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  • Writer's pictureAllan Shedlin

Missing Dad and All the Little Things That Made Him Great

Guest Post by Neil Tift

DCG DADvisor and Outreach Project Dir, Native American Fatherhood & Families Assoc.

When I was growing up in a small town in the Midwest, my father was the most important man in my life. He was a World War II veteran who was a pharmacist’s mate during naval and island battles at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Pacific Theater. He never spoke to us about those experiences but we knew it had taken a toll on him. He looked forward to regular gatherings of his veteran buddies to share stories and play pinochle.

We saw how hard he worked selling insurance to support a family of six while also trying to spend time with his children playing sports and building forts and soapbox derby cars. Dad was a quiet man who honored our mother and insisted that we honor her as well. He was proud to always do the right thing.

When I was a little kid, a father was like the light in the refrigerator. Every house had one, but no one really knew what either of them did once the door was shut. – from Erma Bombeck's The Daddy Doll Under the Bed, 6/21/81

I only saw him cry once, the day President Kennedy was killed. Dad wasn’t even a Democrat.

When each of his sons became fathers, he was there to congratulate us and provide his best fatherly advice – similar to advice he gave me as a kid, like the time I was playing Little League baseball and I told him I didn’t want to get hit by a pitch. He replied, “That’s OK, we have insurance.”

In early 2002 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. While he lived 1,700 miles from us, we tried to spend more time with him. He never complained about the treatment challenges or the pain. Not long after, he died with my brothers and sister and me at his side.

I recalled a column written and published June 21, 1981, by Erma Bombeck for Father's Day. It was about the loss of her father, and I read it at my dad's funeral.

Last week I read it and teared up again.


By Erma Bombeck

When I was a little kid, a father was like the light in the refrigerator. Every house had one, but no one really knew what either of them did once the door was shut.

My dad left the house every morning and always seemed glad to see everyone at night.

He opened the jar of pickles when no one else could.

He was the only one in the house who wasn’t afraid to go in the basement by himself.

He cut himself shaving, but no one kissed it or got excited about it. It was understood whenever it rained, he got the car and brought it around to the door. When anyone was sick, he went out to get the prescription filled.

He kept busy enough. He set mousetraps. He cut back the roses so the thorns wouldn’t clip you when you came to the front door. He oiled my skates, and they went faster.

When I got my bike, he ran alongside me for at least a thousand miles until I got the hang of it.

He signed all my report cards. He put me to bed early. He took a lot of pictures but was never in them. He tightened up Mother’s sagging clothesline every week or so.

I was afraid of everyone else’s father, but not my own. Once I made him tea. It was only sugar water, but he sat on a small chair and said it was delicious. He looked very uncomfortable.

Once I went fishing with him in a rowboat. I threw huge rocks in the water, and he threatened to throw me overboard. I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t, so I looked him in the eye. I finally decided he was bluffing and threw in one more. He was a bad poker player.

Whenever I played house, the mother doll had a lot to do. I never knew what to do with the daddy doll, so I had him say “I’m going off to work now” and threw him under the bed.

When I was nine years old, my father didn’t get up one morning to go to work. He went to the hospital and died the next day.

There were a lot of people in the house who brought all kinds of good food and cakes. We never had so much company before.

I went to my room and felt under the bed for the father doll. When I found him, I dusted him off and put him on my bed. He never did anything. I didn’t know his leaving would hurt so much.

I still don’t know why.


Neil Tift, MA, and his wife Denise have been foster parents of children and then adults for the past 25 years and provide training to foster parents and ADH providers. He is a family mediator, college instructor, parent educator, game developer, birth father, adoptive father, foster father, and grandfather. For more than 40 years, Neil has worked with at-risk clients, and he has established programs for low-income fathers in Minnesota, Maryland, and Arizona for the past 30. Currently, Neil is Outreach Project Director for the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association in Mesa Arizona.


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