A few years ago, on a drive up through the Monterey Bay — the trip after which we decided to leave London and come live in Santa Cruz — we stopped for coffee at a tiny town called Moss Landing. From the highway there’s not much to see (there’s not a lot to see in Moss Landing from any angle, to be honest) and the only reason you’ll stop is a line of food stalls by the road, hawking produce from the Pajaro Valley that surrounds it. Suspiciously cheap avocados, artichokes, garlic, a wealth other fruit and vegetables. As I was wandering up and down the aisles I came across something that triggered a sudden visceral memory. It was a small, cookie-like thing, peanuts bound with a pale pink sugary substance. I picked it up, and smelled it, and was transported back forty years, like some low-rent Proust wearing shorts and sunglasses.
I spent a year of my childhood in New South Wales, Australia, in a small town called Armidale. One day a week I was given a little money to buy lunch at school. My mother made it the rest of the time. She didn’t get into viral-on-Facebook parenting porn like drawing a different picture on each lunch sack, but she put them together with quiet efficiency and love (mainly efficiency, I suspect, because cranking out stuff day after day is a large part of real parenting, and the love is unspoken, and comes with the territory). On that one day a week, I always bought a little box of candy that tasted identical to the thing I found at Moss Landing (I have no idea what it’s called, and it’s impossible to describe the taste except by saying it’s self-evidently not even slightly good for you). It was my favorite thing, and decades later, that’s all I remember. Not the countless times my mother made my lunch. I have no idea what she made. The usual fairly healthy stuff you put together for your kids when there’s not much time, I guess, though in the early 1970s “healthy” meant something different to what it does now. Anything that wasn't provably radioactive was pretty much fine.
Sadly I have no memory of my mother's efforts, but that’s ninety percent of parenting: providing the dependable, forgettable backdrop against which other events and people stand out and will be remembered. Moms are the bedrock of this (still, even in these slightly emancipated times, usually that unseen force that magically creates clean beds and towels and paired socks, in addition to socializing you, and providing a cloud of non-negotiable and (largely) unconditional love that will always have your back, even if at times you wish it didn’t).
But dads do it too. Quietly, covertly, distantly, even a little bad-temperedly — which is useful, in its way, because when you eventually emerge into the real world not everyone’s going to be nice to you the whole time, especially if you’re being an asshole. Father figures, regardless of their gender, give a different spin on childhood, and collaborate with you on it. You shape and constrain their path through life just as much as they help you find yours. They show you other things, provide additional information and different styles of support, and every important decision they make will have you at its heart.
To be clear, I’m not talking about me — I’m a fucking useless parent. No, seriously — ask around. I’m talking about my dad (whose love for his family is boundless, and who has relentlessly supported us regardless of how daft we're being), and other dads. They’re not just about bad jokes and mocking your choice of music and being excessively invested in sports and dutifully pushing the shopping cart back across the Safeway lot and refusing to ask for directions and obsessing about work and being grumpy for no obvious reason. Amongst other roles they bar the door against the zombie hordes of your future life and responsibilities, holding that world at bay for as long as they can; but it’s often them, too, who’ll crack it open once in a while, to give you a glimpse at what’s coming down the road; before finally throwing it wide, declaring — “Time to go slay your own zombies, my child. Call your mom once in a while, for crying out loud. Oh, and we’re putting your room on Airbnb.”
At a time when more and more people are brandishing the simplistic and divisive term “toxic masculinity”, let’s remember there’s a non-toxic type, too, and plenty of humans with a Y chromosome (and some without) who are doing the best they can to be a person worth knowing, and loving, and a dad worthy of the name. And that one of those might be your dad, and today he deserves a hug.
Make it brief, though. Don’t freak him out. Especially if he’s trying to watch the game.