This year I celebrated Mother’s Day for the fifth time. As we have done each year, Kathy and I asked the girls to write us letters. Although they can write about anything, we hoped they would write about the important things happening in their lives, and perhaps give a glimpse of their real feelings about family and about us. We had begun to get resistance about the writing. They would have been more comfortable if we had asked for a text message or e-mail, but there is something more personal about putting pen to paper. And I believe one can learn a good deal from someone’s manner and style of writing.
Parenthood has been a very humbling experience. In my professional life, I consider myself very calm, reasonable, and organized. Kids can destroy that façade in seconds. Even healthy and well-adjusted kids can punch buttons you didn’t know you had. They can be black holes of need, consuming great quantities of time, attention, and money.
They change our social network. Their friends’ parents claim the top of our speed-dial lists. They become, of necessity, the center of the daily schedule. And many of our friends drift away because they just don’t get the “kid thing,” or they make it clear that we are welcome, but not our kids.
A couple of months ago I wrote about the importance of family and the great variety of family compositions that exist. To repeat what I wrote then: Children are best off being reared in households with their two birth parents where the parents are stable, loving, of adequate economic means, have good parenting skills, and are part of a strong family or community support network. The fact that many children are lovingly and successfully raised by single parents, relatives, same-sex couples, foster parents, step-parents (as I was), or adoptive parents (as I am) doesn’t deny that truth. It just proves that humans are highly adaptable. Children need a baseline of loving care, strong role models of both sexes, and the fewest dislocations of parental bonds possible to become whole functioning adults.
Many family and parenting situations can provide that. Some just take a little more work. Fathers are important to girls. We are fortunate to have male friends who are happy to be part of our girls’ lives, and blessed to know two dads whose kids and ours alternate between the houses on most weekends and who have become part of our extended family.
My mother was an only child. She married in high school, had me at 18, my sister 15 months later, and was divorced immediately thereafter. When I was three, she married the man who raised me, loved me, and later gave me his last name. He was my real father; and my sister and I, his only children.
My father and my maternal grandfather were, and are, the two most important men in my life. I don’t know whether it was because they had no sons, but they lavished attention on me. My sister had her share of attention, but I was the tomboy and relished the time we spent together.
If my dad worked on the car, I was the one holding the shop light or handing him tools. If my grandfather (an organic gardener before it was cool) was hoeing weeds, I was picking bugs from the plants by hand. When they were building a fence, shingling the roof or running cable, I was helping stretch the wire, drive nails, or crawl under the house. I still use the socket wrench set my dad gave me as a birthday present in my teens, although I confess I thought it an odd gift at the time.
Both men were avid fishermen, and I caught my first fish, a tiny catfish, off the end of the Galveston seawall at about the age of 5. (And learned soon thereafter that hiding a hermit crab in my bedroom was not a good thing.)
When I was young, my dad often worked two jobs and even had a paper route for the Houston Post. Sometimes I would join him on the weekends. I can still hear the radio playing softly and the whump of papers landing as we drove slowly through the predawn streets of Memorial.
He also refereed or umpired any sport you can think of. In fact, the money he earned from that really made ends meet. And I tagged along everywhere. He worked a lot of local high school baseball games, and I spent hours playing under the bleachers and racing the boys for foul balls. I would sometimes get drafted to move the chains for peewee football games and am a fair judge of boxing.
Baseball was our favorite sport. My grandfather spent hours and hours tossing me pitches so I could learn to hit a baseball, and my dad taught me how to throw a fastball and a curve. On special occasions we would sit in the outfield bleacher seats of the Astrodome watching the Astros play.
My grandfather taught me to ride a horse. He taught me to play checkers and marbles. My dad taught me chess and backgammon. My grandfather taught me how to drive a tractor; my father, a car—manual transmission, of course. Neither was a hunter, but we raised much of our own food, and I learned to skin and dress a rabbit and get a chicken from the coop to the soup pot.
I didn’t spend much time with my other grandfather, but his approach to the world was very similar. These men also taught me many things they may not have known I was learning. They taught me the power of faith. They taught me community involvement. They taught me to say what I mean and mean what I say. They worked hard. They never complained. They never gave up.
Oh, they weren’t perfect. My dad was intensely competitive. The first time I beat him at chess was also the last time we played. They were all reserved with their emotions. I was perhaps 20 the first time my dad ever told me, in so many words, that he loved me. We both teared up. He never told me again, but then he never really had to because he showed me every day.
These good, decent, loving men died many years ago. In fact, I am the age my father was when he died. But the gifts they gave me are part of who I am every day.
Happy Father’s Day.
Annise D. Parker is Houston’s third-term city controller and one of the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houston controller.org. Parker’s television program, Money Matters, airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (Comcast) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houstontx.gov/controller/index.html. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an email to [email protected].