When Fathers Fall Somewhere Between Awesome and Absentee

Father's Day can be a dilemma when you have a complicated relationship with your dad.

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I'm a loiterer in the Hallmark aisle of the drugstore, trying to choose a card. This struggle is my Father's Day tradition.

Alongside images of barbecue grills and sporting equipment, the cards are generously strewn with terms like ''always'' and ''the greatest.'' Especially in the Mahogany section, the recipients are supposed to be ''strong'' and ''solid.''

For my dad, these words don't fit.

It would be one thing if he'd never been in my life. Daughters in this situation have a legitimate gripe and well-deserved sympathy. Ten years ago, Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl explored the impact of ''fatherlessness'' on black daughters. These days, President Barack Obama chastises absentee fathers, diagnosing the problem in one speech at a black church: ''Too many fathers are M.I.A; too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes.'' Steve Harvey spent last Father's Day mentoring kids ''without dads.'' Readers ache for The Root's Helena Andrews when she writes in Bitch is the New Black that she thought as a child that hers might be ''on the moon.''

But with the well-known sociological phenomenon of fatherlessness on the one hand, and the yearly celebration of really great dads on the other, it's hard to make sense of an in-between experience. When a dad is not absent, but not always there; when he's not gone, but not strong, either, figuring out how to feel is as hard as figuring out what card to send.

There's a lot of gray area between dads who are AWOL and dads like my friend Danielle's, who is the kind of man who inspires the Hallmark superlatives. When we were in law school, he remained ready to send an employee of his trucking business from Alabama to Cambridge if we needed to move anything heavier than a chair. Once, she didn't sound quite right on the phone after a bad breakup, so he road-tripped to spend the weekend with her. The bulleted items on her résumé were talking points of pride in his daily conversations and sermons alike. To this day, when she sees previews for action movies, she says with the certainty of someone who, as an adult, still feels like someone's little girl, ''I'll watch that one with my dad.''

Collecting me from my mom's house, he'd be late and usually in a different used car. Often, we went to an apartment I hadn't seen before. Sometimes he sang along to R&B songs on the radio in a goofy baritone meant to make me giggle. Always, while we crossed the San Francisco Bay as the sun set on Sunday evening return trips, he gave fantasy sales pitches on his current projects and forthcoming fortunes. There was a bed and breakfast yacht, a motivational speaking career and multilevel marketing distribution of ''miracle'' vitamins. He was going to get into modular housing. I could have my own ''unit'' if I wanted. Eventually, I stopped believing but kept pretending. I'd listen until my eyes drooped and I fell asleep against the car window.

My dad's first job was stealing typewriters from his junior high school and selling them. He never got over making easy and often, illegitimate money. He also had an incongruously conservative, bootstrap-y streak. In Chinese restaurants, I knew to expect a lecture on how industrious ''Orientals'' were. Then, he'd sloppily segue to telling me that I'd need to work harder and look more pulled together than my friends because I was black. Cheerleading and a navel ring would combine to transform me into a slut, so he forbade them with all the authority of an every-other-weekend parent who didn't pay child support and didn't have access to the cheerleading tryout schedule (none at all). My first boyfriend didn't know whether to laugh or cry when my dad announced that he was in the ''Marin County Black Mafia'' and that his ''people'' were keeping an eye on things.

I can scarcely remember a time before I decided to just humor my father. Before part of what I felt for him was pity.

Today, he lives in a trailer in a wooded, upscale Northern California neighborhood, parked in the driveway of a lesbian couple in exchange for feeding their birds when they go on trips to Mexico. He remains on the brink of making a million (sometimes a billion) dollars. He calls to tell delusion-laced stories about his business plans and investors and forgets to ask about me. Just like the car rides of my childhood, without the Luther Vandross and Toni Braxton in the background.

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