First Person

Happy Father's Day, Mom

I buy a Father's Day card for my mother every year, because, for me, she always filled the role of both mom and dad.

By Lauren Jackson June 12, 2024

The author and her mother

It’s Father’s Day this Sunday, and I’ve acquired some cards from Trader Joe’s to give to some important people in my life. There’s one for my father-in-law, another for my brother (who will be celebrating his first Father’s Day this year) and one that’s decorated in fishing gear that says, “You’re O-Fish-Ally the Best Dad in the World.” That one is for my mom. I buy a Father's Day card for her every year, because, for me, she always filled the role of both mom and dad.

My parents met in the 1980s in Nashville at a restaurant called Houston’s, where my mom was the bartender. My dad Kim was a young, handsome and successful attorney and had taken to frequenting the bar. He asked her out a time or two, and she declined. But one night, she said to her coworkers, “If that guy comes back and asks me out tonight, I’m going to say yes.” Sure enough, he came in and asked for another date, and she finally conceded.

The year of courtship that followed was filled with adventure. They spent the summer swimming in hidden lakes, hiking quiet trails and driving around rural Tennessee. He drove a Triumph TR6 in British racing green—a convertible that he and my mom pushed more often than they drove, due to his famous maltreatment of vehicles. All the while, they laughed.

Something shifted when my mom and dad got married. My mother thinks he felt trapped, and so began to misbehave. What started with a few late nights here and there turned into daily drinking, a long extramarital affair and, ultimately, physical abuse. She still has a scar along her hairline from when he threw a candle at her, and her arm hurts on rainy days from when he pushed her down the stairs and broke it.

My mom gave him dozens of chances to choose a better path—to leave his girlfriend, put down the bottle and be her husband. When she found out she was pregnant with me, she prayed it would change their situation. It didn’t. They were divorced before I turned 1, and my mom received full custody. The greatest gift they gave me was separating before I could remember them together.

It was just me and my mom until I was almost 4, the two of us crammed into a little condo in Nokomis. We lived down the street from her parents, who would watch me a few days a week when she went to work. When she wasn’t at work, it was us against the world. She was an intimidating but hands-on parent with an intuitive sense of what children needed. She had weird ideas of fun, like riding on the back of a bicycle with a box of raw pasta and tossing out spaghetti like Hansel and Gretel so we could follow the “crumbs” home. She never cared what anyone thought of her, and I like to think I've inherited that confidence.

My mom married my stepdad in 1989 and they remained together until I was in my mid-20s. He was great with children, but less enthusiastic during my teenage years. I appreciate his effort to treat me with as much love as he did my half-siblings, but I was always aware of my stepchild status.

At the same time, my father slipped deeper into his addiction to alcohol. He had summertime custody, and my mom would send me away to Nashville every year with trepidation. I’d phone her to tell her that I’d woken up in the front seat of an empty car in front of a bar with Kim nowhere to be found. I’d tell her how he had pulled the car over so he could vomit behind it while driving me home from a party. One summer, I called to tell her that he hadn’t left his bed for two weeks and asked if I could please come home.

One year, he even forgot me at the airport. I was 16, and I hailed a cab to his home, only to find him passed out and surrounded by empty bottles. I poured whatever was left down the drain and took the keys to his Jeep to drive back to the airport.

My mother was always there to listen to me and to hold me while I cried about his inability to choose me over alcohol. Why didn’t he love me enough to quit? But she never spoke poorly of him and always reminded me that he was sick and there was nothing any of us could do until he decided he was ready for help. She even put me in therapy during my teen years when she realized my trauma was beyond the scope of her parenting. For her to have acknowledged her own shortcomings and to have sought outside help for me speaks to her selflessness. That brave act helped me better understand the complexity of addiction, and helped me forgive my father for never getting better.

My mom has always been there for me. She took me to college, to culinary school and to North Dakota, where I received an internship to become a registered dietitian. She even let me and my now-husband (whom I met in North Dakota) move back in with her when we returned to Sarasota while my dad was who knows where doing who knows what.

I’m not sure when I started buying Father’s Day cards for my mom. I think it started after her divorce from my stepfather, as a reminder to her that she was more than she gave herself credit for, that while my siblings had a dad and a mom, she was both for me, and that because of her hard work and attention, I ended up OK, and that she deserved all the credit for that.

My father succumbed to his addiction five weeks before my wedding in 2017—yet another occasion he missed because of his alcoholism. I loved my father dearly and miss him daily, but Father’s Day—well, that’s for my mom.

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