Finally Finding The Joys of Fatherhood

It was a warm, lazy afternoon, and I was lying in my hammock drifting to and fro while a cool breeze filtered through the trees, when suddenly my reverie was broken by the sound of a slamming door.

''Daddy, I'm home from school.'' It was my six-year-old daughter home from her first day of first grade. This was not her usual perfunctory greeting; I could hear genuine joy and excitement in her voice. She came running into the backyard and immediately climbed in beside me and asked if we could rock faster. So Daddy and daughter lay side by side gazing up through the trees at the clear blue sky, talking about her first day of school.

This was a big step going from kindergarten to first grade. Now she had her own desk, with shelves to keep her pencils, erasers, and important papers - and oh, the teacher thought she was special because she could write her name already. And during recess the boys chased the girls and tried to kiss them.

Just when she was about to tell me about the boy who tried to kiss her, my wife announced that Lisa from next door wanted our daughter to go swimming. That was the end of father and daughter in the hammock. Faster than a Power Ranger, she was off to her bedroom to get her bathing suit, asking if she could go as she ran through the house. I was miffed that my daughter had abruptly ended our little chat (I wanted to know more about the kissing boy), but then playing with friends took precedence. As I lay by myself, the thought came to me that I liked being called Daddy.

There was a time, however, when the idea of being a father was unthinkable; it was beyond the pale. I came to fatherhood later than most. I watched my friends become fathers and their kids grow up, but I could never imagine myself in their position.

My wife and I were married eight years before we had our daughter. I admit to being selfish about our marriage before deciding to have a child: I didn't want anything to spoil our togetherness. What a silly thought, now that I remember it.

The other day my daughter created a very colorful letter with a heart and note: ''I love my daddy.'' (She made one for Mommy, too.) She wanted to put it on our refrigerator. Now, before I was a father, I'd often visit friends who had kids, and I'd notice their refrigerators were always plastered with drawings - like a billboard advertisement for the Children's Museum. I vowed never to do that to my refrigerator. Never! All drawings would be kept in the child's bedroom.

That colorful letter with a heart and note is prominently displayed on our refrigerator along with all my daughter's artistic accomplishments.

Being a parent now, I think about my parents and when I was a child. I didn't give it a lot of thought because they were always there, solid and dependable. They took great interest in my life, my friends, sports, and school - especially sports and school. They spent countless hours working around our Little League field coaching, helping in the snack bar, repairing the field, and raising funds. My father's favorite event was helping me sell bags of butter-toffee peanuts for our fund-raiser. He was always my best customer, despite my mother's constant refrain, ''Your pants aren't going to fit if you keep eating those peanuts.''

I remember my mother helping me complete a report on each of the 50 states. As usual, I waited to the last minute to complete it, so Mom and I worked late into the night. Actually, my mom worked late into the night; I had fallen asleep with only 48 states completed. My teacher gave me an ''A'' for Arkansas and Colorado (my only ''A's''), with a large question mark at the top of each report and a note: ''My my, how your handwriting has improved.''

Having that security as a child allowed me to pursue life's little pleasures. I remember hiking in the foothills all day with my friends, exploring caves and searching streams for salamanders; building a secret fort in the brush at the end of our street that we thought was hidden from our parents (and the neighborhood girls); and stocking it with canned goods from our pantry at home. One day we caught my mom taking two cans of salmon (my father's favorite) from our fort. She told us she was trading two cans of baby peas for the salmon.

I'm slightly amused when I remember my parents telling me, ''Just wait till you're a parent,'' to which I would always reply, ''I'm never going to have any kids.''

From time to time my parents remind me of that vow (and others) I made as a child. I just smile a knowing smile and look at my daughter, who will one day rock in a hammock with her child, gazing up through the trees at the clear blue sky. I know she'll be reminded of the times she lay next to her daddy, drifting to and fro on a warm, lazy day.

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