In the magazine Psychology Today, Dr. Ditta Oliker recently wrote that a child’s emotional and social development depends on a positive paternal role model. And that if the father is absent, the child’s reasoning and communicating abilities lag behind.
It is unlikely that my own father, Charles McGrath, had any of that in mind while raising a family in the 1960s, in a three-bedroom brick house in Evergreen Park.
With eight children and an income of $125 a week, he was doing well just to keep us fed, clothed and out of the principal’s office or the police station.
Dad was home most nights, yet, I am skeptical of all the cognitive gain that the psychologist wrote about. I don’t remember conversations; never learned his history.
Who was his best friend growing up? Did he misbehave in school?
Did he make his WWII Army buddies laugh, the way he did us, with his impression of Ralph Kramden?
I should have asked such questions on one of those carefree Saturday nights, when he’d take off his shoes and shirt, pour a glass of Pabst beer and stretch out on the Lazee Boy.
Mother made everyone “black cows” (ice cream floats), and we’d finally settle down to watch TV.
At the end of “Gunsmoke,” we’d each kiss him on the cheek before going to bed — his sandpaper stubble, and the smell of a menthol cigarette on his clothes.
Weeknights I’d watch out the window, so I could say, “Hi, Dad” before Kenneth or Pat did. As though each of us needed to certify the world was right, the family complete, when Dad filled the house at the end of the day.
Then we’d line up by the bathroom door to wash our hands before racing to our places at the supper table.
For that was our chance to hear his grownup talk with Mom: how he reassured Cliff at the tile company about a Catholic running for president; Uncle Bill’s latest tall tale, and having to give him cab fare to get downtown; a new 33 rpm record album by Sarah Vaughan that he’d play for her after dinner; or the news that the vacation to Lauderdale by the Sea was still in play, but probably not this year.
I confess to being embarrassed that he did not look like the parent of David and Ann in my grade school reading book. How they called their dad “father,” and he did not have a round belly; and he would greet them by their whole names, asking polite questions about their roller skates and their dog named Zip.
Whereas our Dad would sneak behind and tickle us, calling me Buster, or calling my sister, whose name is Nancy, Nanny-Poo, and lift and thrust us nearly to the ceiling.
Or sometimes reach around from the steering wheel at a stoplight to give me a backhand slap on the arm if I were teasing Kevin.
The father in my children’s book always wore a blue suit and tie, while our dad liked to sit at the breakfast table in his boxer shorts, shoes and socks.
And on no page was there a picture of David and Ann hanging on to all the different parts of their father, as we did with ours, when he floated on his back at the beach in Whiting, Indiana, his toes wiggling above the surface.
Like an enormous, benevolent raft.
He died too soon, before my questions, and before the psychologist wrote her essay for Psychology Today.
Still, as another Father’s Day arrives, I imagine with pride what she might have written about my Dad.
David McGrath is Emeritus English Professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY. firstname.lastname@example.org