“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you comin’ home son
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad
We’re gonna have a good time then”

“It does something to a boy to grow up without a father,” DooDaddy once told me. And I guess he would know.

We were always told Dad’s father died of a broken heart. But that never made sense to me. How does that actually work? Does your heart just stop beating from sadness? Or does it expand out of your chest like the Grinch who stole Christmas? So after the gazillionth time I asked about it, Dad blurted the truth out to me. That shut me right up. And broke my heart for my fatherless father and the childhood he never had.

My grandfather, an alcoholic, had shot himself in the head.

This was a few years after my grandmother had died tragically of tuberculosis, when Dad was just a toddler. In those days, single fathers didn’t parent children on their own. So my father was raised by his maternal grandparents and a gaggle of narcissistic aunts, during the Great Depression.

It’s a sad story, but I take heart from the way DooDaddy grew into the loving, charismatic, doting father and grandfather he is today. It wasn’t always that way. Dad worked in retail so he was rarely home during our childhood. I realize this is anathema to the helicopter parents of today, but my father never came to a single track meet, swim meet, cross country meet or awards banquet of mine. And he rarely made it to my brother’s events and activities. He was always working, nights, weekends, Christmas Eve. Often we were right there with him, wrapping presents at the gift-wrapping counter at Watson’s Department Store, or taking inventory in the Bargain Basement.

That was how Dad loved us. By working to take care of us and try to keep our mother up in the manner to which she was accustomed as the sheltered daughter of a prominent physician from an old Knoxville family.

One of DooDaddy’s earliest jobs was refilling the candy bins at the dime store in Fayetteville, Tenn. He got to eat all the candy he wanted. That’s where he developed his taste for gumdrops and candied orange slices. He worked his way through school at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. and has worked his whole life since. Even after he retired from Watson’s, he began a second career as a realtor. He gave everything he had to every job he took.

And that’s the lesson we learned from our father. My brother now works all the time and travels and is wildly successful as senior director of global marketing for a medical device company. But he rarely gets back to Knoxville. Dad understands, because this was his life too.

So when Randy came home for Father’s Day this year, the first Father’s Day without our mother, DooDaddy’s face lit up like a child on Christmas morning. Randy is the image of our father and also his pride and joy. I remember asking once, in a pique of jealousy, if the house were on fire, and our father could only save one of us, who would it be.

“Little Randy, of course,” he replied without hesitation.

It was a terrible thing of me to ask and a terrible answer to hear. But the bond between a father and his son is complicated and fraught with love and tension, especially for a father who never had a father of his own.

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Father and son