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June 21, 2009

When I was about eight years old I was puzzling aloud about all the holidays for parents. There was Mother’s Day; there was Father’s Day. So I asked my Dad, “When is children’s day?” He replied, straight-faced, though I’m sure he wanted to laugh, “Every day is children’s day.” At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant, as I had never seen children’s day officially celebrated. But while some have called growing up a process of slowly forgetting, I think of growing up as a process of slowly understanding. As we observe Father’s Day today, I remember my Dad, who was a member of the World War II Greatest Generation, and reflect on what we can learn as we strive to impart wisdom to the next generation of sons?

As a child I was captivated by the tidbits of information I could occasionally glean from my parents’ discussion of my Dad in “The War.” My father was very reluctant to talk about the war, despite having earned a silver star and two purple hearts during his four years in the Pacific zone. Much later, I came to understand that my Dad’s war heroism had traumatized him, and that no one particularly likes to revisit trauma. Only when he was in his late seventies did he more freely discuss why he refused the lofty invitation to extend his Pacific tour of duty to witness the surrender of Japan—he wanted to go home.

While I admired my father tremendously for his endurance, intelligence, and sense of humor, like many children of that era, I longed for more of him. His detachment and difficulty connecting with his kids was in part a by-product of that Greatest Generation when the everyday tasks of parenting were left to the Moms. Mom was the switchboard, the writer of letters, the wiper of tears, the organizer of events, the communicator, left to explain my Dad, until finally, at the age of thirty I insisted that I get to know him myself. Because what I wanted to value was who he was, not what he’d done. And that was the lesson that I hoped as a parent to pass on to my own children. That they could know their father for who he was, without waiting until an advanced age to figure it out.

What did that require of me as a mother? I resolved not to be a gatekeeper, not to be the sole expert on the children. When the children came to me with a complaint about their Dad, I helped them address him in person, rather than simply settling for explaining him or his mood. We shared more. I got more help around the house and kids than my Mother ever did. Like many women of my generation, I shared more of the responsibilities for income, leaving my husband freer of some of the traditional provider worries, freer to have fun with the kids, freer to help me worry about them too. So I honor both great generations of fathers today—My father’s greatest generation, and my husband’s generation–who won’t have their deeds recorded in glory, but in the very slow process of my sons’ understanding of all he has been to them. It’s a lesson worth passing on.

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