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The golden anniversary

| Sunday, June 19, 2005

"Happy 50th Anniversary" the card announced, to the surprise of the middle-aged man. He checked the envelope to see if it had been delivered to the wrong address and opened in error. But, no, it was addressed to him.

When he spread the card flat, there was a note to him from his dad. On May 2, 50 years ago, his dad had married his mother -- a young widow with a little boy, 6 -- and they became a family.

For a good part of their first year together, the boy called the newcomer Bill. One day, when they were working around their new house -- where the pavement ended and the red-dog road began, far from the smoke of the mills and noise of the railroads -- their neighbor Jack came over to help.

Jack, a hardworking Ukrainian immigrant who had barely escaped a World War II German firing squad, was soft-spoken but direct. At one point, when they all stopped to wipe their brows and swig some water, Jack said to the boy, "You should not call him Bill. He is your father now. You should call him dad."

So, the boy asked Bill if he would mind if he called him dad, and Bill said that it would be fine -- as long as it was what the boy wanted. And that was that. From that day on, as far as the boy was concerned, Bill was "Dad."

A couple of years later, Bill asked the boy if he would mind if he adopted him. The boy said that it would be fine -- as long as it was what Bill wanted. And that was that. Months later, they drove to the train station in Braddock, journeyed to the courthouse and made it official.

Their family, like most others, had its ups and downs, its triumphs and failures, its happy times and sad. There was Little League and Cub Scouts and Soap Box Derbies. The volunteer fire department held its annual street fairs and the high school had its homecomings.

There was the joy of a brother and sister for the boy. There was the shared sadness at the deaths of grandparents and uncles and aunts. There was the upheaval of their parents' divorce. But like many families, they soldiered on. And with all their beauty marks and blemishes, they are still a family -- mostly because one man stepped forward to be the father to a boy without one.

Fathers can come at you from any direction. Everyone knows the easiest way to become a father; for too many men, making their own children can be mindless and even inadvertent. In a more deliberate approach, some men marry into a near-complete family, adopt a fatherless child or become a foster father.

And it is not as easy as it looks, trying to cobble together a family that was broken for any number of reasons. The man must understand that even though he holds the titular position of father in the family, he must tread carefully. Fatherhood -- for natural fathers but especially stepfathers -- must still be earned over time.

The news, as is its nature, often focuses on the bad deeds of failed stepfathers. Certainly, there are mean stepfathers and alcoholics and drug addicts and abusers. And while it is easy to forget that plenty of natural fathers fit that description as well, when a stepfather makes a wrong step, it feeds a negative stereotype.

But for every bad one there are thousands of winners. They sleep on the floor next to their sick child. They share the victories and defeats of childhood with their kids. They butt heads as their sons mature. They are overly protective as their daughters grow up, fearing that all boys are just like they were when they were young. Theirs is a real family.

So here's to all those men who do their best to raise other men's children. They are real fathers to children who need one, and the world is a better place for it.

Happy Fathers Day.

And to me and my dad, happy 50th anniversary!

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