The days run long this time of year, but the best part of them comes in the morning, before the sun grows strong enough to chase me inside. I rise early to mow the lawn, walk the dog or scrub the moss from the patio, so that its bricks brighten like an Italian piazza in the high glare of noon.
Alone in the yard after summer daybreaks, I sometimes think of my late father, an early riser first by necessity, then by force of habit. He grew up on a farm that pulled him out of bed at first light, then entered the Navy, where his workdays also started at dawn. Later came years as a construction worker, slipping on his denims in the dark and grabbing his Thermos for long drives to the city. When heart problems forced him to retire, he continued to beat most everyone else out of bed.
It never occurred to me to ask my father if he was a “morning person.” He probably would have found the question not worth asking, since the pattern of his life made meeting the morning mandatory, regardless of personal preference.
Like most fathers, he sacrificed certain options for himself so that his children could have more choices than he did. He helped his sons and daughters make comfortable, 9-to-5 lives that didn’t require them to rise with the sun.
But as my siblings and I entered adolescence, our biological clocks tempting us to sleep until lunch, my otherwise easygoing father struck a rare note of disapproval.
“You’re burning daylight,” he’d tell a teenager burrowed beneath blankets. Wasting a morning was, in his view, like wasting a meal, a gesture of ingratitude for an abundance not everyone had. As a man destined to die at 64, he had a sense of time as a finite commodity, something not to be taken for granted.
In early parenthood, fathers often rise early because their kids make them. I remember wanting to sleep in on Saturdays when my children were small, only to be dragged to the sofa for cereal and cartoons, my dreams interrupted by “Buzz Lightyear” and “SpongeBob Squarepants.” My son and daughter are in high school and college now, and there’s nothing like the sweet justice of poking them out of bed on weekends these days, a perfect case of turnabout as fair play.
As another Father’s Day arrives, a lot of us dads will be urged to sleep longer while our kids toil on the breakfast they’ll bring to our bedside.
It’s a lovely ritual, and yet I’ll probably find myself awake before the kids on Father’s Day, and wondering how long I’ll have to observe this gleeful period of house arrest before the eggs and toast arrive.
The day will bring gifts, of course, and the vivid memory of my father, who taught me that the best gift of Father’s Day is the day itself — a morning to be opened early, like any day, before it escapes from our grasp.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.