It was a Sunday in mid-June when we had to summon my Dad to dislodge a mouse that had been trapped inside the drain in the laundry room sink since early spring. My mother, my sister, and I were standing at the top of the cellar stairs cringing when he finally came up. He lumbered past us with a coffee can bound for somewhere way out back.
“Why am I the one who gets to do these kinds of things?” he asked, flailing the can in our faces. “Just because I’m the only guy in the house? Cause I’m the father around here?”
Ummm….yeah….we all said silently. Dad (AKA Mac) was responsible for plumbing, pest control, and safeguarding the house from intruders. The waylaid mouse met all of those criteria.
I grew up in a one-male household. And, after marriage and two daughters, that status pretty much stuck. No brother tinkering with a truck in the driveway. No son to shatter my theories about the uniqueness of father-daughter relationships. Just Dad, our one-man magic show. Please bear this in mind as you read the following theories. Please also know that my theories took root in the early ’60s when it was expected for females to keep their distance and say things like “Eeeek!”—and socially acceptable for Dads to declare stuff “too messy for girls.” Mine always swore he didn’t miss having a son. But I bet on certain occasions, especially that morning in June with the putrid coffee can, he instantly became a secret liar. If only he’d had a male dependent at the top of the stairs, Mac could have emerged from the cellar with his heart full of gratitude, but his hands empty. “Son, go find yourself a coffee can,” he would’ve said. “There’s a project for you down there.” And the imaginary son of the early ’60s would obey, trying to keep a stiff upper lip and a strong stomach, knowing the chore was ultimately preparing him for manhood—for the day when he’d take a wife and the responsibility for any yucky stuff trapped in his terrain.
When it comes to heroes, a Dad of daughters might as well have a cape and a lightening bolt emblazoned on his chest. Faced with danger and all manner of distasteful duties, he responds, undaunted by extension ladders or jumper cables, by navigating through whitecaps, or even by investigating nighttime noises.
“Yup, it’s a bear,” Mac affirmed. It was a June night back in 1964 and he was peering into the darkness from our tiny log cabin on Moosehead Lake. My sister and I had finally nagged him into determining the source of sounds coming from the front porch. We’d listened long enough from our beds right under the windows to know that, whatever it was, it was much bigger than the raccoon visitors of previous nights. And then we yelled for backup. “Daaaaaad!!!”
In years since, we realized there was nothing even Mac could have done—except maybe spray the bear in the face with the fire extinguisher if it got rambunctious enough to shove the door open. Still, there was something about our Daddy standing in his undershorts stating the obvious that we found comforting.
“Yup,” he said, “and it’s a big bear, too.” After watching it amble away in the dark, he shuffled back to bed himself, grumpy but gratified. Because the only thing Mac was afraid of was not being the rock hard center of our universe. And that was bigger and hairier than any old Maine black bear.
It wasn’t long after I began to watch my husband Tom’s interactions with my own young girls that I discovered it’s not necessarily bravado that stirs Dads of daughters to action. It’s the call: “Daaaaad...” It sounds like a sheep with a bad stomach ache, but little girls have it mastered by age two. And much the same way a dog responds to a high-pitched whistle even though he doesn’t know why, a Dad comes. Instinctively he snatches up a toolbox, a wad of paper towel and/or a plunger along the way, knowing that, whatever it is, if it’s broken, clogged or invasive, it’s his job. From Barbies to bike chains—to those hopelessly gnarled up necklace knots he can somehow unravel with his big, burly fingers—if Dad can’t fix it, it’s history. And if he really isn’t keen on squishing, trapping, or otherwise keeping creepy stuff away from his womenfolk, he has to buck up and do it anyway.
“Daaaaddy! Keep these bees off my peanut butter and jelly!” my first-born Helen yelled from her picnic log down by the lake. She was about three, and Tom had already plucked her out of the Salmon Falls River, showed her the bears at the Seboomook dump, and desensitized her to mice so successfully that she was catching them in a minnow trap and rolling it back and forth across the cabin floor like her own animated Fisher Price toy. She was a new-age girl child, born to a Dad who stood there right in the delivery room waiting for her to show up, even though part of him wanted to be out in the waiting room with his forefathers. She and I had the best of both worlds, an ’80s “girls can do anything” male role model who still had enough Maine woods machismo to build a cabin around us and shield us from vermin. On that particular outing, a nest of yellow jackets swarming our picnic was his call to action—one he definitely did not want to answer.
“Come with Daddy, Helen, we’re going inside now!” Tom commanded. His voice was uncharacteristically shaky and, by the time he’d shoved sandwiches back into baggies and retreated, his face was a non-summery shade of pale. I handed him the big can of Raid we kept for just such circumstances, knowing that its super long spray wand would not keep Tom far enough away from bees—his greatest, and pretty much only, fear.
“Daddy got stung really bad when he was about your age while he was playing down by the water at his camp,” Tom told Helen after she’d watched him do his little extermination dance from a safe distance. “But those naughty bees won’t bother you any more, honey. Daddy got ’em!”
By the summer she turned four, Helen was Tom’s fearless little fishing side-kick and a brave big sister in training. “Look, Daddy, a snake!” she said, pointing matter-of-factly to a place on the dock where I spent hours each afternoon, plopped into a beach chair in my lamp shade of a bathing suit, reading and letting soon-to-be-born Becky kick me like a soccer ball. Had I ever seen a snake anywhere near my spot, I’m pretty sure Becky would have been a preemie.
“Don’t tell your Mom,” Tom said to his little comrade.
Then, somewhere along the way when I wasn’t paying attention, my daughters turned from gutsy little girls into bodacious women of the new millennium. “Better than boys,” I’d tell them, because they shooed snakes out of my path and changed their own tires, but still had all-day pajama days with me. All that plus, well, because they were girls. We were having such a discussion on a recent vacation, just the three of us sitting in a rustic cabana, staring out over bluer, warmer water and enjoying our favorite grown-up picnic cocktails, when Becky noticed something burrowing into the sand underneath where Tom was coming to eat his lunch.
“Hmm, looks like they’re ground hornets,” she said.
“Sssh!” I said. “Don’t tell your Dad.”
For more Father’s Day sentiments, see: