All vital human relationships are complex, and this one is no exception. Some think of their fathers with pain, some with loss, some not at all. My story, though, is one of love and strength for which I will be forever grateful.
Here is a picture of my father from around 1949, when he and my mother married. He was already a veteran of WWII, having served as a radioman in Paris after it was liberated from German occupation. He had graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Electrical Engineering and been hired by AT&T, the company that held a monopoly on telephone services for decades. Working for a big company like that meant frequent reassignments, and he and my mother moved every two years until I was in middle school, at which point his career took him to corporate headquarters in New York City and we settled in New Jersey.
This is a more recent picture, from around 1970. This is my father as I remember him. After my mother’s death he remarried, and after he retired they moved to Florida where he lived until his death in 2005.
For most of my early life, my father was my rock. Since we moved so much, and since I’m an introvert at heart and don’t make friends easily, family was the main constant in my life. This mostly translated to a reliance on my father. Mom started showing signs of the illness that killed her while I was in grade school, and the only other family I had was a younger sister who looked up to me, rather than the other way around. In this environment my father was a source of strength and stability I relied on every day. My rock.
That metaphor has a problem, though. Rocks are strong and dependable, but they also weigh you down. That doesn’t describe my father at all. Without any specific words being said, I knew my future could hold whatever dreams I wanted. For instance, he had no hesitation about sharing his love of science and engineering with his daughters. I remember when I was maybe 10 years old sitting at the kitchen table while he drew diagrams and we worked through what would happen if someone fell into a hole that went all the way through the center of the earth and out the other side. After discussing the ideal case, which leads to perpetual oscillation as you fall down one side and up the other and back again, he brought in the idea of wind resistance, and then the final closing argument about the impossibility of such a hole in the first place. That was the engineer in him, focused on practicality.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how unusual it was for a man of his generation to treat his girls with respect for their minds and their hands. He let me and my sister play around with the oscilloscope in his workshop and taught us about frequencies. We were his assistants as he re-wired electrical circuits in the house. I could barely hold a hammer when he gave me some scrap wood and a box of nails and coached me until I could drive them straight and true. I still bristle when I see pliers in the jewelry section of craft stores, marketed to women, with built-in springs to open them up again after gripping something. They don’t think I know how to use pliers? This wasn’t just his attitude toward his daughters, either, but toward women in general. He told with glee about the time when he and my mother were building a small electric organ from a kit that included basic electrical components, including resistors. One of my father’s colleagues from work called the house one day asking for Dad, but Mom said he wasn’t home. After dinner the colleague called back and told Dad he was embarrassed to say he couldn’t remember the resistor color code (a system of using little colored stripes that specify the resistance value in ohms). Dad answered his question, but added, “Judy could have told you.” Yes, way back in the 1950s my father called out a colleague for his casual assumption that a woman couldn’t know a basic feature of electrical engineering. He never, not once, implied that I might be limited by my gender.
So here’s to all fathers who give their children, boy or girl, the tools and confidence to reach their dreams. Rocks made for climbing, for launching into a bright future. Happy Father’s Day.