On Father's Day, dutiful offspring face the perplexing annual question of what to get the old man. Candy and flowers are so Mom, while department stores and newspaper ads promote such dad-friendly merchandise as the dreaded tie, or maybe a CD of Dad's favorite geezer rock (like, from the '80s).
Those of us former children whose fathers are no longer with us are left out of this merchandising melee. But that doesn't mean we no longer think about our dads. Quite the opposite. Liberated from earthly life—and no longer confined to the one day a year set aside to honor them—our fathers are more present in our daily lives now than ever.
My dad, Art Jensen, has been gone for 19 years, but I think about him every night as I'm turning off the kitchen light to go to bed. As I pass the gas stove, I touch every knob to make sure the burners and oven are all turned off. This was my dad's bedtime ritual for years—and I'm the only one who ever saw him do it.
For awhile when I was a pre-tween, my dad worked nights as a maintenance engineer at a card club in Gardena. He left for work at 8 in the evening, in a bottle-green jumpsuit with "Art" stitched on the pocket. He got home a little after 4 am, when the rest of us were all sleeping. Except me. I was going through a phase of sleeping on the living room couch, after too many creepy episodes of The Twilight Zone made me afraid to walk down the long, dark hall to my bedroom.
I always woke up when I heard my dad's car in the driveway, but I always pretended furiously to be asleep when he came in the door. I didn't want him to think he'd disturbed me, much less have to explain what I was doing on the couch again. (As if he didn't know.) Daddy would rustle around discreetly in the kitchen for a while, putting away his lunch box and thermos. I would watch him through my squinted-shut eyes as he came to the stove and checked all the knobs. He was never a religious man in the churchgoing sense, but he always paused at the stove to say a little prayer for the safety of the family. Or maybe he was speaking to his own parents, those intrepid immigrants from Denmark, so long gone.
Then he'd come out to the couch where I was curled up, bend down over me, and kiss me on the forehead. "Goodnight, Possum," he'd whisper.
Those we love are always with us, in the memories that reverberate in our lives, and the rituals by which we keep them close. Every night, I touch those knobs and whisper, "Goodnight, Daddy."