Kathy Baker: My unfathomable father

He was tall, dark and handsome in his youth. By all accounts, he was loving, warm, dedicated to work, family and friends. A lieutenant in a big-city fire department, his name was Marty and I met him only twice, shortly before he died, when I was 25 years old and he was 63. He was my father. The mystery of my life is why Marty abandoned my mother and me (his only child) before I was born, even though he purportedly loved Mom and adored children.

After decades of processing that mystery, I found peace and closure by writing a little book a few years ago, about Marty, Mom and me, as a way to let go of the “not knowing.”

“I don’t know” is, in a nutshell, the story of my life, where dads are concerned. Fathers have always been sort of a blank spot in my life: nebulous, unfathomable. So many people have fond memories of their fathers, stepfathers or grandfathers. Or they are fathers themselves, or they know men who are wonderful fathers. To me, the chamber of my heart marked “father” has always been virtually empty.

I did grow up with a father in my house. My mother married when I was 2 years old; my stepfather adopted me. I didn’t know until I was 15 that he wasn’t my natural father. In his own way and on his own terms, I believe he cared about us kids, even though he wasn’t much of a family man. He was distant, difficult and unpredictable, yet I have a few fond memories of him. I was also grateful to him for adopting me, because it put an end to the stigma my mother suffered for having an “illegitimate” child in 1950s America.

Even though I didn’t have much experience in loving or being loved by a father, I did all right, as do legions of others who grow up without dads. It’s still possible to turn out OK, if you have a good mother and others who care about you. My mom gave us the gifts of faith and love, and taught us to forgive, to be compassionate and kind. I will always be grateful to have had such a mother.

My image of God is chock-full of female, maternal energy, as exemplified by my mother, and yet my most enduring image of the deity is as Father. I visualize a big, tall, strong daddy, a safe haven of masculine strength and protection. When I pray, I see him holding me on his lap on an old porch swing, gently rocking, keeping me safe from all harm. And all is well.

Life is a mixed bag, isn’t it? So much is beyond our control, including who our parents are. But what we can control is our attitude. That’s why I feel grateful for the bits and pieces of fathering I did have, from my dads, two wonderful fathers-in-law, and other men I’ve known, especially my late husband. He gave me unconditional acceptance, a strong shoulder to lean on and the protection of his concern and caring, in ways that fathers seem to do.

Best of all, I have two little granddaughters, each of whom has the kind of father I didn’t have. Nothing makes me happier than watching my son-in-law and my son with their little girls. It’s pure joy.

On Father’s Day, I hope you will join me in celebrating fathers, stepfathers, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, grandfathers, the fathers of our children, our friends’ fathers and all other dads. Some of them may have gone astray, some gave us a lot; others very little, but all of them gave us something of value, in the form of love, commitment, or, at the very least — simply life itself. Happy Father’s Day!

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Kathy Baker is a writer and speaker, a messenger of encouragement who loves to touch hearts and tickle souls with her work. She is the author of “Leaving Adversity Plaza,” and “A Tale of Three Choices: His, Hers, Mine.” She loves hearing from her readers and can be reached at [email protected].