One particular evening when I was very young, my mom asked me and my sister to come into the living room. She waited there with her then-boyfriend (now husband). Hidden underneath a blanket we found a large wooden toy box. The handmade box looked like a bench when closed, and opened to reveal two tiny dolls, one with a blue dress for me and a pink dress for my baby sister. I glanced at my mother. She wanted us to like his gifts. She wanted us to like him. I was feeling unsure at the time, but I mustered a reassuring smile and thanked him kindly for the gifts. I had been through so many changes, and I was afraid that my life was going to change again.
My life did change, and little by little, so did my relationship with the man I now call my dad. I knew that he loved my mother — he’s always worn his heart on his sleeve for her — but I needed convincing that he also loved me. We were both initially leery of one another. I was suspicious of his intentions. Did he plan to stick around? Would I still feel important to this family? The change wasn’t immediate, but little by little we forged a relationship. I was scared, but I let him in. I grew to know him as my father.
Now in his sixties, my father expresses his love outright. Time has softened him, and he warmly embraces me and my children when we drive up to the farmhouse. When I was a child he was not one to state his love, but he showed me. He demonstrated it throughout my childhood:
He drove me from our farm to the nearby small town in the wee hours of the morning countless times so that I could catch the bus to volleyball practice. He attended almost every game, every concert, every play.
He put me to work. I spent my youth throwing bales and helping to care for our farm. I’m not afraid of hard work because of him.
He taught me to drive, and remained patient through three failed driving tests.
He grounded me more times than I care to remember. He’d laugh with me about my escapades a week later.
He warned me of “certain boys” and was quietly watchful when I brought home a new boyfriend.
His voice trembled when he called me one day at college. “Well, Susan, it looks like I’ve got a little cancer.” He calmed me as I burst into hysterics.
He held my hand as I cried at the attorney’s office on the day I filed for divorce from my ex-husband.
Five years later, he gave a sly grin and whispered, “I think we’ve got it right this time” before he placed my hand in my husband’s on our wedding day.
My children don’t share his genes, but you’d never know by watching my dad interact with my two-year-old daughter. He holds her with tender arms and listens to her stories with the contentment of a proud and happy grandfather. The two of them share a unique bond. This bond is unhesitating and unwavering. She knows nothing of genes or biology, only that this is her grandpa. I’m at peace when I observe their interactions. Regardless of genetics, I’m part of this man and he’s part of me. I’m a better person for knowing him. The term “step-father” seems ill-fitting for this man. I prefer to just call him “Dad”.