The first man I ever loved never learned to cook. If no one cooked for him, he would eat out or go hungry.
We ate out a lot. I didn’t see him often. Not often enough. But not because he didn’t try.
Sometimes I’d cook for him. My specialty was instant coffee. Two heaping spoonfuls in a cup of lukewarm tap water.
He’d drink every drop, trying not to gag, insisting it was the best coffee he’d ever had.
My second specialty was mud pies. I’d stand barefoot in the creek on the farm where he lived with his mother, scooping mud into a plastic cup. He’d sit on the creek bank, licking his lips like a dog begging for a bone.
I’d stir the mud in the cup, adding creek water, just so.
“Here,” I’d say, finally, presenting it like a turkey on a platter at Thanksgiving.
Then I’d watch him pretend to wolf it down, rolling his eyes with pleasure, saying, “Mmm, mmm! You sure do know the way to a man’s heart!”
I wish you could’ve seen him.
Sometimes he made me laugh so hard I’d fall in the creek and he’d have to fish me out.
My dad wasn’t perfect. My mother would certainly agree with that and gladly elaborate.
But I knew things about him that she didn’t know. Or maybe he was just better somehow at being a father than a husband.
After they divorced, when I was 2, she stopped being his wife. But I would always be his daughter, as I am even now, almost 30 years since he died.
Here, in no order, are some things I know about my dad:
He grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains and never wanted to live anywhere else. But he took me to see the ocean once. We spent a week walking the beach and fishing off a pier. We didn’t catch much, of course, because I liked to talk more than fish. But he didn’t seem to mind.
He joined the Army in World War II and fought the Nazis, he said, “back to their front porch.” He was shot crossing the Rhine, spent months recovering, and came home to his mountains to take a job in a textile mill, changing shifts every week.
When he wasn’t at the mill, he was milking cows or plowing fields or fishing or hunting or looking for ways to spend time with my older sister and me.
He respected my mother. He never once spoke ill of her in my presence. And he never failed to send her monthly child support, or anything else we might need.
He bought a suit and a tie and wore them three times: To see me graduate from high school and college, and to escort me down the aisle at my wedding.
He loved his six grandkids, three from my sister and three from me. He was like a father to my sister’s kids who lived near him, and he flew to California a few times to get to know mine.
In his 50s, he suffered a stroke and spent seven years in a VA hospital. When he was released — with a bad limp, slurred speech and a paralyzed arm — he swore he’d never go back.
The last time I visited him at his apartment, I looked inside his fridge and laughed.
“Daddy,” I said, “when are you ever going to learn to cook?”
He grinned, and his eyes were still as blue as they are in all my memories. “Never,” he said.
A few months later, he was gone. The note he left to explain why he took his life said he was sure he had cancer and was not about to go back in a hospital.
There is so much I’ll never know about my dad — things I never asked him, and will always wish that I had.
Why do we wait until it’s too late to say what we long to say and ask what we long to know?
On Father’s Day, and other days, I remember especially two things about him: He was a good man. And he loved me.
Becoming a father is often too easy. Being a great dad takes a good man and a lot of love.
To all the great dads, now or in memories, happy Father’s Day!