In Honor of Father’s Day: A Tribute to my Dad

I am the youngest of six sisters and one brother, all significantly older than me. Yes, I can hear the collective “oops” from you, readers. The benefit to having much older siblings was, growing up, I was the only little one in the house. The brother and sisters had moved out, or were teenagers doing their own thing. That meant I didn’t have to share my dad with anyone. 

My father’s name was James McGarry and I adored him. 

James was an avid outdoorsman. He loved fishing and hunting, and went away to hunting camp with his buddies every November. Family lore says when I was a baby, every time my father left for his hunting trip, I got sick. Like clockwork. My mothers always said that I got sick at this time because I missed my father. A sort of homesickness, but for a person. 

I don’t know if that’s true or not. Maybe it was just the weather. What I do remember is the excitement I felt as a young child when I heard the rumble of my father’s truck pull into the driveway, signaling his at long-last return from hunting. I remember the feel of the ice-cold cement of the porch on my bare feet, and the frigid November evening air on my face and arms, as I giddily ran out to welcome him home. I remember the feel of his scratchy whiskers on my cheek as we embraced, having forsworn his daily shaving routine for a week.  

These were the golden years of our relationship, when I was four, five, six years old. James made me breakfast on weekend mornings, letting my mom sleep in after her graveyard shift at the nursing home. His specialty was homemade fried “spuds” that I still love to this day. Then I would stand on a chair next to him at the kitchen sink as we washed dishes together. He took great care to show me how to use the steel wool to remove coffee stains from the cups, a step my busy mom always skipped.

I sat on his bathroom sink counter as he shaved, mesmerized by the slow strokes carving a path through the white cream like a lawn mower. He never failed to elicit a giggle from me by dotting my nose with shaving cream from his shaving brush. The brush tickled my nose and the smell was comforting, the smell of my dad. 

As I got older, there were countless fishing trips. James taught me more than how to string a worm on a hook and “land” a fish that had bitten. More than how to hold a catfish without cutting my fingers on its whiskers while removing the hook from its mouth. He taught me responsibility, rules and respect for nature. He taught me why we had to throw back some of the fish we caught, and why we had to stop after a certain number of successful catches. When we had to pass through a closed gate to get to our fishing hole, he always closed the gate behind him. He told me I must always, always leave a place exactly how I found it. 

I wish I could remember what else we talked about, sitting in the boat on a lake for long summer hours.

A master vegetable gardener, in the late spring and summer, James would come home every day after work, change into his bib overalls, and spend the rest of daylight tending to his massive garden. He taught me how to use my pointer finger to make the perfect hole to plant a seed, and what distance different seeds should have between them. Later in the summer, my task was handpicking potato bugs. This was not only fun, but it made me feel important and responsible. 

James had been a stellar athlete in his youth, and an especially talented pitcher on his high school baseball team. So, at the age of 10, when I said I wanted to join the boys Little League team (there were no girls teams at the time), he was all for it. James was the first male feminist I knew. He drew a circle target on the rickety, old shed behind our house, measured the distance from the shed to a pitching mound, and tried to teach me to pitch. It was an impossible task. Despite hours of practice, I could never hit the target. I still regret how I must have disappointed him. Back then, we would have said I threw “like a girl.” Now that we know better, we just say I didn’t have a good throwing arm. 


It was during pitching lessons that he gave me my first dip of chewing tobacco, Copenhagen. When he saw the look on my face, he kindly suggested, “You better spit it out,” which I promptly did, and never tried it again.

When I was bullied at school, it was my father I went to for consolation. When my sister died in a tragic car accident, it was my father I went to for comfort.

James’ sense of humor bordered on the crude: He loved a good fart joke and his favorite gesture was the middle finger. But always in jest, never in anger. 

A few hours after my own daughter was born, James, then 84 years old, visited us in the hospital. Gently cradling the newborn, the last of his 18 grandchildren, he gazed into her eyes and sang an Irish lullaby. He had a lovely singing voice, which I remember from car trips when the radio didn’t work.

Just as my father took care of his father in old age until death, I too chose to live with my parents as old age and dementia took autonomy away from them both. It was a thankless task, but I didn’t mind. It was the least I could do.

For me, the hardest part about dementia wasn’t the memory loss, it was the change in my parents’ personalities. You have lost the person you knew and loved so well, their minds replaced with an interloper, often much less enjoyable than your loved one. This wasn’t my dad. And yet it was.

My dad passed just three months after he lovingly sang the lullaby to his youngest grandchild in the hospital. Lewie body dementia can lead to a rapid decline in health. At Dad’s funeral, everyone wanted to meet or greet the new baby in the family. As several of us gathered around the baby, with tears in her eyes, my sister said, “This is the circle of life.”

On this Father’s Day, thank you for everything, Dad. I miss you. Happy Heavenly Father’s Day.

By Amy McGarry

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