|My father, sister and I, Belgrade 1969|
Tuesday, 23 June 2015
Good Dad, Bad Dad, No Dad
The best thing my father ever did for me wasn't teaching me how to swim.
One summer in Greece when I was five, on a Papalimani Beach - the name even contains the root for "father" - my dad threw me off a dock and straight into water that was well above my head. The first thing I remember was the sea water burning my nostrils. The second, that as soon as my head bobbed up, I began raging accusations at him including the epic: "You crazy man, you tried to drown your very own child!" Our party burst into laughter. My tata (dad) told and retold this as a joke for many years. But by the time I ended my furious rant, I was a swimmer.
Father's Day did not exist in Belgrade of my childhood. Dads I knew: my tata, my amazing uncle Zoran - a second father to me who I still lovingly call Koka, my friends' dads and our neighbours were a rarely-appreciated bunch - at least publicly. They went to work, they fixed our toys, bikes and each other's cars, they mastered the art of making "pljeskavica" (famous Serbian burger) on a charcoal barbecue. They stood up to a bully, no matter whose child was being hurt. They watched soccer, dividing themselves between being the die-hard fans of either Red Star or Partizan and cursing the missed opportunities to score a goal, all the while remaining good friends. And they would get up at wee hours, coats over their PJs to come fetch us from a party. My sister knew if she were to run downstairs, all flushed from dancing and sweetly beg: "Tajkane, it's now the best part, could you come back in, say, an hour and a half?" that he would.
In all of my childhood I only remember one bad dad. There was a boy in my class who was often getting into fights. He was fearless and fast and dangerous. He lived with his single father who would show up to a parent-teacher meeting in an un-ironed shirt, dark wrinkly circles around his eyes. He smelled of alcohol and cigarettes. He would listen to the teachers’ concerns over his son's violent behaviour with only a silent nod, gaze hidden under puffy eyelids, far too calm for the list of offences. Then, my classmate would show up in school the next day with bruises. Before the day ended, he was in yet another school fight covering the home-made bruises with more honourable ones he earned while deliberately picking on a much older and stronger opponent. Years later we learned that his mother had barely escaped getting killed after one of the countless violent domestic disputes. Women's shelters were unknown. She fled to Germany, working as a gastarbeiter stealing moments to see her son while we were on overnight school-trips, twice a year.
This was my definition of a bad father. He was an addicted, sick man. It sounded like he had an excuse. Affliction comes conveniently to bad dads.
Throughout my life I have met many remarkable fathers. True heroes. The father who promptly RSVPs to his twins' tea parties. And those ones sporting glitter on their toe nails. The one who flew to the other side of the continent as fast as he could to watch over his baby girl while the socialite mom – whose turn for custody it was - was drunk, stoned and unaware that a 2-year-old can't survive if left alone at the poolside. The father whose yearly tradition was to take his kids camping in Algonquin Park in the middle of January, teaching them how to love, protect and befriend nature at -40 C. The father who welds half a year in the cold Canadian North and the rest of the time makes the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, showering his family with care and affection. And two fathers, a dad and a tata, who are masterfully raising their son with abundant love, teaching him the very essence of freedom. A dad, the soccer coach, instilling army-like discipline and precision in second graders, only to break all of his own rules as he ran victoriously across a field in East York, grin visible from the moon - with his step-son hoisted triumphantly high above his head in one arm, after the (accidentally) scored goal! Step-father? No way! Only a real father can be this amazing!
For the last several years I've been basking in the feeling of finally having back-to-back-to-back perfect Father's Days. School-made gifts I harbour for days at a time, while two sets of little feet keep anxiously stomping around them, revealing my hiding place well in advance of the Sunday morning's pancake breakfast. And the cheerful screams of "Aba, Aba!" fighting for my husband's attention as we map out the fun-filled day. This year, it was our first piano recital in a downtown Toronto gallery that our amazing teacher Viktoria holds deliberately on Father's Day. All throughout the audience I observed the beaming, glowing fathers with glint in their eyes who don't even attempt to hide how deeply moved they are by their offspring's performance, my man among them. So sexy!
But the duality of life wouldn't be complete without the bad dads, right?
The decorated police officer who after verbally abusing mom in front of their child at the end of his weekend asks: What are you going to do? Call the police? - I am the police!
And the top-notch lawyer who sinks himself into his work during a 90-hour work week only to sink into his phone for the remainder of any possible family time.
Or the oil business white-collar executive who on Father's Day writes e-mails to the son he's never met in an attempt to weasel out of paying adequate child support yet one more time.
What "bad dads" don't understand is that kids are resilient. Their kids will grow up whether they abuse or blackmail or ignore or weasel out. They will actually be better for knowing who they don't want to be when they grow up. What will become clear one day, maybe only on his deathbed, is that despite the fact that he might have been a decent father to a dozen other kids, it is all worthless if he has been a bastard to one. That’s just how it is.
And while I'm at it, a huge bow down to the single mothers doing double duty on Father's Day and every other day. I've been one and I'm in awe of you - those I don't know and those I do and am privileged to serve. One good parent is more than enough! No dad - no damage. Not bad!
The best thing my father ever did for me was to get me a signature. Mr.Popović, a Belgrade lawyer, had the power of signing a document that would forever end a year of my greatest anguish. But he refused - he was too busy. He was leaving on vacation. Cottage-bound. The office is now closed and will re-open in two weeks. Please leave a message. Beep.
I will never know how my dad did this 19 years ago, but somewhere in Serbia's cottage country the two men met. They sat down and had a glass of šljivovica my father brought. Talked about fatherhood and their daughters. And when decency and common sense finally crumbled the arrogant air of a hardened divorce attorney, Mr.Popović looked at my father earnestly and said: "I get it. What happened to your daughter is disgusting. I would have done the same thing for my child. I would gladly draft the final divorce, but this is a cottage. I don't have a computer and printer here". My father silently reached into a bag and pulled out a leather box that stored a Hermes original manual typewriter. Three crisp white sheets were already inserted, sandwiched with deep indigo blue copy paper. Mr.Popović, took a sip of šljivovica and started typing. He finished just after midnight. Pulling the papers out, the old lawyer said - "Damn! I have my stamp with me, but unfortunately no ink pad". Then he looked at my father. The moist purple cushion had already materialized in front of him.
My father was a humble, quiet man. Although he was proud of us three girls - our mom, my sister and I - he kept his praise private. And he never asked for much back.
The following morning after feeding my baby boy, I joined my parents in the kitchen for our ritual of coffee and conversation before work started at the pharmacy, and they turned into my daycare.
My mom said: Good morning darling. We have news - you divorced yesterday. You can apply for a Canadian visa now. You are free.
Happy Father's Day, Tata. Thank you!