A story the son must finish
For most, this Sunday will be a day to toast the old man and celebrate
Father's Day as Hallmark intended. But for others—millions of us—the day
is a painful walk down a pocked road. It’s about writing the ending to an
By Bruce Kluger
I never bail in the middle of a book; I
listen to songs all the way through; I’ve
even sat through entire Adam Sandler
movies. That’s hard.
And so it is especially frustrating to me
every June when I think of my father on
Father’s Day, and once again confront
the great unfinished story that was our
For most dads, the third Sunday in June is a time to celebrate bad neckties and
good fortune. But for others it is a day of reflection, a quiet moment to assess the
complex consequences of our own back-stories. For me, this is never easy.
My dad died 14 years ago this month, four days before Father’s Day and ten days
after the birth of my first child. Those two events, simultaneous and seismic, were
like jumbo jets soaring past one another in the night sky. By then my father and I
were nearly estranged; and so consuming was the journey on which I’d just
embarked, that I barely had a moment to look back over my shoulder for a final
glimpse of Dad. But he’d already receded from view.
That he’d never gotten to hold my new baby broke my heart. That my daughters will
never get to meet their grandpa breaks it daily.
My parents divorced when I was small, so I grew up amid fractured portraits of my
father—a blurry memory here, a family legend there. It seems I’ve spent my entire
life struggling to pull Dad into focus, as if flipping through channel after channel of
I remember the funny man with the scratchy face and gravelly voice and thick, dark-
rimmed glasses. He owned a toy store in Baltimore, and every Friday night he
brought home a boxload of inventory for his four small boys—trains and teddy
bears and little silver robots with red lightbulb eyes. I was only three when I learned
the word “surplus,” and I liked hearing it.
I remember the angry man who fought loudly with Mommy, then moved away to New
York City. The house grew quieter, which I didn’t mind, and lonelier, which I did.
Over the next decade, visits with Dad grew more infrequent and less satisfying. In
1964, my brothers and I joined him and his new wife for an exciting trip to the
World's Fair. In 1974, my mom was my only parent to attend my high school
And, of course, I remember the broken man who’d amassed a fortune as a
stockbroker, only to watch it evaporate at the hands of a shady client. By then I was
living in Manhattan, a college graduate eager to show my father I could be more to
him than simply a sad reminder of his failed first marriage. My longing to forge a
bond with him was my constant companion, yet our occasional dinners at his
favorite east side steakhouse were always tortured affairs.
“Let’s get into the trenches,” he’d say, announcing once again his need to talk
about his divorce from my mother and his heartbreaking bitterness about it all. I
always left those dinners feeling empty.
So, yes, by the time Dad died, I felt a burden lift. And I convinced myself that if I
poured everything I’d ever wanted my father to be for me, into everything I wanted
to be for my own children, I’d somehow write that closing chapter to Dad’s and my
I wasn’t foolish enough to expect a happily ever after, but I thought I could conjure
something that resembled hope.
So I doted on my girls, and taught myself to enjoy Barbie dolls and Golden Books
and playing dress-up on Saturday afternoons.
I looked forward to arraying our dining table with watercolors and art pads and
bowls of fruit, if only to hear my daughters’ joyful screams—“Still life!—when they
barreled in the front door and quickly took their seats at the table.
And I learned to grapple with the crippling self-doubt each time I failed my kids,
convincing myself it was okay to have punished them, or missed a school event or,
worst of all, made them cry. The first time one of my daughters, red-faced and
furious, screamed “I hate you, Daddy!” it was like a knife to the heart. But some
deep inner-wisdom—or, more likely, survival mechanism—told me that in the
turbulent, beautiful, complicated universe of parenting, those words somehow
meant she loved me.
My daughters are now 10 and 14. Bridgette is heading off to high school, armed
with her mom’s grace and equanimity, and a dose of her dad’s mischievousness.
Audrey, like any youngest child, has a piece of all of us in her—Mommy’s love of
books, Daddy’s love of music, Bridgey’s love of life.
But both girls have their grandpa’s soul—his temper, his humor, his passion. Those
are the same gifts he gave to me. And though I’ll probably never succeed in finding
that elusive end to Dad’s and my story, I take comfort in knowing that my children,
each and every day, are writing it for me.