” he inquired. “Now, take everything out of the garage and start all over and do it again. Do it right this time.”
I learned to do it right the first time after lessons like that.
My dad and I had a testy relationship as I grew up, and there were times when I wondered if he even liked me or loved me. He never told me or my sisters he loved us. We teased him about it, but he never said it.
I spoke with my mother about it a lot, and she told I was wrong about my dad. She always assured me he loved me and was very proud of me. I doubted her word until one day when I came home from college and stopped into where my dad worked. He was somewhere else in the building, but all his co-workers came up to me and started asking me questions and congratulating me on some of the accomplishments I had achieved.
How did you hear about this or that, I would ask his co-workers. “Your dad brags on you all the time. He never shuts up about you.” I couldn’t believe it, but boy, was I one happy and proud son.
I came to realize over the years that my dad was from a different generation, and he grew up poor and under tough life circumstances. He did the best he could, and he raised a family of five and every one of his children have gone on to live good and successful lives.
He became my hero, and boy, do I miss him now. Just one more time I would like to talk to him and tell him I love him and keep teasing him to tell me he loved me.
With that in mind, I have reflected on the pros and cons of my own role as a father to my four children. Because of how my daddy kept his feelings to himself, I vowed I would always tell my children how much I loved them. And I do that to this day — every time we talk the conversation ends with an “I love you.”
I worked hard to support my children and helped pay their way through college. They never wanted for anything, but I always tried to instill a strong set of values, work ethic, public service, and empathy in them. Whenever something conflicting came up in their lives, I always asked them, “How do you feel about that?” I wanted them to deal with their emotions so they could make rational decisions. Now, whenever something comes up, I smile when I hear them throw that back at me: “Dad, well how do you feel about that?”
But there are regrets I have as a father to my four children. When they were in their teenage years, my wife and I divorced. I moved out of the house and told my ex to keep the house because I wanted our kids to be in familiar surroundings. We became great friends, and even went on family vacations together with our children so they could have a mom and dad figure in front of them.
But I missed a lot. It is the greatest regret of my life to have not been there all the time for them. I cannot even begin to explain or describe the guilt I feel to this day over that. They still love their dad, and their greatest joy when we all get together is to tell “Dad stories” — the foibles and follies that I committed in their eyes that bring gales of laughter to them.
But when it comes to Father’s Day with my children, it is the second greatest regret that I have. As the children got older and I tried to figure out how I could help them with college, I created a second job for myself. I started a publication called the Midwest Racing Scene, and for 15 years it was the bible of auto racing in the Midwest. One of my jobs was covering Michigan International Raceway. Every year NASCAR’s first Michigan stop was always on Father’s Day. So guess where I was? At the racetrack without my children on the biggest day of the year for a dad. We always worked around it, and as they got older, I took some of them with me. Now that I am much older, I regret not having that day with them just for us.
Because of these regrets, I have tried to forge these thoughts into my children and especially to my sons. The lessons of my past I have tried to impart to them so that they can be better husbands, fathers, brothers and yes, even friends to their old man.
They are a great group of kids, and now they are raising their own families. There are five grandchildren in three of the four households, and they all know how much their grandfather loves them. And the best part of all, at this stage of my life, they all love me too. Unconditionally. It is the best gift I could have this weekend.
Here is my personal wish for a Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads, Granddads, and Fathers to be.
I inherited that calm from my father, who was a farmer. You sow, you wait for good or bad weather, you harvest, but working is something you always need to do. — Miguel Indurain.