The song “Father Figure” by George Michael is a little messed up and ambivalent, which perfectly describes my feelings toward my own father. But what am I gonna do about it? Happy Father’s Day everyone!
When you grow up with a somewhat absent father, you kind of latch on weirdly to other father figures. I think the ones on TV had the most profound effect on me.
If you had a dad, you might not readily understand the nuances of “the father figure.” See, I grew up with the vague notion that Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, and Tom Jones were my dads. But that’s because my mom loved them. I will always remember the warmth with which I heard my my mom sing the counterparts in duets with Neil Diamond that made me feel how I imagine other kids feel when they see their parents kiss:
Neil Diamond: “You are the sun. I am the moon. You are the words I am the tune. . .”
My mom: “I am the sun. You are the moon. I am the words. You are the tune. . .”
Together: “Play me.”
But your mom loving him is only one aspect of the father figure. There’s much more to it than that. They have to actually act fatherly towards you. This is something Neil, Elvis and Tom didn’t do. I’ll tell you who did though.
My earliest memory of my dad is watching him as he joyfully played the fiddle next to Ma while she churned butter. Pa — immortalized by Michael Landon — was a selfless, encouraging, moral, playful, loving, clever, and all-around wonderful father. It didn’t hurt that I identified pretty hard with Laura Ingalls. I know that it is good to have a father in the home. I’m sure they teach you things and you feel their love and it is important. But I’m not so sure I didn’t get a pretty real taste of that from Pa.
Then there was Mr. Rogers. In real life I might have chosen a hilarious, cool, ironic, hipster dad for myself. That would have been the wrong type of dad for me. Every kid needs a man without guile in their life — an earnest, sincere, unconditional advocate who tells you that you are just right and, even, fancy.
Alan Alda as Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce was a father figure to me by virtue of the fact that he was the man I spent the most time with. Do you have any idea how many hours of MASH I clocked as a kid? No one does. This was before people kept track of the hours of TV kids watched. Hawkeye was not like Pa or Mr. Rogers because he was a flawed man. But I understood him. He was good and interesting and hilarious and he had integrity. I also had the album Free to Be You and Me. Alan Alda sang a song called “William Wants a Doll” which broke down gender roles and told “The Story of Atlantis” where a princess beats him in a footrace so she doesn’t have to marry any unwanted suitors. So yeah. I’m a bleeding-heart, liberal, feminist because of Hawkeye. I like being this way. I like being Alan Alda’s daughter.
In the absence of a real father figure I became weirdly attached to others: Steven Keaton from Family Ties, Schneider from One Day at a Time, and of course, Cliff Huxtable. These guys did right by me. It might sound weird to you — like I have some daddy issues and maybe I do. But I turned out OK. I married a great guy and he’s a great father — you know, like the ones you see on TV?
Maybe I turned out OK because even before Hawkeye taught me about breaking down gender roles I had a mother — a real one — who was more than a mother and as much as a father. A kid could do a lot worse than that. Happy Father’s Day everyone.