The Meaning of Fatherhood

The Meaning of Fatherhood

This past Father’s Day was arguably my best. I write this with a strange irony because my three legacy kids were a thousand miles away. We did have dinner with one of my bonus daughters and her husband. We shared our favorite stories of our kids. The day’s perfection had also been greatly buttressed with the correspondence I had with my children, grandchildren and other family members from afar.

I also had time to think deeply about what it meant to be a father. My major inspiration came from a video our parish church played after the Fathers’ Day vigil Mass. It was unlike any I had ever experienced. It flashed a list of roles that dads have played for centuries. I could easily identify with many of them. The first was protector, which is the literal meaning of my name William

Protector was followed by teacher, coach, mentor, provider, friend and so on. I like to think I am a natural-born teacher because most of my first 50 years were spent in a classroom on one side of a desk. As for coach, I coached each one of my children. While baseball is the only sport I ever played, I had coached two high school basketball teams in Charleston, Missouri in 1965-66. 

A neighbor got me involved in the Ladue Baseball League. I coached for 13 seasons and was league president one year. At least one of my sons played for me during 10 of those seasons. I coached my daughter and her sixth and seventh grade teams at a Catholic girls school. I sat on a bench or stood in the third base coaching box for a collective total of close to 180 games. This is not counting a couple hundred practices or games in other sports or teams they played for. 

As a mentor, I had always pictured myself as a Ward Cleaver type of father who would summon his children to his home office where he would patiently dispense his Solomonic advice. As for being their friend, I was more like their playmate. I cannot calculate how many hundreds of games we played together until they outgrew me. 

All this served as my own personal report card. I graded myself somewhere between a B and a B-. In a group text, I sent them a list of things that the parish did not include in their video. Over the years, I was their diaper changer, midnight feeder, baby sitter, chauffeur, referee, jailer, watchdog, disciplinarian, emergency room deliverer, tear-drier, messenger, storyteller, errand boy, entertainer, sentry and banker. I happily showed up for work every day and never shirked any of my responsibilities to them.

I was fortunate to have had their mother for 50 years as my parental partner. Only one time did we ever disagree about parenting. One year I wanted to send them to Camp Alcatraz in San Francisco for five years but she argued for 10. I was always the more lenient in their disciplining. I concluded my meditation with the regret that if I could have done one thing better, I would have listened more and talked less. I could still profit from a few lessons now.

Since two of them live in St. Louis and the other in South Carolina, staying close is more difficult. They are always on my mind and I am readily available to assist if they have a serious need. I try to keep them all in my prayers. Being a dad is a lifetime commitment. There is no getting out of it. Having a child leaves an indelible mark that underscores ones character, responsibility and the ability to always forgive a prodigal child. 

Remarrying someone with children after the loss of my first wife has required me to establish new relationships on a different level. I had to learn how to accept, enjoy and establish bonds with new family members without blood ties. I had to do this in a way that would not jeopardize my long-term relationships with my other family members.

My bonus daughters have been married for several years. The older one lives on the island of Cyprus with her Greek husband, while we live just five miles from the younger one. To my delight they both have accepted me as their dad for their adult years since their paterfamilias passed away nearly 25 years ago. Of course, I can never nor would I want to replace the wonderful relationship they enjoyed with their late father. I enjoy seeing the joy in their eyes when they share their stories about him with me.

I have also taken a keen interest in their lives and those of their children, who regard me as a grandpa. My parental waters abound with warmth and I am happy to have them in my family pool. While I will never be their coach, babysitter and so on, I can always help them, as they have helped us in many ways on an adult level.

Nomenclature was my first problem. I started calling them my new daughters.  That lasted all of 10 minutes. I will never use the term step, which got a deserved black mark from Cinderella and her wicked step sisters. So, until further notice, I am calling them by their geographical locations. Now it is my St. Louis daughter and younger son and my older South Carolina son. This goes nicely with my Georgia daughter and her Cypriote sister.

Father’s Day also got me thinking about my own father. I realized that I have seldom written about him. I eulogized my mom at her funeral in 2001 and was able to turn that into an essay, A Belated Mother’s Day, which was published on this site in August of 2021. It has always been difficult for me to assess my feelings for my dad. Dr. Adam S. Borst died in 1989. Born in 1897, he was 46 years old when I was born and I was just five months shy of my 46th birthday when he died.  

Our respective age differences precluded any sort of close relationship. I was not quite 24 when my oldest child first saw the light of day. My dad was quiet, more reserved and at times, emotionally distant. It was not until I had been married a year that my mom told me something that changed my whole view of him. His mother, the second wife of his father, a NYPD sergeant with my same name, had apparently committed suicide in 1910. My mom said it had to do with her going through menopause. Coincidentally, she was 46 and died two months before my mother was born. 

Had I known this, I would have understood him much better. My parents had always protected their only child from many of the painful realities of human life. His mom had hanged herself. My father was just 12 and he may have found her. No wonder he was distant. I cannot gauge the hurt he must have suffered. I am guessing my dad shut his emotions down and privately vowed never to get that close to anyone again for fear of losing them. That is the trouble of being the only child of very private parents. It becomes so easy to misjudge them.

My dad did his best to teach me about his interests in corny humor and capital finance. His subscription to the Wall Street Journal was the source of much of his teaching. I always thought his jokes were silly but in retrospect, there was more to them than met my ear. The first of his two favorites was about a man with a banana in his ear. A man stops him on the street and states the obvious.You have a banana in your ear. His reply was, Sorry, I can’t hear you, I have a banana in my ear. The second one is a little better. What did the grass say to the man standing on it? Your feet are killing me! 

He was modest in his dress and never said a bad word. How many men can say that today? It was only when he had been gone for a few years that I realized just how much I had learned from him. I quote him more than I ever guessed I would. For me his knowledge of the business world, taxes and people must have made an impression because even though I often tuned him out, I still remember so much.  

My dad quit medicine in 1945 at the age of 48 because he found something where he could prosper better. He had a running battle with the IRS that fittingly lasted until the day he died on Tuesday, April 18, 1989, the day after his taxes had been due. He was a firm believer in the equivalent of the flat tax, a term no one used until 1981. He always said if I made $200,000 and my neighbor made $20,000 with a tax of 10%, I don’t mind paying $20,000 if he paid $2000. But why should I have to pay $176,000? (In 1943, the year I was born, the highest rate was 88% at $200,000.) 

This was the infamous Progressive Income Tax, which the 16th Amendment had imposed on the American economy in 1913. One can easily find it in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, written in 1848. Both my parents loved the Catholic Senator, Joe McCarthy and were very conscious of the extent of Communism’s infiltration of most levels of our government. While their views had been thoroughly savaged by Communism’s defenders on the Left, the publication of the Verona Dispatches that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, vindicated most of McCarthy’s charges. 

My dad was neither greedy nor cheap, just wise and thrifty. His ideas on spending money were axiomatic. He often said, I don’t mind spending x-amount of money, if I get that much enjoyment out of it. He never bought anything that he didn’t need. He never used a wallet or even an adding machine. I was the last kid on the block to have a TV. They had to get one to keep me home. We never had a color set for the same reason until I was in college. Money to him was just a way of keeping score. Like so many in his generation, he talked of his childhood hardships.When I was a child, movies were a nickel. I delivered papers for $4 a week and had to walk miles to go to school.

The shocking truth was that my father never went to high school. At age 17, something inspired him to finish his education. In 1913 he enrolled in Rhodes Preparatory School, which had been open for just two years. Three years later, he was accepted at New York University. In less than six years, including going summers, he had his medical degree from NYU in 1922.

Since my mother was a devout Catholic, when that word meant something, I was surprised that my father never joined. Many times I heard him say that he respected our religion very much. There is irony in the fact that his father had been Catholic until he was 12. He had stormed out of the confessional for some unknown reason and never went back. 

Consequently, his son by his first wife, who had died shortly after delivery and his three children by my dad’s mom were all Lutherans. However my aunts joined the Catholic Church as young women. My Aunt Mal, who was instrumental in getting me into Xavier High School, died a Catholic. She was more than devout. She was deeply pious. The other sister had fallen away.

In retrospect, my father was a much better parent than I ever gave him credit. He took me to a handful of baseball games and on one occasion with a couple friends. I remember a few hockey games as well. He didn’t like sports much, so I called him the Spiro Agnew of sportsIf you have seen one game (slum) you have seen them all. But most importantly he did take me and did not just run off someplace. He also did his best to enjoy the games. I remember he playfully called the New York Rangers goalie, Wormsley instead of (Gump) Worsley.  

I wish I could have taught him baseball as I did my Aunt Mal during the many summers I spent with her. My parents never went to my appearances in organized sports, such as baseball and track. But in fairness, I can only remember one parent ever going to any of our events. This is unlike today where parents over-indulge their kids with several dozens of games with traveling teams in many sports. My simpler times did not exhaust parents like today. 

One thing, I will always relish was how he took to my first wife. It was as if she were the daughter he almost had. My mother had lost my older sister in a miscarriage in 1940. Judy was a smoker when we married. He had kicked the habit several times. He offered her $1000 to quit but she had to return it if she went back to smoking. She balked at that. (I think he still paid her.) I wish he could have met Anna as well. She would have stuffed him with pasta for free. 

Neither my dad nor his son ever lived up to the TV example set by Ward Cleaver. I was certainly a lot more difficult and moody than the Beaver ever was. I think the best lesson he ever taught me was the importance of living in the only reality life gives us, not slogans like Just do it! His lasting adage that I try to practice daily was just make the best of it! This idea is alien to a society conceived in selfishness, born on do your own thing and weaned on narcissism. I hope I have lived up to that realistic standard he instilled in me. For just being a real dad, I will always love, respect and remember him and not just on Father’s Day.

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Written by
William Borst