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What This Daughter Wants Every Father to Know

Lessons learned from my own father — the bad, the good and the just right.

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Hand writing advice in a fathers day card
Carolyn Sewell
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Before Father’s Day, I stand before the Hallmark display, opening every card. I’m tired, and confused, like Goldilocks, as I search for the sentiment that feels just right.

“Thanks for being there, Dad.” Too big.

“I’ve always admired you, Dad.” Too soft.

“World’s Best Dad.” Too much.

I grab a funny card about golf, sign my name, and stuff a few lottery scratch tickets inside the envelope. Dad doesn’t play golf anymore. At 90, he spends his days reading and napping in his favorite recliner. I need to try harder to find the right words.

I’ll buy my son a Father’s Day card for the first time this year, as my grandchild is due at the end of June. Finding one that captures my maternal pride should be easy. But how should I personalize it? What wisdom can I share?

My son can talk to his dad about dad things. They’ll reminisce about their days together on the Little League field. And when talk turns to their daughters, they’ll laugh as they share tactics to scare away potential suitors.

I want to tell my son what it feels like to be a daughter. I want to warn him that angry sounds and Scotch whisky odors linger longer than even the best memories. The father of my future granddaughter should know that his every word and gesture will deeply, perhaps forever, impact her sense of self-worth and security.

A daughter’s sense of self is often connected to how her father views her,” writes licensed therapist Terry Gaspard on her site Moving Past Divorce.

My father’s emotional distance left his feelings open to my interpretation. I do have wonderful memories of my dad, like camping by the ocean or standing on his shoes to dance. I’ve also collected enough evidence to support my cases of adult anxiety and wavering self-esteem.

In her book, Talk with Her: A Dad’s Essential Guide to Raising Healthy, Confident, and Capable Daughters, Kimberly Wolf suggests this as the most important way to create a closer daughter-dad connection, and that is to talk. My dad and I never did this well. Over time, though, I’ve learned it’s more than words that matter.

We used to play golf on Father’s Day. I always tried hard to impress him, keeping my eye on the ball and replacing my divots. This, while simultaneously wracking my brain for news and achievements to share. For 18 holes, we barely spoke except for his occasional cracks about my terrible game.

“Daughter,” he’d say dryly. “I’ve seen more of this course today than all of last year.” But for an entire afternoon, we walked together across quiet rolling greens.

Recently, I asked Dad about his personal history since I’ll be the one writing his obituary. “I don’t know how you want to be remembered,” I said, broaching the topic with forced nonchalance.

“I don’t want to think about the past,” Dad said. He then waved his sun-spotted hand as if to clear the air of any lingering regrets and bad memories of his own — the death of his father when he was only 10 and a stoic mother who was, perhaps, afraid to show too much affection.

Talking with him about his obituary was uncomfortable enough; recalling our own family’s turbulence would be painful — his alcohol-fueled rages, the divorce from my mother, the loss of his first-born child, my brother, to depression and alcoholism. Our histories run deep and dark.

Though, our mutual love of books helps bridge the gap between us. During one socially-distanced summer visit, I’d asked him if he’d read The Grapes of Wrath. I’d sent him the book because the profoundly moving story of the Joad family during the Great Depression was one of my favorites.

“I put it down halfway through,” Dad said.

“Why?” I asked, afraid it was too complex or long or that we might lose our connection through books.

Dad touched his hand to his chest and closed his eyes, searching for just the right words. “It hurt my heart,” he said, exposing his tender side.

Thinking of it now, I realize that finding the right words to express my feelings about my father means being open to seeing a better version of him — a not-too-hard, not-too-cold version. The way he receives gifts is the perfect example of this.

“Oh, wow!” He grins and unwraps the present slowly, turning the reveal into an event. “This is perfect, really great,” he blusters as if overwhelmed by such generosity.

The gift could be a book he’s already read, a colorful pair of socks, or — for that matter — a lump of coal. Dad is always thrilled by a gift from his daughter.

He’ll study the object with wonder, then look up at me smiling and say without a hint of sarcasm, “Just what I wanted.”

With these images in mind, I will sign my son’s first Father’s Day card, with this message: “Spend time with your daughter. Talk to her about everything, no matter how big or small. Find something that will always keep you connected — maybe books, maybe baseball.”

And this I will stress most of all, in a card and conversation: Take it from me, your mother, because I am a daughter, too. Tell her she is not too much or too little, not too soft or too hard, not too hot or too cold. Tell her she is just right.

What one thing do you most remember about your father? Let us know in the comments below. 

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