Happy Father’s Day: Only For The Lucky

I don’t remember exactly when this happened, but I’m sure it wasn’t Father’s Day. I was in my room at my parents’ house (that they still have a room specifically for me even though they’ve moved and downsized and I now live in a different state says a lot about our relationship). My dresser there has some old, old inhabitants: T-shirts advertising childhood summer programs, elementary school report cards, fabulous ancient sweaters that still look brand new because I never wore them: they never fit me right, or they were too feminine, or something.

Sometimes I like to look through that stuff, remembering the times and events various items represent. I was reliving the difficulties that led to a C-minus in fourth-grade math when a little card kind of fell into my hand. It had a picture of me as a newborn and a note from my father to my mother: “Congratulations to my honey whom I love, who gave me another honey to love.”

I felt embraced, but with a shot of longing for easier times. What a pure, beautiful message. My welcome into the world, from one creator to the other. Everything was possible then: I’d never failed at anything, never damaged any chances, never harmed myself or alienated anyone else. I had brown hair, very thick for a new baby, and I was smiling—genuinely, it seemed. I didn’t know enough to feel weird about getting photographed and wind up with an expression that would make me look like a lost, awkward misfit.

I brought the card downstairs, where my parents were watching television. “Check out what I just found.”

My mother took a look and said: “Oh, right. I found that a while ago and put it in your room. I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” My father glanced at it, caught my eye, and laughed. They asked me if I had ever seen the show they had on: The Good Wife. I had, a few times, but only with them. They went back to watching, and I joined them.

It was all just casual: not a big, booming moment of celebration or acknowledgement. They wanted and loved me. Despite our more than occasional tiffs, I understood that implicitly—and still do. For that matter, they know that I appreciate our relationship: personal aspects that I’d never admit to anyone else, and more general, common things, like the fact that they both read all of my serious writing—and it captivates them, deeply, just because it’s me, even though they’re a couple of practical souls who don’t generally share my interests in mystical quests or the wise lunatics who wander the streets near my home.

We greatly value each other every day (except, perhaps, if we’re really arguing, but if we are, we’re sure to apologize and forgive each other two minutes later). We don’t need a holiday for this; we just need ourselves, and a dose of mindfulness about our intertwined lives.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. I love thinking about your note today. But I’m also remembering another Father’s Day, a few years ago, when you complained that your college friends would always celebrate this holiday, while you stuck with your usual plans because your father had died.

Like so many forces in our lives, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day reinforce the gifts of the fortunate. Those who lack what most people have will feel even worse if a specific day is designated for celebrating what, to them, is a gaping sore spot.

I’d never thought much about this issue until recently, as I’ve always been one of the lucky ones in this respect (and I’ll send out a deep siren of a prayer that this should continue for years and years and maybe even forever, since I’m no stranger to spiritual hopes). But I had a Hevria article due on Mother’s Day too, and I didn’t really notice until I’d already written an unrelated article for that day.

I would have had time to write a new one focusing on my mother, but I wasn’t sure if that would be the right move—especially since most Hasidim I’ve known don’t really celebrate Mother’s Day, and some of the readers here hail from that tradition. I figured I’d get advice straight from the source: my mother. “Don’t write about me,” she said immediately. “I hate Mother’s Day.”

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Needless to say, I was shocked. “Are you serious?”

“Not everyone has a mother.” I thought perhaps she was thinking about herself—my grandmother, unfortunately, is no longer living. But she had something even worse on her mind: “Think about a child in school, when Mother’s Day is coming up. Your teacher is asking you to make cards for your mother, write poems about her, whatever. How would a kid without a mother feel?” I think that question’s answer just may be the quintessence of sadness.

We could easily make a “greatest good for the greatest number” argument here. For many kids, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are fantastic events that teach about giving, gratitude, and interpersonal closeness. All those cards and poems they’re asked to craft can draw their families closer and give children an early sense that people you love can inspire your work and your creative soul. Maybe we shouldn’t give that up for the sake of the rare child with a deceased parent.

But when I think about benefits vs. losses, I veer towards my mother’s view. On any day of the school year, teachers could give assignments asking students to think about someone they’re close to—a parent, a friend, a fabulous neighbor… whoever. Teachers could give kids the idea that parents are fantastic inspirations for this sort of thing… but so is your babysitter, if that’s who comes to mind. Of course, it’s possible a child won’t be close to anyone, but if that comes out, it’s probably good to know so the school can intervene and try to help.

The kids who want to use their parents for inspiration can do so very easily. Teachers can also encourage students to be giving just in general, and include assignments that involve imagining what someone you’re close to might enjoy and trying to make that happen. Kids and families who would have enjoyed Mother’s Day and Father’s Day would lose a bit of specificity, but the ramifications here are not grave. Since they might have been grave for the child who has no parent to receive her Father’s Day or Mother’s Day card, my mind is made up.

And it goes far beyond death. Far too many kids (and grown-up kids) associate parents with abandonment or abuse. What about the boy who is asked to make a card expressing love for the mother who beats him with a belt twice a day? Or the one in foster care, who left terrorizing parents for unpleasant, uncaring legal caretakers? These holidays dig open the wounds of the unlucky.

Not to mention… mothers and fathers don’t live forever, even for the fortunate individuals who have loving, healthy, long-lived parents. Many readers will say: when your parents are gone, it’s all about your own kids. But more and more people aren’t having children. These holidays kind of strike me as a subliminal message that reproduction is the rightful path for absolutely everyone. Don’t reproduce—whether for social, biological, or personal reasons—and your time will come when those omnipresent Parent Days will mostly be about mourning.

Those who are missing only parents on those days might actually feel thankful compared to people whose children have died. Imagine Father’s Day for a man whose wife and only child have perished in a car accident. Where will he go while all the restaurants and backyards are filled with people celebrating joys that he has lost?

During my year among Brooklyn’s Lubavitcher Hasidim, I was intrigued that most of my new friends did not celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. My bright, no-nonsense neighbor chuckled when I brought it up; then she explained: “Every day is Mother’s Day, and every day is Father’s Day. We honor our parents every day of the year.”

I’d go further and say: every day, we should appreciate all those who do—and did—embrace us and love us despite all our grating and even infuriating traits. We don’t require holidays for that. We just need aware, open eyes that notice all the good people and fine-tuned hearts that can savor their warmth.