The Dads of my Childhood

Remembering dads who were significant in our lives without playing a major role can illuminate the importance of our own contact with other people's children in the present.

I was back at a reunion of the community I grew up in--and the whole weekend was a pleasure. I loved seeing people that I hadn't seen in five, ten or even twenty years. I loved showing my children the swimming hole and the house I used to live in and all the spots that I treasured in my childhood. I loved visiting with old playmates. But most of all, I loved being around the people of my parents' generation--now in their seventies--who had meant so much to me as a child.

Every time I thought about them--every time I think about them even now--my eyes fill with tears. There are four in particular, four men who lived close by, whom I could cry and cry about.

They were all big--but who isn't big to a child?--and friendly, with a ready smile. Ed Simons was my next-door neighbor, and my violin teacher. I remember the time he presented me with a big old folder of sheet music--so old that it was tattered around the edges--and said, "This is a difficult piece, but I think you can do it." When I took it home proudly to show to my mother she was skeptical, but I was unfazed. The fact that Ed thought I could do it was enough.

Charles Lawrence lived in the next house down--a bear of a man with a deep voice, a rich laugh and a ready hug. He always looked glad to see me, like I made his day a little brighter. He seemed so sure of people's goodness, he was like a rock. The fact that he was African American made my world feel that much safer.

I didn't know Irv Wolfe as well but again, he always had a smile, a greeting, a warm word for me--as I'm sure he had for all the children. Vic Sabini was more in my life than the others. Our families did many things together, and I counted on his good humor, his cheery optimism, his love of his fellow human beings--with me always included.

As I think about it, the role they played in my life was very simple. I doubt if any of them put much time into thinking about me. I'm sure they didn't put effort into planning out ways to make my life go better. What they did was include me in their world. They claimed me as a part of their life, as a valued neighbor in a community that they valued. They always smiled when they saw me, and greeted me warmly. They wished me well.

It was so simple. Yet it meant so much to me. Their warmth and welcome helped me to be rooted, helped me to flourish.

The conclusion is inescapable. As adults we can make an enormous difference to children who are not our own. And it doesn't have to take a lot of time or energy. All we need to do is decide that they are part of our world--smile when we see them, ask them how they are, communicate that we like them, be a consistently welcoming presence.

Of course it helps to live in a stable community where relationships endure over years. One of the real losses of our modern society is the transience that continually breaks up relationships outside the nuclear family. But if we can remember that we make a difference, we can look for opportunities, in our neighborhoods, our religious and social organizations, our extended families, to help children know that they are important and welcome in the world at large. We can be shade trees, like the dads of my childhood, providing a cool, refreshing resting place for the little ones who pass our way--a blessing in their lives.