I used to think of my father as a step above a sperm donor because that was his main contribution to my life. I had almost no memories of him until I was age nine or ten. He never showed up at any of my birthday parties and never sent a gift in absentia. He never attended any school functions, even when I starred in a class play in elementary school, or my graduation from high school. We never went to baseball games or movies. My mother raised my sister and I on welfare on the west side of Chicago in a two-room apartment. He was rarely there.
Things changed when I was about age nine, crossing Spaulding Street, with Lois, my sister who is six years older than me.
“See that man across the street,” I said. “He’s looking at us.”
She was silent for a minute. “That’s your father,” she said.
That’s how I remember meeting Joe. We never called him dad.
Joe treated Lois and I at a restaurant that day. I ordered chocolate cake and a glass of milk, a huge treat. He and Lois talked. I remember not one word. I didn’t think I would ever see him again. And didn’t care. But Lois and I started to visit him on Saturdays at his tiny apartment a few blocks away on Madison Street. He wanted to connect with us.
Joe started giving me an allowance, 50 cents, during those Saturday visits when the price of a movie ticket was 25 cents.
In his own way, Joe was trying to be a father, probably the best father he could be. Distant and aloof, Joe never talked about the country he came from in Eastern Europe, his other family, the first woman he married and their two children and what became of them. I have a half brother and sister that I have never known. It is probably too late now to meet them.
He was the father who was never there, not in person, not emotionally, not even for a real conversation. He gave Lois and I an allowance and lunch on Saturdays. Sometimes he loaned or gave her money.
I was indifferent to him, not really angry, but I didn’t really care or think about him. I wanted to visit him for the allowance and because my mom once said, “A boy needs a father.”
Joe died on Father’s day weekend-- an appropriate checkout time for an absentee dad-- in the same year I became a father of a boy we named after me… Billy.
Children do not come with an owner’s manual. I had no theories or experience about my role or what to do as father. But I seemed to know what NOT to do, thanks to Joe. I knew that I had to be there for little Billy. I would never abandon him. As an infant, I was there to change Billy’s diaper and give him a bottle in the middle of the night, helping my wife who seemed to know exactly what a parent should do.
Over the years, I was there to help Billy with his homework, to take family vacations, to go to the swimming pool on weekends and teach him to swim, to go to the zoo, to teach him how to ride a bike. It was amazing to see the expression on his little face when he saw an elephant for the first time. When I took the training wheels off his two-wheeler and gave him that last push, he realized he could command the bike by himself, giving him a sense of freedom with his newfound mobility. It was a thrill for both of us.
So many priceless, joyful moments I earned as a dad… so many Joe did not.
I loved every age and stage my son went through as he grew up and today we are still very close, especially when we ride bikes together. My feelings about Joe gradually changed from cold indifference to pity and forgiveness. I feel sorry for Joe that he missed so much that he could have had. We were all there for Joe, but he could not be there for us for reasons I will never know. I can only forgive and let it go.