Emotional Health

Fourth of July: Freedom, Fireworks, and Fathers

When I was growing up, mothers dominated the Thanksgiving and December holidays. They were food-, child-, and gift-oriented, and those were traditionally female activities. Fathers would participate in the main event, but other than picking out the Christmas tree or putting the toys together, they were supporting players in family life in many nuclear families. Summer, however, has always been a time for fathers to spend time with their children, and there is no holiday—other than Father’s Day itself—that is more dominated by Dad than July Fourth. It’s he who brings out the sparklers, prepares the grill, and helps roast the marshmallows at the beach.

My father was a weekend boater, an amateur who delighted in the small white powerboat that he named Ghost. He seemed to love the Fourth, which gave him the opportunity to actually go somewhere specific in the boat, because a local judge used to set off fireworks over the bay near where we lived.

We would all be bundled in lifejackets and sweatshirts as the sun was going down, setting out as if we were going on a grand adventure that might end at Gilligan’s Island. The fun part was supposedly the fireworks, but much more exciting and rare was an outing with Dad, who seemed to always be working and who came home even on weekends with three briefcases. (It never occurred to me to wonder how he actually carried three at once, but now I do.) On summer afternoons, he would sit out on the porch, plowing through papers and documents or writing notes on a legal pad with the black felt markers he used exclusively.

It was a time when fathers didn’t cook, change diapers, or even play much with their kids, especially if they were girls. There were rare exceptions. One father on my block, a busy surgeon, delighted in leading the neighborhood gang trick-or-treating, and it was he who led the annual Christmas carolers.

Most fathers were special, partly because their appearances were as rare as celebrity sightings. They were not present at birthday parties, for example, something that is routine today, when Dad is usually taking videos of his kids’ every achievement.

But summer was better. Businesses slowed down for most dads, and they would show up at the beach and even play baseball with the kids from time to time. It never occurred to us to question this arrangement, grateful as we were for this seasonal improvement.

There was an early express train that ran on Friday afternoons, the 5:21, known locally as the “daddy train.” Mothers and kids would eagerly await its arrival in the waning sunlight, sometimes putting pennies on the tracks and retrieving them after the train went through, flattened and illegible.

Dad would step off, in his dark suit and three briefcases, and we would shuttle him home in the Ford station wagon with faux wood paneling on its sides. My mother was always happier when he was home, and the world seemed restored to safety and tranquility.

I never thought of myself as lucky to have a father, since in those days everyone seemed to have one, although I did have a few friends whose parents were divorced. Every year there was one day in the calendar at school, called Father’s Day, when dads were invited to spend the day visiting us in the classroom (mothers could come individually whenever they wanted).  One year, probably when we were in fourth grade, my friend Alex’s father didn’t come. He was one of the divorced dads and had recently remarried a younger woman and had a new baby.

The day was structured so that each father could participate in activities with his own child. This made it particularly awkward for Alex, who had to go through the day alone, with no one looking over her shoulder. The teacher asked her if she would like one of the other fathers to join along with her.

Eventually she spoke up, in her small and uniquely raspy voice, and asked the teacher if my father could look at her project as well as mine. It struck me for the first time that I was advantaged—to have a father at home, lucky to have him be there at school, and pleased that he was there to be Alex’s father surrogate that day.

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  • Mickey M. June 29, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you so much, Dr. Ford, for sharing this about your father. Hugs to you and yours.

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