Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Measure of a Father"s Love

My father and Butch, our chihuahua

The Measure of a Father’s Love

A recent article about how having a daughter changes a man's life inspired this article. I'm not sure how my birth changed my father, but his love and guidance certainly altered, in positive ways, the many paths of my life.

            How do you measure the love of a father for a daughter? In the case of my dad, B. M. Foster, that love was beyond measure. Throughout our short time together, he was the one who dried my tears, made my school lunches, corrected me when I was wrong (often), and scolded me when I was foolish, but never laid a hand on me in anger. In fact, we shared a secret about that. When I was 10, he came home from work one day and was confronted by my outraged mother with a list of my misdeeds—and there were many. My father nodded, commiserated with her, then took me into the bathroom where I proceeded to cry while he slapped the wall with a rolled-up towel.
             Good parenting? Probably not.
But I always knew I was safe and secure and loved and that was very important to the daughter of two alcoholics.
            Mother and Dad divorced two years later—a relief to everyone—and although Mother had legal custody, she remarried almost immediately and the family agreed it would be better if I lived with Dad. I didn’t mind. Mother was very unpredictable. Dad used to say he stayed with her because he never knew what surprises the monthly full moon would bring. But he also loved her till the day he died and never remarried.
         (We didn’t have a car. Mother’s side had the money, the limo with a chauffeur, and the live-in housekeeper, and gardener.Dad's adopted father, Jack Foster) had owned and operated the only brickyard in DuBois, Pa., but the money had vanished during the Great Depression.)   Then one night as Dad walked his regular five miles home from work, he was badly beaten and robbed. He spent months in the VA hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. Every week he wrote me a long letter, assuring me he was fine, and enclosing a dollar for me to spend any way I wanted. I don’t know where he got it because money was always tight and salaries in Florida were, and are, some of the lowest in the nation.
          In his letters from the hospital, he finally told me he’d lost his left eye. But Dad was never one to feel sorry for himself. He nicknamed his glass eye Pete and joked about it. I’m sure he did that so I wouldn’t worry. However, when he returned, he became almost reclusive and took the night shift at the hotel where we now lived. People in town noticed because most everyone loved Dad. And why not?  He was funny, kind, and nonjudgmental.  Long before the Civil Rights movement, he treated the African Americans who worked at the hotel with respect and affection. There were only two Jewish families in Fort Myers at the time, and he respected them and their religion and taught me to do the same. But after Pete, when he got off work in the morning instead of sitting out front of the hotel on one of  the benches and talking with friends who worked in the businesses lining First Street, he went to the Elks Club and, in the grand ballroom on the second floor, played the piano for hours. He’d once had two dance bands in Pennsylvania.
          It was important to Dad that I get a good education and learn to think for myself, and one of the first things he did when we moved into the hotel was to take me to the public library where I obtained a card. A few weeks later, I attempted to check out James M. Cain's God’s Little Acre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I was 12 and the librarian refused to give me the books, saying I was too young. I went home and told Dad. I wasn’t complaining, I was respectful to authority, but we shared everything. The next day, Dad took me back to the library, asked to see the librarian and politely explained that he had confidence in me and my intelligence. He told her he did not limit what I could read or the movies I saw, and he would appreciate it if the librarian understood that I was to check out and read any book I chose. Shaking her head in what I’m sure was apprehension, she agreed and the world of books was mine.
          As I entered high school, I shared my one secret—I didn’t want to be a nurse, librarian, secretary, or sales girl. I didn’t want to marry and have children—families hurt too much. I wanted to be a writer.
          Dad didn’t say much, he just began saving money. Then one afternoon several months later, I came home from school and, thinking he was asleep which he usually was, I took the money and went to the movies. (Dad always left his billfold on the dresser so I could take what I needed and I never violated that trust.) I was sitting in the movie when Dad came in and insisted I leave with him. He couldn’t wait. He took me to Parker’s Bookstore where he proudly presented me with my first typewriter, a portable with a snazzy carrying case. I took it to college with me the next year.
          At college in my spare time, I wrote articles and short stories and sent them home. Dad read them and mailed them for me, then sending me the rejection letters and always including notes chastising the short-sighted editors who would one day clamor for my work.  When I sold my first poem, he sent a fake news item he’d written describing the gala in which he and Butch, our Chihuahua, and Butch’s friends celebrated my success as a writer. In truth, Butch feasted on a prime cut of roast beef and Dad toasted me in absentia with a soft drink. He’d joined AA and given up drinking after I refused to come home one holiday because he always got drunk at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I cherish a photo of Dad at my college graduation. He’s standing in front of my sorority house at the University of Florida with his hands on his hips, looking as cocky and proud as if someone had just handed him a winning lottery ticket.
           I was with Dad when he died and he gave me one last gift. An hour or so before he passed, he smiled, murmured he loved me, kissed my hand, then lapsed unconscious. It was the longest and saddest night of my life. Just before dawn, he sat up in the hospital bed, stretched a hand to someone only he could see, smiled happily, and fell back on the pillow. He was gone. But in that last gesture, he taught me not to fear death.
          Wherever he is, I love him—beyond measure—as he loved me.

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