I’d always thought my father was a quiet man, more of a listener than a talker who seemed to wait for just the right moment in conversation to offer a clever comment or opinion. Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, my dad was never outwardly expressive with his emotions, especially those of the touchy-feely variety. Growing up, I don’t remember him showering me with all of the warm hugs and “I love you’s” that I got from my mom. He showed his love—it was just usually in other ways.
One summer when I was five or six, he spent days teaching me how to ride a bike. My sister, who is six years older than me, had already been riding for years, and I wanted nothing more than to be able to keep up with her and the other kids in my neighborhood. Every day after work, my dad would walk me down our hilly driveway to the cul-de-sac below and work with me until the sun went down. With one hand on the handlebars and the other on my back, he’d give me a push and shout, “Go, go, go!” My legs quivering, I’d push the pedals hard. But just as I’d get going, the action of my feet would distract me from keeping my hands steady, and I’d start to swerve, losing control. Dad, who was right there jogging beside me, would catch me just before I hit the pavement. “Okay, let’s try it again,” he’d say, his patience seemingly limitless.
Dad’s teaching tendencies came into play again a few years later when I was learning how to downhill ski. Even though I was taking formal lessons, he’d spend hours with me on the slopes, helping me perfect my turns and snowplows. When I was too tired to carry my skis back to the lodge, he’d pick up the bottom of my poles and pull me there while I held the other end tightly. At the lodge, he’d buy me hot chocolate and rub my frozen feet until they were finally warm again. As soon as we’d get home, I’d run and tell my mom about all that I’d accomplished that day while dad relaxed in front of the TV.
As I got older, my relationship with my dad became more distant. I was a snotty teenager, who preferred parties and football games to spending time with my dad. There were no more little teaching moments—those excuses to hang out, just the two of us. Once I got to college, my conversations with my father were limited to, “Hey dad, is mom there?” I’d spend hours on the phone with my mother, it never occurring to me to take a few moments to chat with my father.
By the time I was 25, our lack of communication had deeply impacted our relationship. As in, we didn’t really have one. Sure, dad was technically in my life—he and my mom were still married and I would speak to him briefly on the phone and see him when I came home a few times a year. But he wasn’t in my life—he didn’t know much about it and I didn’t know much about his.
I realized that I’d never taken the time to get to know him. I could’ve counted the things I knew about my dad on one hand. I knew he loved soccer, the Beatles, and the History Channel, and that his face turned bright red when he laughed. I also knew that he had moved to the U.S. with my mom from the Soviet Union to provide a better life for my sister and me, and he had done just that. He made sure we always had a roof over our heads, plenty to eat, and a good education. And I hadn’t ever thanked him for it. Not even once.
RELATED: Super-Fit Celebrity Dads
From that point on, I started making an effort to connect with my dad. I called home more often and didn’t immediately ask to speak to my mom. It turned out that my dad, who I’d once thought was so quiet, actually had a lot to say. We spent hours on the phone talking about what it was like growing up in the Soviet Union and about his relationship with his own father.
He told me that his father was a great dad. Although he was strict at times, my grandfather had a wonderful sense of humor and influenced my dad in many ways, from his love of reading to his obsession with history. When my dad was 20, his mother died and the relationship between him and his father became distant, especially after my grandfather remarried a few years later. Their connection was so distant, in fact, that I rarely saw my grandfather growing up and I don’t see him much now.
Slowly getting to know my dad over the last few years has strengthened our bond and given me a glimpse into his world. Life in the Soviet Union was about survival, he told me. Back then, taking care of a child meant making sure he or she was clothed and fed—and that was it. Fathers didn’t play catch with their sons and mothers certainly didn’t go on shopping sprees with their daughters. Understanding this made me feel so lucky that my dad taught me how to ride a bike, ski, and so much more.
When I was home last summer, dad asked if I wanted to go golfing with him. I have zero interest in the sport and had never played in my life, but I said yes because I knew it would be a way for us to spend one-on-one time together. We got to the golf course, and dad immediately went into teaching mode, just like he had when I was a kid, showing me the correct stance and how to hold the club at just the right angle to ensure a long drive. Our conversation mainly revolved around golf—there were no dramatic heart-to-hearts or confessions—but I didn’t mind. I was getting to spend time with my dad and share something he was passionate about.
These days, we talk on the phone about once a week and he’s come up to New York to visit twice in the last six months. I still find that it’s easier for me to open up to my mom, but what I’ve come to realize is that’s okay. Love can be expressed in many different ways. My dad may not always tell me how he feels but I know he loves me—and that may be the biggest lesson he’s taught me.
Abigail Libers is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is also the creator and editor of Notes on Fatherhood, a place for people to share stories about fatherhood.