As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 19, 2016.
In June 1969, sales of Father’s Day cards at La Salle Pharmacy in Providence were off by a couple dozen or so, thanks to my third-grade teacher, Miss Murphy.
Our school, recently renamed for Robert F. Kennedy, stood one block away from the pharmacy, and our classroom was on the always-hot second floor. It was there, on a muggy Friday afternoon, that Miss Murphy told our class we were going to be making Father’s Day cards. She handed out sheets of straw-colored construction paper as we fished stubby, late-in-the-year crayons from our desks.
“You don’t need to buy a card,” she said, fanning herself with one of the sheets as she paced around the room in her cat-eye glasses. “Just fold your paper in half and draw a picture of your father doing something he loves.”
I proceeded to put a band of green grass on the bottom of my folded page, a giant yellow sun at the top, and my best representation of my dad, Donald Walsh, pushing a lawn mower in the middle. I gave him blue pants and a red shirt, and put a big smile on his face. Inside, I wrote “Happy Father’s Day” in careful cursive.
Any photo of Dad in the yard performing this task would have told a different story: a squat bottle of Narragansett beer would sit on a fence post in the distance; a cigarette would dangle from Dad’s pursed lips; and there would be no smile, unless he was pushing the mower back into the shed, the weekly chore finished.
In fact, I’m pretty sure my father hated mowing the lawn. But that didn’t keep him from loving my card. He set it atop a bookcase for everyone to see.
Though widely celebrated, Father’s Day had yet to become an official federal holiday in 1969. That would happen three years later, when President Nixon signed a proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June as such. Makers of neckties, bourbon, golf clubs, and tobacco must have rejoiced.
Hallmark had to be thrilled too. Four decades later, Father’s Day remains among the most popular greeting card occasions, with people crowding the aisles in pharmacies and gift stores in search of the perfect sentiment.
Some 90 million Father’s Day cards will be purchased in 2016, according to the Greeting Card Association. Many of them will be Hallmark creations, designed to “recognize the dads in our lives with sincerity, laughter, distinctiveness, and impact.” The company’s website even provides tips on what to write in a card. I reviewed the sample messages with my departed father in mind.
“Dad, you made growing up fun!” Well, not always — certainly not that time my older brother slugged a baseball through the neighbors’ kitchen window and almost beaned their baby.
“Dad, you’re in all my favorite memories!” Well, maybe not all of them — not the first time I went parking with my girlfriend in the lot by the brothers’ residence at La Salle Academy.
“Dad, you taught me so many of the important things I know — including a few choice words for certain situations.” Bingo! My father could elevate cursing to performance poetry.
I have a stack of my children’s Father’s Day cards to me crammed into the top drawer of my bedroom dresser. I treasure them all, especially the one my son Evan made years ago when he was probably 6 or 7.
His deliberately lettered “Happy Father’s Day” sits amid earnest drawings in a rainbow of Crayola colors: a plaid easy chair with a matching green water bottle; a TV with rabbit ears; a football, a baseball, and a bat; a Red Sox coffee mug that appears to be doubling as an umbrella drink; and, yes, a lawn mower.
In my young son’s eyes, at least, I was a man of sport, leisure, and yard work.
If you’re lucky enough to receive a kid-made card today, be sure to tuck it away. Someday it will remind you just how sweet fatherhood can be.