“What do you think about your son now?”

There are a few songs that make my eyes tear nearly every time I hear them, especially if I sing along to them, and it’s often songs that involve lyrics regarding fathers–generally estranged or returning fathers. For example:

I don’t believe in
I don’t believe in your sanctity your prophecy
I don’t believe inI don’t believe in sanctity or hypocrisy
Can everyone agree that no one should be left alone
Can everyone agree that they should not be left alone
And I feel like a newborn
And I feel like a newborn (kicking and screaming)

Could you take my picture
Cause I won’t remember [4 times]

Hey dad what do you think about your son now?
Hey dad what do you think about your son now?

–Filter “Take a Picture”


I did not believe the information
Just had to trust imagination
My heart was going boom boom, boom
Son, he said, grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.

–Peter Gabriel “Solsbury Hill”

(And of course “Cat’s in the Cradle” is among those.)
With the exception of the occasional moments when a song brings the subject up, I never think about the fact I’ve never had a father and how that may have influenced who I am. My parents divorced either before or soon after I was born and I’d never met my biological father. I have no recollection of my brother’s father, the couple of years our mother was married to him when I was about five. My last stepfather was a trucker so, he was gone much more than he was around for the years she was married to him. It’s not that he was a bad person or anything–I think was a good man, more or less. I just never developed any emotional attachment to him. When they finally divorced my only reaction was “about time.”

When he was around we did some family-like stuff together: fishing a couple of times, trips to various activities and tourist things (we were actually coming back from a family trip in the mountains when Mt. St. Helens blew in 80). But he’d come around too late in my life for me really bond with him, and he was too non-existent otherwise for me to ever think of him as anything other than this visiting guy my mom was married to.

So, in essence, I’ve never had a dad.
I had a father figure of sorts in my maternal grandfather. I’d known him all my life, often stayed with them during Summer school break. All the moving around I did as a kid, their house in Denver was always there as an anchor, a place we’d come back to between moved to California, Washington, Alaska, and various places around Colorado. So in many ways my grandfather was sort of like a dad–except not really. He was a strong, stoic, man. Owned his own construction business and worked it every day. Came home to a dinner my grandmother would make, would smoke his pipe and drink a Coors and watch TV (I mostly remember Lawrence Welk). On weekends he’d show me how to use tools (I was a hopeless case, though, I’m afraid), take us all camping or fishing. I always knew he was a Lieutenant in the Marines and fought the Pacific theater in WWII, and that added to his mystique and my respect for him. I don’t believe he ever raised his voice. He came from a line of strong German Protestant work ethic and I miss him. (I find I still can’t, years later, sit in his lounge chair when I visit my grandmother.)

But still, he was like a father once removed in more ways than just family tree. He was an archetype in many ways. It wasn’t his role to be my father, and so my mental and emotional tie to him is still very much in the realm of a loved grandfather, and the hole that’s supposed to be filled by a dad is still there.

Lately I’ve been looking in the mirror and wondering how much I look like my father. If I saw him on the street, would he look familiar to me? Our genes control so much of who we are (siblings raised in the same way by the same people often radically completely behaviors and personalities), what of who I am did I inherit? Would it have changed me in a fundamental way if I had been co-raised by the person who genetically shared part of who they were with me? His family is supposed to be very close to their Irish heritage–and the family name which I still had until my last stepfather adopted me and it was taken away, was a good Irish name that I miss dreadfully. I have no overt Irish heritage in my life (like I said, my mother’s ancestry is German/Dutch–and very much so based on the distant family reunions we used to go to). So I’m sure my strongly embracing Irish culture since I was about 10 is a psychological desire to somehow connect with my missing father. It don’t think about it, any of this, very much at all. It amazes me that I could so subconsciously pine for something I never had to begin with.

Of course, he could have been a complete dick and an abusive neglector, which would have been worse than not having a dad. I may be better off. But even so, there’s a whole realm of father/son culture that remains unfulfilled in me, allowing me to emotionally connect with those things in our culture which reinforce stereotypical father/son dynamics or lament their issues (see song quote above).

Naturally, I’ve thought a lot over the last ten years whether I can be, I am, a good father to my own daughter. I like to think having no screwed up examples to have twisted my own upbringing has made me ahead of the game. In some ways I feel like just being here in her life is a boon for both of us. (Yeah yeah, of course I know that’s just the beginning! Being a good father takes a whole heck of a lot more.) But I still can’t help but wonder if I can understand myself better by knowing the origin of half my programing code.