Father's Day never meant anything to me. Like the French observance of Bastille Day, or the British Boxing Day, it simply had nothing to do with me. I was too young to remember my own dear father and I accepted my place in a single-parent family as I accepted my physical features. I knew nothing about fathers, I didn't understand relativity, and I couldn't speak Chinese either. It wasn't sad, just fact. Unchangeable. Immutable.
Then one metallic day in the limbo of early March, I stood waiting in a park for my husband and our toddler daughter. The aluminum sky lowered over trees of iron and pewter, and a silvering of frost shimmered on the dry grass. The icy wind feinted playfully, and I shivered as I saw them coming toward me. They hadn't seen me yet and, hand in hand, were deep in the enjoyment of one another. All at once I felt vague stirrings inside and was no longer cold. My child-self clearly felt the solid warmth of that enveloping hand, and a wondrous discovery had begun.
Days stretched, became months, then years, and our family grew.
Our three little girls chorused their pleasure over their father's gifts of miniature corsages at Easter and tiny hearts full of candy on Valentine's Day, while a fourth, shadowy child-who-had-been observed.
I felt a dual delight - both maternal and filial - when, on special occasions , he would lean down and dance with them. I was proud for and with them as they grew and this gallant father unerringly sensed when the time was right to stand as they entered a room - his salute to their budding womanhood.
When he discussed school marks with one of our daughters, I shared her apprehension. Uncannily, I would feel her eagerness to please him, to be perfect for him. When he simply made gentle suggestions - all the while keeping fragile pride intact - her relief was also mine. It was those moments that helped me to understand what George Herbert meant when he said, ''One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.''
My journey of discovery reached a new, loftier plateau the night before our oldest daughter left for college. My husband took off his gold medal and chain and, with his own special words of love, slipped it over her head. Later he quietly obtained a replacement so that he could do the same for the next daughter when her turn came to leave. Treasured gifts - splendid moments.
Their pride in their father inspired me, enlightened me.
Diogenes is said to have ''struck the father when the son swore.'' But, knowing what he is, our daughters have seldom been more complimented than when they are said to be ''just like your father!''
The mutual love of my husband and our daughters became a sheer delight for me. It has been a prism refracting and reflecting our own love, his and mine.
It has also added a dimension to my life.
Although I always thought I didn't miss having a father, perhaps I really did. At different times in my life my mental picture of a father varied. For a very long time he resembled C. Aubrey Smith, Shirley Temple's grandfather in several movies. The most lasting model was someone like Atticus, the lawyer-father in Harper Lee's ''To Kill a Mockingbird.'' Happily, all of these have given way to a more real image.
The aging, ivoried photograph of my own father is a treasure for me now, for the woman I've become. It has substance. The shadowy figure in uniform seems less blurred; I can imagine him breathing, smiling, sighing.
I have, at last, timidly, uncovered a long-unused, carefully concealed place in my heart, and I can actually, actively love my father. My husband and daughters have taught me how.
And so, while I still buy no Father's Day cards, and I will never select a tie or after-shave lotion for him, I do have him. He's mine. And on that day dedicated to him and to all fathers, I will whisper a message to him.
But it's private. It's between my father and me.