Every June, the card section of any store becomes dangerous. Blue becomes the dominant color — not just for graduation, but for Father’s Day.
The aisle is marked by commercial masculinity: Boxy shapes, straight edges, images of beer cans and lawnmowers and collared shirts with ties. Letters form words that speak to protection and sacrifice. Funny cards appear intimate, displaying jokes passed between two individuals who know each other well enough to laugh. There’s the Superhero Dad, the Trophy Winner Dad, the Cowboy Dad. But there’s no card for the Alcoholic Dad. And no card for the dad you rarely see.
Growing up, I always wondered what it would feel like to come home to a father sitting in a La-Z-Boy, who may be distracted by the TV but would jump in front of me if an intruder entered the house. I thought if he were there, sitting in his chair, maybe I’d stop walking so self-consciously down the street that I had a little tick in my step. Maybe my heart wouldn’t ache for the bad boys so deeply that I’d feel them turning the corner before they even came into my vision.
The Father’s Day aisle would be as inviting as the Mother’s Day one. I’d sign my name and seal the envelope and watch this dad open it from his chair with a smile. His smile would warm my insides and seep through my pores and make me as electric as my classmates. Girls would want to be me. Boys would want to be with me. My dad would have to vet each one, weeding out unworthy candidates.
As it was, I had to navigate my own way and my own worth. There was no one home to tell me how special I was. And every June, that reality came back with a force. My father’s birthday, then Father’s Day — both significant dates with empty events.
I got asked about my parents more than most kids. My ambiguous race made me a source of fascination, and my parents were, of course, the responsible parties. “I’m black and white,” I’d answer proudly. “Which one is black, and which one is white?” At this moment the asker always betrays the purity of their question, as their face morphs into one that has just peeked inside a dirty magazine. I know what they’re picturing. “My dad is black and my mom is white.” Their mind is satisfied, but the questioning rarely stops there.
Once my parents’ dichotomous identities have been verified, the questioner must know if the inevitable magnetism has forced them together, or forced them apart. Apart. Apart. Apart. At this point, they must form a complete case report to file away for clarity. “When did your parents get divorced?” the questioner asks. “They were never married.” These days, I get to skip the last question… because my dad is dead.
The word “bastard” still meant something in the 80s and 90s. Parents wed and stayed together. Children of unmarried parents were the lowest on the totem pole before Brangelina created their own United Nations of biological and adopted children. The Kardashians did not yet rule reality television, with Kourtney and on-again-off-again, boyfriend Scott Disick and their mixed-race brood; or Kim, Kanye, and North West.
I didn’t always know I was born out of wedlock, and maybe that’s why it hit so hard at the time. My mom always told others that she had been married, but one day, when I was a teenager, she corrected me for saying so. “We were basically married,” she said. “We had a civil union.”
I had always loved telling people that my parents married just years after Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 case that led the Supreme Court to rule miscegenation laws unconstitutional. As Loving Day, the annual celebration, has grown in popularity and as I have become part of a multiracial community, the celebration, while wonderful, is one more reminder that my dad wasn’t there, especially because it also falls in June.
I didn’t always know I was born out of wedlock, and maybe that’s why it hit so hard at the time.
I’ve never wished that my parents were married.
Even before I became old enough to recognize my dad’s drinking, he never seemed a good fit for my mom. And as the years progressed, my faith in his parenting dwindled. He broke promises, went silent for months at a time, and became a man I feared instead of admired. He never hurt me but he rarely protected me either. Visits were accompanied by headaches, and by the time I turned 21, I stopped coming around. But I couldn’t bring myself to lose our already tenuous relationship completely, so along with therapy, I started writing letters. He wrote back.
My dad has been gone now for 18 years.
I still have the few birthday cards he sent me as a child, but it’s the letters I treasure. The cards have wishes for happiness but the letters offer advice and give encouragement in my dad’s own words. Father’s Day cards, like any cards, are meant to represent a relationship. Finding just the right one is like discovering your loved one amongst a multitude of other identities.
My dad’s identity cannot be discovered in a card. He didn’t casually drink beer. He didn’t have a lawn to mow and he didn’t wear collared shirts with ties. The cards about fathers don’t represent the complex man my own father was. He isn’t a single sentiment. Instead, he’s words poured on pages — pages he wrote to me, and pages I now write about him.
I still avoid the Father’s Day aisle, and with social media and increased marketing, it’s even harder to escape the bombardment.
But now I have something perhaps better than a father. I have a man named Robert — a flawed man who gave me half his genes — who taught me through words and through his own bad examples to become the self-sufficient adult he was never able to be.
And if that’s not a Hallmark sentiment, I don’t know what is.