The man pictured above isn’t my actual dad. I call him dad, but he’s really the father of my high school best friend Andrea. Sometimes now that I’m grown up I call him John, or Dad M (for his last name, Mortenson). But when, as a teen, I lived in Santa Cruz and my dad was two states away and I was all angst and hormones, this guy was my in loco Dad. He and his wife (Mom M) — and when they divorced when I was in college their subsequent spouses Nancy and Vince (respectively) — were there to help guide me and provide a positive spin on whatever negative thing was happening in my life.
If my mom and I were on the outs — and that was often when I was a teenager living with her alone, without the buffer of my brother’s humor or even a dog to come between us — this surrogate family was there to give us breathing space.
This is not to say that my dad doesn’t deserve a paean of his own — I’ve done that. You can find it here. I treasure my father and always will.
But this tall Nordic guy? He was there for me when my dad couldn’t be. Ask my dad and I’ll bet he’s pretty grateful. And 35 years after I met other dad? He is still there for me. He and Nancy live in Salem, OR now. That’s a good four hour drive from Seattle if there’s not any gummy traffic between Olympia and Tacoma. And there will always be gummy traffic there. But they came to my wedding in 1995 and to my Bat Mitzvah 10 years ago. He chauffeured Nancy to my son’s Bar Mitzvah in 2010 — a day trip, that one. And yesterday, they made the trip to bring some books up for my 50th birthday party. I had to practically get on my knees and plead for them to spend the night and not drive home the same day or spend money on a hotel. I reminded Dad how many times as a teenager I had just appeared to eat their food and kick Alexa, the youngest, out of her bed to the couch. “In retaliation,” he said, “we will spend the night.”
He and Nancy were the first to arrive. I was running behind, so they shooed me upstairs and proceeded to take care of last minute decorations, do all the dishes, and even fought with me over who got to put the clean sheets on the guest room bed. It’s the kind of stuff my mom does when she’s here. The kind of stuff they’d NEVER do when I was a teen, when they were trying to impart all that responsibility on me.
Dad M fought through cancer when I was in college — scared the crap out of me when he was sick. He’s wheezy now, probably from the cancer treatment, he says. He turns 80 the day before my Dad turns 76. I love them both so much. But there is a special spot in my heart for Dad M — a space full of gratitude for being there at a time when I could have felt so bereft of adult love and guidance — because that’s what it can feel like to be a teen. The Mortensons took me in, all five of them, gave me chores, would corral me into family meetings, and even had a Christmas stocking for this nice Jewish girl to open.
I’m not the only one with a father surrogate — or mother surrogate or other special someone — who is loved and valued, but who doesn’t have a Hallmark-driven day set aside for honoring them. I’m not advocating we create a new card-buying holiday. Just take one of the existing days and give a shout out to the surrogate moms and dads out there.
All hail the Dad Ms of the world! Happy Fatherlike Folks Day!