This is a poem I wrote for my father, but it could apply to many a father—which is more than I can say for all those stupid Father’s Day cards featuring clichés like the hammock, the necktie, the golf clubs, or the fishing gear. Those tropes seem outdated and twee. If the greeting card industrial complex is trying to guess accurately about fathers’ behaviors they should show a dad in a dingy t-shirt in a La-Z-Boy armchair watching sports on TV.
My dad was the rare kind who didn’t watch any sports. But he also didn’t lie in a hammock, wear a necktie, play golf, or fish. The only card I ever found that would have been totally appropriate is this one, which I could never bring myself to actually send:
So I’d pick some generic nature-themed card, but that only solved half the problem, the other half being what to write inside. After all, beyond “Happy Father’s Day,” what more is there to say? In my case, I couldn’t say “You were always there for me” or “Best Dad ever!” without seeming a bit disingenuous. So that’s how this poem came to be: it nicely solved the blank card problem. (In my case perhaps I had the sneaky ulterior motive of rubbing my dad’s nose in my choice of English as a major, when he was a passionate STEM proponent well ahead of all the Johnny-come-lately STEM-pushers who are terrorizing the current crop of teenagers.)
I guess you’re free to steal this poem for your own card. But if you do, and your dad doesn’t know you to be a competent poet, he’ll surely see right through your plagiarism. And if you are a competent poet, well, write your own ode!
To Dad - June 19, 2016
A father, residing in Boulder
Was young once, and then he got older. 2
He looks quite distinguished
And though he’s no linguist 4
He knows the right way to say “solder.”
This father, though lacking a daughter, 6
Was odd once, and maybe got odder.
He’s quite good with language— 8
Can easily manage
To get the right rhyme out of “solder.” 10
Footnotes & Commentary
I know, “To Dad” seems really generic but you have to remember “Dad” in this context is a proper noun so this is actually very personal and special. We fathers know this viscerally. Particularly when my kids were younger, when I was in a crowd of people and would hear a young girl yell, “Dad!” I would look around in a panic for a second before realizing some unrelated kid needed her dad.
Line 1 – a father
Given all the stuff I just said about “Dad” being personal, now I go off and start the poem with “A father”? Like, just any father? Of course I knew this would be jarring, but good poetry is supposed to be. If I wanted treacle, I’d go buy a Hallmark card. And no harm done: I knew by the time my dad got to the end of the line he’d realize this was a limerick, and I was just following the convention (e.g., “There once was a man from Nantucket”).
Line 2 – was young once … got older
This is an allusion to the Simon & Garfunkel song “The Boxer”—the extended version they performed at their concert in Central Park:
Now the years are rolling by me,
They are rockin’ evenly.
I am older than I once was
But younger than I’ll be.
That’s not unusual.
Would my dad catch this reference? Nope. He didn’t listen to much music. He had some records but they were all even older than Simon & Garfunkel. He never played the radio unless it was the classical station, as background music. Missed allusion aside, I figured my dad would enjoy knowing that somebody remembered the fact of his once being young. (My own kids won’t shut up about how old I am.)
Line 3 – looks quite distinguished
I kind of had to say something nice after reminding my dad how old he was (even though he prided himself on his agedness, his favorite self-referential term being “geezer”). Besides, he was distinguished and he knew it, so this was a compliment that wouldn’t come off as disingenuous.
Pretty respectable looking chap, eh? I must admit that I feel a bit odd forming your opinion based on such an old photo of him … I guess I’m sensitive to the rampant, unbridled deception taking place all over Instagram and other self-celebration platforms with people posting ideally unrepresentative photos. So here’s another shot of my dad, taken mere months before I wrote this poem.
If you look closely there’s a hard set to his mouth, and a strain shows around his eyes, and the eyes themselves are looking a bit blank and distant. That’s because when this photo was snapped, my dad already knew that he had cancer and likely wouldn’t be long for this world. Still, I think he was a very handsome guy well into old age (or as he’d put it “geezerdom”).
Line 4 – no linguist
This was perhaps a bit harsh, because even though my dad was a scientist and engineer through-and-through, he prided himself on having perfect grammar. Still, there’s no shame in not being a linguist. In fact, if I had become a professional linguist, my dad probably would have been a bit disappointed, even if I rose through the ranks and had a team of linguists working under me.
Line 5 – the right way to say solder
This line is a trap! Instinctively, the reader—or at least an astute reader like my dad—would be expecting the last word of the line to rhyme with “Boulder” and “older” in keeping with the limerick form, and then this word would look like it would rhyme, but of course it doesn’t. My dad would know the proper pronunciation, being the kind of guy who loved soldering things. He would have been really honored had I also learned how to solder. (If I could have found a Father’s Day card with a soldering iron on it, I’d have bought it in a heartbeat.)
So at this point in reading the poem my dad had to be perplexed. Surely, he’d muse, his own son couldn’t think “solder” rhymes with “older”—could he? Dad would mull this over for a bit. My level of intelligence wasn’t something he was totally confident about. He knew full well I wasn’t as smart as he was (his IQ having been measured at 180, with this result unwisely disclosed to him). A long-standing and still unresolved family argument concerns whether, back in 1983, my dad did or did not say to me at the dinner table, “You’re not very bright, are you.” (For the record, I don’t believe he actually said this to me, but the fact that we could imagine it does say something.)
It’s not like my dad considered me a dumbass—after all, I did manage to get a degree from his own alma mater—but to somebody as smart as he, everyone must have seemed a little dense. So I imagine he wondered for a moment if I’d just had the pronunciation wrong, before thinking, “Wait—he’s specifically talking about the right way to pronounce this word, so of course he knows.”
My dad’s relief would quickly pass, though, because until he fully appreciated the joke, he would be a bit prickled by my audacity in deliberately spurning the rhyme scheme of the limerick form by using a non-rhyming word here. This might strike you as an unfair accusation of extreme pedanticism, but I assure you this is a realistic consideration. For my dad, using “real” as an adverb was tantamount to cussing. He once challenged me about using the phrase “that’s me” on this blog because “that’s I” is, strictly speaking, the correct grammar. Also, he was once scandalized because, when emailing a large group where all the recipients were blind-copied, for the main “To” address I used “email@example.com” which obviously isn’t legit. My dad took me to task for this, and when I replied that this was a victimless crime, he drew my attention to the mail servers on the Internet that would waste valuable computing cycles searching in vain for that address. O, the humanity!
So yeah, that line ending in “solder” was me having a bit of illicit fun, being a literary bad boy, if you will.
Line 6 – lacking a daughter
This phrase is clearly the weakest part of the poem. You could quite reasonably accuse me of using the word “daughter” just because it rhymes with “odder” on the next line. In that sense, I’ve stooped to the level of that abysmal Hall & Oates song, “Your kiss is on my list.” (Have you ever thought about that? This guy makes a list: “Get up, shower, make coffee, empty the cat box, kiss Marcia, drop off dry cleaning…”)
The better line would be: “This dad, though not liable to dodder.” This would work very nicely with the ageing theme I’d already developed, and there’s a nice alliteration with the Ds in “dad” and “dodder.” But of course it wouldn’t be very nice, even though I’m technically saying he doesn’t dodder. We English majors love to ponder how you can’t say something without also implying its opposite, and this is a great example. (If you’re looking for another, consider how you’d feel if the big boss started his or her next staff meeting by saying, “Okay, I want to be clear here: nobody is talking about layoffs!”)
Meanwhile, I think it’s pretty much impossible to use the word “dodder” without summoning the phrase “doddering old fool.” So even if my dad was reassured that I’m clearly stating he doesn’t dodder, that phrase would be lurking nearby, casting a shadow over his poem-reading experience. I just couldn’t do that to the guy … I mean, the card and poem are supposed to be a tribute, right?
It also happens to be that “lacking a daughter” was totally apropos, and in my dad’s case the most powerful phrase in the whole poem. Family legend has it that he always wanted a daughter. My mom refutes this, but I think she’s just trying to keep me from feeling like the very first thing I did upon being born was to disappoint my father. I like to joke that my parents were hoping so hard for a girl, they chose a girl’s name, and when I ended up a boy, they saddled me with it anyway.
Line 7 – odd … odder
Was this line mean-spirited? I’d say it was pushing the edge of the envelope. I owed that to myself after decades of pathetically obsequious letters to my father, trying to win his approval. I figured if I was being nice enough now to write him a poem, I could playfully tweak him a bit at the same time, to shore up my own self respect. (And you thought this was a simple limerick!)
All this being said, “odd” and “odder” wouldn’t have particularly irked my dad because he had to know he was odd. He didn’t exactly strive to fit in, and sometimes wore his eccentricity on his sleeve. For example, he ditched the hubcaps on his (already odd) Scion XB and painted the rims bright blue. During his last years he wore, almost exclusively, this pair of bright cranberry-relish colored trousers that he liked to boast were significantly discounted at L.L. Bean due to their unpopular color.
Did Dad get odder over time? Absolutely. He eschewed the normal methods of running a household; for example, he would board up his windows during winter with custom-cut forms of silver-surfaced Styrofoam, to improve insulation, and he took to storing his underwear and undershirts in a filing cabinet instead of a standard dresser. (What benefit he saw in that is beyond me.)
Would having a daughter have kept my dad from becoming odder? Possibly. My brothers and I didn’t tend to challenge our dad, because he didn’t seem comfortable with that kind of thing. Where males were concerned he was pretty competitive, in a way he wasn’t with females. A daughter would have had an easier rapport with him and could probably have said, “Lose the berry-colored pants, dude! You look like a doddering old fool!”
Line 8 – quite good with language
Even if my dad wouldn’t mind being called odd, I knew I was close to the line so a bit of praise couldn’t hurt. Besides, it’s true: he was very good with language. When I hear the rampant errors committed by modern engineer-types (e.g., “between you and I”), I tend to cringe; after all, my dad proved that respect for language and for STEM aren’t mutually exclusive.
Line 10 – get the right rhyme
This line deliberately conflates the reader with the poet, as though my dad himself could have written this poem. I think with the right motivation and some effort, he could have. As evidence, I draw your attention to a couplet he casually tossed off at the dinner table one night when protesting my mom’s choice of side vegetable:
It takes more than a muscled lout
To make me eat a Brussels sprout.
It occurs to me (only now, alas) that it would have been fun to challenge my dad to try his hand at a limerick or a sonnet. So you know what? I’m going to do some poetry with my mom and my brothers the next time I see them.
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