Editor's Note: I ran this column about my step dad, Jim, last Father's Day. On Thanksgiving this year, Mom told me the man I've called Dad since I was 8 years old was diagnosed with cancer. Everything was in flux. The future, their retirement, bleak.
But here we are on Father's Day 2012, and my bull-headed dad who worked his whole life with the intensity of a farmer trying to feed his family, has thus far told cancer to buzz off. One week shy of his 74th birthday, the man who showed me - and told me - his whole life how hard work would make me stronger, is, himself, strong, focused and determined.
Wish I was with you, Jim. I love you.
If you’re lucky, when you’re little, they teach you how to ride a bike and throw a football. When you get older, it’s driving lessons and a walk down the aisle.
But my dad died when I was little, so luck – and a bike – seemed lost on me.
The last thing my nervous nelly mom needed was to ''peel her kid off the asphalt, crunched beneath the neighbor’s Pontiac.'' Still, I found this scenario, even at 8 years old, faulty reasoning for not buying me a bicycle. Other girls zipped by on their two-wheelers, ringing their bells, flower baskets flapping. Then there was me, rumbling by on my Big Wheels.
And then Mom met Jim. Jim owned a camera shop and as luck would have it, Mom stopped in to sell some gear. He asked her on a date, which led to another date, and then longer dates and eventually I got a bike out of the whole deal. Powder blue, banana-seat cruiser with tassels, and a bell. Of course, Mom's screams clanged loudest after I toppled onto the concrete.
“Jim! It’s too dangerous. She needs training wheels.’’
“Betty, she’s in third grade.’’
“She's too young!’’
“Betty, the kid cuts her own steak.’’
Jim had a way of getting to the heart of the matter: I was too old for training wheels. But Mom had a way of getting her way: on went the training wheels.
It only took a week or so of four-wheeling around the neighborhood, awash in playground shame, before I begged Kelly to let me try her sleek, shiny, leather-seated, two-wheel Huffy. This would have to be done stealthily, outside my mother’s watchful eye. But because that sight stretched 60 blocks in any direction, I waited. When she went to the store, I went to Jim.
He was glad, I think, that I finally showed some moxie. Jim was – still is – a hard knocks guy who sees no sense in messin’ around. Got a job? Do it and quit yer whining. Learn to swim? Jump in. Ride a bike? Climb on. His just-do-it approach did backfire years later, though, when he sat me behind the wheel of his ’76 Mustang five speed. The task seemed simple enough: drive. Somewhere amid the screeching and the smoke and the stall, he suggested I shift into the passenger seat. Now, every time I smell burning rubber, I smile.
But balancing on Kelly’s Huffy, back in 1980, I was too scared to smile. I wanted him to be proud of me, sure, but I also liked my limbs, and to hear Mom tell it, without training wheels, dismemberment was the likeliest outcome. With a Buster Brown planted firmly on each pedal, I gripped the pink, rubber-tipped handlebars as Jim steadied the back of the seat and yelled, “Go!’’ He pushed, Kelly cheered, drivers honked, I pedaled. I was riding a bike!
It was glorious. And it was over the second I realized he let go. His laughter lifted me back onto the seat and before Mom got home from the store, I'd biked up and down the block and he'd tossed my training wheels into the trash. Turns out, she was just as proud as Jim.
Jim taught me to drive (albeit an automatic), hurl a football (Nerf) and four years ago this August, he walked me down the aisle. Technically, Jim is my step dad – as opposed to my adopted dad or my birth dad – so, to the man who stepped right into the role of dad, I thank you, I love you and I hope you have a great Father’s Day (and I bet I can still beat you at Pac Man).