My father passed away last year, just short of 90 years old. He had been suffering from dementia for several years and he could no longer recognize me or remember who I was. But, even before then, we were not close. He maintained contact with me out of a kind of weird sense of obligation. When we spoke, there was an implicit understanding that I would tell him things about his grandchildren — not because he was genuinely interested in them, but because he needed to know things about them to fend off his wife who believed he should take an interest in them. At least, that was how it felt to me.

My father did not like me as a child or, especially, as a young adult. He was always clever with a quip or turn of phrase, often at the expense of other people. As a child, when he turned this form of “humor” on me, I felt compelled to do the same to him. But where he could be clever, I was merely offensive and he was often furious with me for being obnoxious and rude. Once he angrily told me to get out of the car on the side of the road miles from anywhere, driving a short distance ahead, and then stopping and angrily telling me to get back in the car.

He lamented that I was lazy and fat and a poor student. He made it clear that I did not measure up. As a teenager, I became withdrawn and antisocial. When I started smoking, he was livid and told my mother he was writing me off. My mother said she would be glad to take me. My relationship with my mother was probably what saved me: she always loved both her children unconditionally and without qualification.

As a child, I craved approval and wanted to be closer to my father, but he only accepted interaction on his terms. He was never interested in learning about or doing any of the things I wanted to do. But there were places where our interests aligned. He spent a lot of time in the field as a biologist. And, as I expressed an interest in herpetology, I could go with him into the field and — while he looked for birds — I would scour the ground for reptiles and amphibians.

When I finished my PhD and was hired for a faculty position at a prestigious university, I remember he took me aside and grudgingly admitted that I had turned out OK. I think that was the first time I ever felt like he had given me any real measure of approval.

He was pleased when I had children. As a biologist, he was very interested in the idea of children carrying forward his genes. He wasn’t actually interested in the children themselves, however. He didn’t really like children and wasn’t interested in getting to know them as people. He had always seen his own children as objects and his grandchildren were objects too. I tried to get him to spend time with his grandchildren and invited him to take them on outings. But he never did. He would say, “Well, if you need me to watch them sometime, I guess I could do that.” And I would reply, “We don’t ever need you to ‘watch’ them — but if you’d like to spend time with them or take them somewhere, that would be great.” But, as I say, he never did.

It was a surprise to me that, when my father died, many of his former colleagues and students remembered him at his funeral as an extremely attentive and devoted friend and mentor. It sounded like he maintained a network of close collegial relationships where he checked in with a vast number of people on a daily or weekly basis. It was a side of him I never would have predicted based on my own personal experiences.

So, on Father’s Day, I reflect on my “relationship” with my father. I intentionally strove to be a different kind of father. I tried to see my children as people from an early age and to not try to live my life through them. I tried to take an interest in things they liked to do and to find ways to relate to them through their interests. But I know also that I’m not a perfect father either. And so I’ve tried grant my father a certain amount of understanding by acknowledging that he was doing the best he could with what he had in terms of his native personality and the experiences he had growing up.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

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