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Who's Your Daddy?

Personal stories about what it means to be a father

Published on: May 27, 2014

Dad, Daddy, Pop, Grandpa, Thata: The fathers in our lives have many names and even more stories. We feel the impact of dads every day, from the lessons our own fathers taught us to the moments, small and large, that we as parents spend and witness with our children.

Happy Father’s Day to the dads we know and love!

Our tales of fatherhood:

Bedtime Stories — Ari Sulkin
Fatherless to father — Brian McGuigan
Sibling revelry — Mia Lipman
Remembering Kindness — Deborah Binder
Boys to men — Monica Leudke
A reason to cheer — Nancy Schatz Alton
Father knows better — Stephanie Olson
My husband is a real live superhero — Natalie Singer-Velush
The strong man — Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh
A man of character — Cheryl Brenner
Out of the mouths of babes — children explain why their dads are awesome


Ari and Bobby Sulkin
Ari and Bobby Sulkin

Bedtime stories

I have the best father in the whole world. I realize many people feel that way, but I have proof. You see, when I was a little girl, my dad made time for me. I always knew that I was a priority. Fathers, take note: Time is the single most important gift you can give your child. This may seem simple, perhaps even obvious. But I am 27 years old now, and while I vaguely remember birthday gifts and parties, I distinctly remember our time together.

When my dad came home from work, he would turn on the stereo and blast Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.” He scooped me up, danced and swung me around to the point where I thought I would be sick. “Superman’s Song” by Crash Test Dummies usually followed. While I was less nauseated for the slow dances, my cheeks turned bright red and itchy from our “cheek to cheek” dancing. Let’s just say Fred Astaire needed a closer shave.

Bedtime stories told by my dad were the only way I would go to sleep. Every night, I got to hear about the hilarious adventures he and his siblings had when they were growing up, complete with voices and facial expressions.

When I got older and went through my darkest times, my dad never gave up on me. He was always there, a glimpse of light. No matter how busy or successful he became, or how painful it was for him to show up, he always showed up.

I am about to be married. Soon enough, I will start my own family, and the proof that I have the best father in the whole world is that I know my future children will have the best grandfather in the world, dancing with them, tucking them in and telling them bedtime stories.

—Ari Sulkin

Brian McGuigan with his son, Mase

Fatherless to father

For most of my life, “father” meant an absence, a small, dark hole somewhere inside me that I wasn’t able to fill. My father left my mother before I was born. He never called or wrote. I’ve never even seen a picture. What I know about him couldn’t fill a Facebook profile.

Growing up without a father was hellish. My mother worked three jobs to make ends meet, but we didn’t have much. I got picked on and fell in with older boys who fought and made trouble. And then there were the simple things: playing catch, my first crush, shaving. I desperately needed a man to show me the way. Naturally, I was angry and blamed myself. There was a time when I tried to fill that hole with drinking, drugs and binge eating to blot out the hurt I couldn’t quite put into words. The older I got, the easier it was to cope, but there was always that absence, that hole.

After my son, Mase, was born two years ago, I needed to forgive my father. If I was going to raise my boy to be a good man, I needed to let go of the anger I still held inside for some guy I didn’t know.

Now, as a father myself, the word means something completely different. It means reading Green Eggs and Ham a dozen times before bed, hopping around the living room like a frog and walking out of the house with rocket ship stickers all over my shirt. But, most important, “father” means I’ll always be there, because I love my son more than any single word can express.

Brian McGuigan

Sibling revelry

My niece woke up a few minutes ago from her afternoon nap, all rosy cheeks and rock star bedhead. I’ve just lifted her onto the changing table when my brother pipes in through the monitor from the kitchen: “How’s my sweet girl?” Her face splits into a grin. “Papa!” she shouts, craning toward his voice. “That’s right!” he answers. “Papa’s home!”

My big brother is a papa. How about that? The same guy who — five minutes ago, it seems — used to stay out all night dancing, move houses (or coasts) every year or two, and hop on a flight to wherever with only a change of clothes and a handful of dollars.

That’s ancient history now: We go way back, my brother and I, and I’ve never seen him more joyful than he is with his daughter. When he and my sister-in-law told me she was pregnant, his eyes welled up. (I moved to Seattle a couple of months later.) He’d always wanted kids in an abstract way, but that concept catapulted into reality the moment he ran out of the delivery room at the hospital, fists high in triumph. She’s here! Soon after, he told me his most terrifying dreams were about losing her. She became everything.

When my brother leans in to rest his forehead on his daughter’s at a busy restaurant, gently asking her to use her indoor voice; when his face lights up with pride and bemusement as she sings the alphabet song over and over; when she insists that the only place in the world she wants to sit is on “Papa’s wap”; when her eyes crinkle up at the corners in a smile, almost disappearing, just like her dad’s and our dad’s . . . it’s magic.

Otherwise known as fatherhood.

Mia Lipman

Deborah and Morton Binder

Remembering kindness

My father passed away when I was 26 years old. He died suddenly, at about the age that I am now, and I wasn’t ready to lose him. He meant the world to me. He didn’t like talking on the phone, but he would send me short, handwritten notes in his doctor’s scribble. When I read them, I felt that I was deciphering a secret code between father and daughter. We shared a lot of common interests, especially antiques and being in the woods. In Missouri, where I grew up, we would take long drives in the country and stumble upon little shops and prowl for treasures together when we could.

He instilled in me a lifelong love of learning, and at the time of his death, he was writing a book about death with dignity because he was a physician at the forefront of the hospice movement. When I helped dismantle his office, I saw on his wall this quote, titled “Kindness,” by Stephen Grellet: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” He inspires me every day, even if I can’t pick up the phone and talk to him. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

—Deborah Binder

Boys to men

My father-in-law is a very kind, generous and loving man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He instilled those values and character traits in his sons, and it is wonderful to see my husband following the example set by his dad when he interacts with our own children.

Each day, I’m appreciative of my father-in-law for being the caliber of man that he is and for raising his boys to be men. He taught them the value of work and also the value of play. He taught them how to lead a family and how to follow their wives. He taught them to use their intellect, but also how to listen to their hearts. My kids are exceptionally blessed to have my husband as their dad and my father-in-law as their grandpa.

—Monica Luedke

father and daughter looking out at the view after a hike

A reason to cheer

My family of four likes to hike together — although part of me wants to remove the word “together” from this sentence. My husband, Chris, and my eldest daughter are always way ahead of me and my younger daughter. From behind, I often see their heads dip toward each other as they converse. What are they talking about? A small tendril of jealousy weaves into my curiosity. I want my tween to be talking to me; heck, I want my husband to be talking to me.

Research tells me, however, that the connection between dad and daughter is vital in a young woman’s life. Even as my overthinking mind really wonders what they talk about while they move quickly along the trails, I love this bond between them. I admire their mountain goat gene. I cheer inside as I think about the bike rides my husband takes with my older daughter; how he plays Lego with both girls; how my younger daughter shares movie time with her dad, repeating lines while they reenact the scenes later.

These connections between my husband and my daughters make me think about my own dad. He was always waiting for me after my cross-country races, beaming at my finish no matter how I placed, sweatshirt in hand, telling me I needed to get warmer clothing on immediately. In my memory bank, he’s driving me to junior high and calling me at college to hear about my trip to Washington, D.C. After I told him I spent too much money, he said, “But did you have fun? That’s all that matters.”

Did you have fun? The joy breaking across my father’s face as I crossed so many finish lines has stayed with me, and it replicates the joy my own husband takes in just being with our daughters.

I finally understand why I mistakenly call my husband by my dad’s name as he happily serves breakfast to our family. When I say “Vern” instead of “Chris,” I’m thanking the stars above that I got lucky twice, with my own father and with my husband, who is a great dad to my daughters.

Nancy Schatz Alton

Stephanie Olson with her father

Father knows better

Not many 17-year-olds want to spend eight hours trapped in a car with their dad, and I was one of those. I remember being angry, and the endless stretches of flat land did nothing to elevate my mood. I read my Rolling Stone and engaged in chitchat, but I was not happy, and I made sure that my dad was aware of that fact during each long moment of our trip.

I was being dragged to visit my grandmother in Bismarck, North Dakota. In less than one month, I would leave for a year abroad.

I was thrilled to ditch Minnesota and excited to discover what life was like in another country.

It sounds so brutal to me now, but back then, it was leaving my friends that pained me. Leaving my family — that was an afterthought.

My dad, however, knew better. He wanted to be sure that I saw my grandma again. She was in her early 80s, and he realized that she probably wouldn’t be around when I returned. We argued, and I resisted, but he eventually forced me to visit her.

That is how I ended up trapped in a car, then a hotel room, in North Dakota with my father.

The next day, we had a beautiful visit with my grandmother.

I remember moments of it so clearly, they almost seem alive.

I can see Grams sitting next to me on a riverboat, and my dad leaving so she and I had time to talk. I can feel her frail hands holding mine; she also probably realized we’d never see each other again. I remember our conversation and her looking deeply into my eyes.

I hope the drive home was better. I hope that I was kinder, because I truly felt grateful to have seen her. I hope I told my dad that I was glad he had brought me there. Realistically, though, I probably didn’t.

When I heard the phone ring at 7 a.m. on a Sunday many months later, I knew right away that it was my parents. A knock on my door from my host mom in Belgium confirmed it.

Grandma was gone, but I still have those memories, and I have revisited that day many times in my life. I had to be dragged across that flat land against my will, but I am so lucky I had a dad who knew better.

Stephanie Olson

Lukas Velush (Superhero)

My husband is a real live superhero

My husband folds laundry, coaches soccer and harvests kale in one fell swoop. He is the master of bedtime tuck-ins, the protector of spiders and injured birds, and a conqueror of confusing third-grade math homework. He fixes clogged sinks, plays board games, gives advice and listens with an open heart.

Recently, one of our daughters left her bike on the front lawn while she ran inside to get a drink. When she came back outside, the bike was gone. Just as we discovered the theft, my husband arrived home. “Our bike was stolen, our bike was stolen!” our daughters shouted at him through the window. My husband sped right off in the minivan. He soon saw a teenager riding our daughter’s purple bicycle down the sidewalk. “What are you doing with that bike?” my husband demanded, pulling up alongside the kid. “Uh, I’m sorry, sir. I was, uh, just borrowing it,” said the boy. My husband lectured the teen, grabbed the bike, tossed it in the minivan and drove back home, to the relief of our daughters. Not only is he an amazing dad, my husband is a superhero!

Natalie Singer-Velush

hands at indian wedding
Padmaja's father performing Kanyadanaam (offering the bride's hands into the groom's) at her sister's wedding

The strong man

“Let’s get a second opinion. Maybe Unani will work,” I heard Appa (my father) tell Amma (my mother). “I am not ready to let him go.” And that was the first time I heard Appa’s voice quiver. First. Time. Ever.

Thata (Appa’s father, my grandfather) was diagnosed with throat cancer and was in the final stages. The doctors had given up hope and had told Appa to be prepared for the inevitable. If I hadn’t woken up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, I would never have witnessed this aspect of the relationship my father shared with his.

Appa was sitting on Thata’s bed, holding his hand. Thata must have had difficulty sleeping that night, too; he had his head on Amma’s shoulder. “Appa, kaividaadeengo,” Appa was pleading. “Don’t leave my hand.” Thata could not speak, but he squeezed Appa’s hand.

The day Thata passed away, Appa broke down completely. He had a seizure and had to be admitted to the hospital. The strongest person I have ever known was now lying in bed, helpless, his tears flowing. But he never spoke to us about his breakdown.

A month later, when Appa was performing Thata’s monthly rites, I could see his arm twitch again. And this time, Appa caught me staring. Afterward, he called me aside. “Just like no parent wants to see his child suffer, no child should see his parents suffer. I saw mine, and you saw me,” he said, then paused. “But I want you to know that you’re very lucky for having known my old man. You will never meet a kinder, gentler soul in your life. As the sole earning member of a family of 10, he did everything he could for us. He continued working even after retirement so he could fulfill all his responsibilities. All of us are married and settled. I wish I am half the father he was. If I love you and your sister unconditionally, it’s because I saw how our father loved us. Appa was my idol.” Then he squeezed my hand. “I want you to know that I am OK. He will always be with me, but I am allowed to miss him, even as your strong man. I’ll cope.” He then looked at me. “Will you?” he asked.

If I’ve learned to love my own child, it’s because of you, Pa. You will always be my strong man. I love you, too.

Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh

A man of character

My father is a character unlike any other. As a former U.S. Marine, he is intimidating. He once mowed the lawn in a T-shirt and purple spandex shorts just because he could. No one said a word. He is a disciplined, straight-talking, able-to-fix-everything kind of guy. He is a protector.

He served in Vietnam, and I remember asking him about his occupation. He assured me that he never fought because he spent his days distributing beer to thirsty soldiers. Years later, I found out he has a machete scar in the middle of his back from being caught up in a booby trap.

He taught me to stand up for myself and to speak my mind while also advising me to defend what comes out of my mouth. If I am unwilling to do so, he always says, “You never have to explain what you didn’t say.”

As a father, he is strict. As a grandfather, he is just one giant marshmallow filled with hilarious tall tales. As a sleep-deprived man who held two to three jobs at a time for as long as I can remember, he worked diligently to make sure all our family’s needs were met, even if that meant missing out on a few extracurriculars now and then. As a recent retiree, he is more relaxed and has more time to spend attending the football games, musicals and other milestone events of the grandchildren who live nearby.

Our family lives a plane ride away, so when our kids and their “Paka” (that’s my daughter’s name for him) get together, he packs six months’ worth of activities into 10 days. They bake brownies, mold characters in Play-Doh and take walks to search for birds. He is a great father, and he is an even more remarkable grandfather.

—Cheryl Brenner

Matt and Rowan Suchyta
Matt and Rowan Suchyta

Out of the mouths of babes:

Rowan Suchyta, 4, says his dad is “awesome because he plays with his bow and arrow with me.”

— Rowan and dad Matt Suchyta

When asked what was awesome about his dad, Danny, 5, responded, “He’s so cool!”

“Well, what’s cool about him?” Danny’s mom prodded. “Everything!”

— Danny Cheney with dad Dave Cheney












When asked what is so great about his daddy, 15-month-old Elliott says: “Da da da da da da da da da da da da DA DA!”

— Elliott Abbott with dad Derek Abbott



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