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Inadvertent Philanthropy (Part 1)

Dictionary.com defines philanthropy as altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement usually manifested by donations of money, property, or work to needy persons. It potentially follows, therefore, that as parents we are all philanthropists. And although the genetics ‘donated’ at conception are the first mutual contribution, the list soon grows to include unconditional love, support, protection, patience, time, and always money.  

Fathers however, pony up for more than what is generally acknowledged. And what they most indelibly bequeath to their daughters specifically is this -a definitive set of nuances and cues to all things masculine; in short, a girl’s essential “Real Men Are …” list. Perhaps they even “gift” it genetically, in that singular celestial moment, alongside the hair, height, and the humor gene. This influential list is manifested in a daughter’s expectations, dreams, and decisions. Fathers bestow their little gift all so obliviously—and even that is so male.  

Typically, Dads are celebrated for the familiar and self-evident: life-lesson anecdotes, the less than subtle screening of potential boyfriends, hiking epics, fish tales and skiing exploits, Sunday morning pancakes, cheering on your seasonal soccer/volleyball/track team. These are things they do. I am talking about that which is integral to who they are, the essence of what makes them “Dad.” In constituting their lifeblood, these fundamental idiosyncrasies become intrinsic to mine. I am talking about things like hands and feet, cars and cigars.  

Dads are a daughter’s first glimpse into the “strange but true” world of men and boys. They are not the first one you run to with a scraped knee, but they are the one you hold out your hand to for allowance. They drive things lawnmowers, cars, boats, power tools, rototillers, and barbecues—with gusto and bravado. They dress up—work shoes, shirts and ties, suits with apparent distaste. Everything seems somehow bigger with Dads—their hands, their feet, their eyebrows and ears, and louder—their cheering, their singing, their laughter, their anger, and more certain—their handshakes and opinions, their arrogance, conviction, and coolness. 

I lost my Dad never having known him as an adult with human frailties. My memories live in the raw, pure unadulterated love of a child, uncomplicated with growth and change. The “real men are” list I fell heir to was Dad’s ultimate act of inadvertent philanthropy. And while my list is specific to him and to me, I imagine that the more things change the more they stay the same; that now as then father/daughter relationships are intangible, complicated, and critical. I imagine that as daughters we all inherit a list and that as girls we are all influenced by it. 

I don’t smoke. I have never smoked. I don’t like the smell of smoke in my hair, my clothes, or my car. Yet there is little, if anything, more instantly sensual and seductive, for me, than to inhale the distinctive sweet scent of a good cigar with notes of brand new car leather. Cerebrally it makes no sense. Yet, in the space of a moment it is for me potent, intoxicating, and intrinsically masculine. It is in a nutshell, my Dad. (According to most new research that scent is literally, potent, intoxicating, and intrinsically not very good for you!) 

Memories of Dad are inextricably tied to cars. He loved them. He sold new and used General Motors cars for a living, managing three dealerships in the fifteen years I knew him. We never actually owned a car. Dad would arrive home, or pick me up from school or figure skating, in a “car of the day,” off the lot, invariably rather new yet still mildly infused with the organic pungency of Dad’s cigar.  

We lived in small town Saskatchewan. It was a two dealership town—Ford and GM. Dad was the GM dealer. My best friend, Jane, lived across the alley and her Dad owned the Ford dealership. We were Catholic and they were United. Of course they were. Catholic—GM, United—Ford. They went together like roast beef and potatoes. It was the 1960s, I was seven years old and this, apparently, was just how it was.  

I remember walking down the one main street town at the end of the school year to show Dad my report card. I remember walking into the dealership, some vague feeling of entering a distinctly male bastion, a boys club, “no girls allowed” club, except because my Dad had “invited me” I had every right to be there. With that knowledge and head up, I looked for Dad’s office, very aware of all the salesmen in white short shirt sleeves, cigars or cigarettes in hand, the darkened back aisles of the parts department, with hundreds of small grimy boxes of little screws, and nuts and bolts and other odd car things, that oil smell on the mechanics hands and grease monkey suits as they’d wander in, the shiny new car turning on the rotating pedestal in the center of the showroom…and then there he was. Behind his old oak desk, his big, shiny size thirteen shoes, his large hands setting down his pen to listen as I told him about all my A’s and my A+’s, my legs dangling from the chair, little worn saddle shoes not quite reaching the floor. He’d sign where parents signed, a big, indecipherable scrawl. With twenty-five cents allowance in my pocket he would walk me to the door, my small hand lost in his large safe one. I’d leave all that overwhelming masculinity behind and delve into the books of the library in the basement of the post office across the street. Six Nancy Drew books later, I was happily ensconced in the world of being a girl again. 

Part 1 | (Part 2)

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