What Is A Dad? [Fathers Day]

I wanted to take a quick moment to wish all the dads out there a Happy Fathers Day!

Today got me thinking, what is a dad?  We all are accustomed to thinking of dads in terms of biological fathers, adoptive fathers and stepfathers.  However, that has not really been my experience.

There are lots of unsung dads out there, who deserve the title as much as (or more than) those we normally think of as fathers.  They can be grandfathers, uncles, or even friends of the mom when there is no dad in the picture.  I find those men to be extraordinary individuals, since they become dads purely out of love, and not due to obligation.  Those of us who have those dads are especially lucky, because we can honestly say that our dads chose to be our dads.

Papaw with his dog Bear, sitting at the end of the driveway to my childhood home on the hill. This was taken circa 1985, after he got sick, and about a year before his death.

My dad was my step-grandfather, who we called Papaw (pronounced pap-paw).  He was an extraordinary man, simply stated.  He started taking in his step-grandchildren very shortly after marrying my grandmother (who he barely knew when they married, but that is another story for another time), starting with my brother and me when I was only a few months old.  He eventually raised four of us from infancy.

Papaw worked his fingers to the bone in order to provide for us, but he never once complained.  He was not very educated, though he was also neither illiterate nor stupid, and he valued education for us kids; he worked most of my life as a local truck driver.  Though he could have made much more money driving long distance, since he had the license and skill to do that, he wanted to be home with us every evening.

I do not remember him ever taking a day off, or even a vacation day.  We certainly never went on any vacations of any type, because there was just not the money to do things like that.  We lived in a very poor part of town, in a rundown little house up on top of a hill so steep, with a road so winding, that you could not even get up or down it when the snow fell, unless you walked.  Papaw used to park his car at the bottom of the hill and walk on snow days so he could still get back and forth to work, both arms inevitably filled to overflowing with groceries.

It takes a lot of food to feed four growing kids, after all, and Mamaw took in babysitting for extra cash as well, so there were always at least three or four additional mouths to feed (but usually even more than that, especially when their mothers could not get up the hill to pick them up).  That translates into daily trips to the grocery store just to keep food on the table, but as always, he never once complained, even when he had to carry those groceries on foot up that steep winding hill in a big snowstorm.  Instead he would walk in the door after working all day and then taking that long freezing walk, Mamaw would make him some fresh hot coffee in her old percolator on the stove to warm him up, and he would come into the living room with a smile as big as the whole outdoors, to play with us kids and watch the news while Mamaw cooked supper.

We never once went cold or hungry, but we also did not exactly live in the lap of luxury.  We three girls all slept in the same room on twin beds pushed together, and my brother had a room (which was not really a room, since it was completely open and only big enough to hold a twin bed) right off the kitchen.  Other than that, we had a living room, a kitchen, and my grandparents had a very tiny bedroom.  That was the entire house.  We had an old floor furnace in the middle of the house which would get so hot in the winter, we all had to be careful not to step on it, because it would melt our shoes.  The plumbing was not the best, so there was always a strange odor in the bathroom, and the roof was falling down and had to be repeatedly repaired with hot tar, applied using old cotton mops.  The windows had to be covered with plastic in winter, to keep out the cold, and in the summer to keep out the insects.

So that old house was not much, and in truth it was kind of falling apart, but it was still the best house in the whole world, because it was filled with love.

Papaw worked extremely hard and he could have afforded to live much better, if not for the cost of raising four grandchildren, but I honestly do not think that ever even occurred to him, because he was the most unselfish person imaginable.  We were not on welfare of any type, though obviously they could have gotten it; however, he was far too proud to accept that kind of help, and he instilled that pride and that work ethic in us kids through example.

The most important things he taught us had nothing to do with pride or work ethic, though.  Instead, he taught us profound lessons about the way to view and treat others, and as always, he did so by example.

I remember when the ice cream truck started coming up on the hill in the summer.  Needless to say, we were always very excited to hear that music playing!  However, poor though we were, we had neighbors who were far poorer; and Papaw believed it was cruel to get a treat for us out where those kids could see it, and not get a treat for them as well.  They were good kids too, you see, and equally deserving of a tasty treat on a hot summer day, but their parents simply could not afford it.  Papaw had grown up extremely poor himself, so he had been those other kids, and he understood all too well the pain it would cause them to be left out.  For that reason, if he did not have enough money to buy ice cream for all the kids who were playing outside that day, no one got ice cream.

While as a child I thought that was very unfair, as an adult, I understand completely why he felt that way, and cannot imagine why any adult would ever act otherwise under those circumstances. So that particular lesson has had an extremely profound effect on my life and viewpoints, to the point that I would be a far lesser person without having learned it.

What I remember most fondly about Papaw, though, was his sense of humor.  Even today, I still laugh aloud when I think of some of the things he said when I was a child.  My grandmother (Mamaw, pronounced mam-maw, another extraordinary person in my life and the only real mother I ever had) used to say he was a big kid, and she was actually not too far off in that assessment, at least insofar as his sense of humor was concerned.  He would say something funny, completely out of the blue, then have this exaggerated look of shock on his face as he peered over at us kids out of the corner of his eye, to see us laugh.  It was hilarious.  For example, one of his favorite funny things to blurt out, without any context whatsoever, was

Here I sit all brokenhearted.  Tried to poop, but only farted.

Needless to say, we kids never got tired of hearing that one.

I remember once he took me to the grocery store with him (which was rare) and he farted in an aisle, then ran to the end of the aisle and peeked around so he could laugh when he saw someone walk into the stench he left behind.  Sure enough, a lady in her Sunday best walked right into it, and she looked like she was going to throw up.  That may seem like very odd behavior to others, but it was absolutely hilarious, and I am laughing about it even now, as I write this.  I am sure he did not normally do embarrassing things like that in public, mind you; but on that day, he did it just to see me laugh.

Now that, my friends, is love.

Papaw was never the type to actually say “I love you”, though he never had to say it for us to know that he loved us with every fiber of his being, and every bit as much as he would have if we were his own children.  He might actually have loved us even more than he would have loved his own kids (he had no biological children) because we had no one else to love us or protect us, and that touched his heart and made him even more determined to give us all the love in the world, to make up for what we had been deprived of by our biological parents.  So his entire life revolved around us kids, and he showed us his love in every single thing he did.

We were poor, but if love were measured in riches, we would have been the richest kids in the world.  Papaw and Mamaw saved our lives by taking us in and protecting us from the life we would otherwise have been forced to live, and I will always be in awe of the depth of their love, as well as their many ongoing (and completely selfless) sacrifices.

So to me, based upon my experiences, a dad is defined as a man who loves the child unconditionally, is always there for the child, and always puts the best interests of the child above his own interests – even to his own detriment – regardless of legal or biological relation.  Fart jokes do not hurt, either.  😉

What is your definition of a dad?


8 thoughts on “What Is A Dad? [Fathers Day]

  1. My definition is the same as yours. I cannot even try to put mine into words because you said it so eloquently! As you stated, biology has nothing to do with being a dad, it is one that puts the child or children’s needs before his own and teaches them the important things in life. It has nothing to do with the things that you can buy them from a store, but real life lessons that they can take with them and use the rest of their lives.

  2. “There are some people so poor, the only thing they have is money.”

    A dad is unconditional love. A dad is someone who says no knowing I will be upset but saying it with my best interests in mind. A dad celebrates my joys and shares my pains. A dad teaches me who I want to be when I grow up, ~even tho I am an adult.

    Thank you for your story, its beautiful!

  3. what a lovely example of love. As a stepmom with 3 children I can only hope Ive imparted some of that same love and care. We are not wealthy and live out in the country, but we are always making memories.

  4. What a beautiful sentiment to share, especially on Father’s day. Bless your Papaws heart for being such a good man.

  5. This was beautiful! I wish I could have met your Papaw; he sounded like a good man who truly knew the meaning of love.

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