Who is a Father?
ON GIANT SHOULDERS
Daughter of John Hamill
I met my adoptive father, John, when I was seven years old.
By then, my biological father had been weaving in and out of my life for some time, charming and irresistible while he was around, but absent for big chunks of time with fantastic stories about tire blow-outs and working late (time we later learned was spent having affairs, using cocaine and embezzling money). When he left in 1984, we never imagined he was gone for good. My mother was devastated by heartbreak, my father’s debts and the responsibility of shepherding her three daughters, ages 10, 6 and a newborn, through this trauma.
I cannot imagine the comfort and relief it would have provided our mother then to know how our lives would turn out — that in spite of our father’s disappearance, we would all heal to find love and laughter again. If only she knew then how our lives would change the day we went to the zoo…
February 1985. We were in Miami, staying in the condominium that was once my parents’, then my grandparents who had bailed us out just before the bank foreclosed on it. I skipped along the tiled balcony singing Peter, Paul and Mary, “Mommy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow. Mommy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow. We can stay all day.”
“Today, stupid, we’re going to the zoo TO-DAY,” my eleven-year old bossy sister interrupted.
I grabbed my little sister’s hands and kept singing, “we’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo. How about you, you, you? You can come too, too, too. We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.”
As we headed to our car, mom waved to a man I didn’t recognize.
“Girls, say hello to John,” she instructed. We smiled at the guy in khaki shorts and a blue collared shirt with a horse on it. Kim snuggled into Mom’s shoulder. “He’s one of Laura’s friends from Connecticut. John, these are my girls.”
Mom told John we were heading to the zoo. John said he’d always wanted to go. Before we knew it, Mom invited him to join us.
Later, we’d learn this was all a ruse. Mom and John had been dating for a few months and John was eager to meet us. Not wanting to introduce him too soon as her boyfriend, they planned this gentle encounter.
The day turned out to be exactly what our broken family needed. John made monkey faces that had us hysterical and my sisters and I took turns being hoisted up on his shoulders to get a better view of the rhinoceroses. He treated us to silly toys from the vending machines; I still remember that blue waxy figurine we named ‘Gary the Gorilla” and how John cheered when I lost not one, but two of my front teeth that day. These smallest gestures were just a hint of how well John would care for us in the years ahead.
John says he fell in love with my mom and us three girls all at once. Though I’ve lived it, it’s still hard to imagine this handsome 38-year old businessman falling for an exhausted almost-divorced mom and her three daughters. He was plenty young enough to start his own family; thankfully, instead, he met mine.
John didn’t push or pry; he just started spending time with us. Though we were still hurting and waiting for our biological father to call or come home, John embodied everything we needed in a father: he was reliable, consistent, present, patient and playful. Before long, John was calling every single night of the week to talk and check on us. Every other weekend, he drove from Connecticut to visit us in New York. On Wednesday nights, we met for dinner at a Japanese restaurant on the New York border, with pretty ponds and gardens we’d explore after we tired of trying to use chopsticks at the hibachi table. When we traveled to Connecticut, John would drive an hour to pick us up at the Danbury Sheraton, so Mom wouldn’t have to drive the whole way.
As steady as John was, he surprised us too. One Sunday night, as we drove to our halfway spot, gloomily anticipated separating after a fun weekend in Connecticut, John started singing along with the car radio, “A man walks down the street. He says why am I soft in the middle now…”
“You girls know this song?” he asked.
We shook our heads no.
“You haven’t seen the MTV video? With Paul Simon and Chevy Chase?”
We shook our heads no, again.
John slowly pulled the car onto the shoulder of the highway. He lowered the windows and turned the radio up. He stepped out of the car and began lip-synching the song on the side of I-95, dancing and kicking his legs like the Chorus Line girls. We giggled hysterically. Cars honked and John grinned like crazy.
“If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long, lost pal. Doo-du-du-du-du. Doo-du-du-du. I can call you Betty. And Betty, when you call me. You can call me Al.”
We didn’t know the words, but we clapped and cheered along. When the words stopped and the instrumentals started, John pretended to take something out of the trunk, then played an imaginary saxophone with the same wild choreography. Then he set his sax down, picked up something else and began to blow his cheeks out like he was playing a trumpet. We were hanging out the windows to watch. When the song ended, John tossed his pretend instruments in the trunk and hopped in the car.
If John played baseball, “You can call me Al,” would be his walk-up song. We play it in his honor at our weddings, bat mitzvahs and all the dance parties in between. Just when we needed him most, John became a father we could count on. With little background in parenting or psychology, he innately knew how important it was for us to cry and how crucial it was for us to laugh. He turned our sadness into smiles and our smiles to giggles. In 1987, he married our mother and became our stepfather. In 1990, he adopted us and officially became Dad. In the many years since, I have been nourished and nurtured beyond measure by this remarkable man, who my kids adore as their Papa John.
I am certain I’ve had all the “dad” a person can be lucky enough to have.
John Hamill is “Dad” to Melanie, Jodie and Kim, the “salt of the earth” to his wife, Bonnie, and “Papa” to his nine grandchildren, who treasure the time he spends talking and playing with them and sharing his signature boring stories (which are actually quite silly and clever). After many years running a real estate and property management business, he now enjoys retirement and time on the golf course and with his family and friends.
Jodie Sadowsky is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut with her high school prom date-turned-superdad husband, Scott, and their three children. She worked alongside her father in his real estate business for many years. She has co-authored a memoir with her mother and sister about the man that abandoned them and the effects of his departure – and John’s arrival – on their lives and now writes about parenting, relationships and identity.
On Giant Shoulders… A Daughter Can See Clearly
- Setting Clear Limits and Providing a Moral Code (submit your story here)
- Spirituality and Religion (Ingrid Peart)
- Standing Up for Your Beliefs (Dominique Sharpton)
- The Importance of Humility (Kathryn Ho)
- Lasting Values Over Materialism (Nan Nicklaus O’Leary)
- Helping Others (Helen Rafferty)
- Failure…and Learning from Mistakes (submit your story here)
- Value of Hard Work (Stephanie Staubach Phillips)
- Mindfulness (Carmela Cipriani)