It wasn’t until I saw the astonishing Gregory Peck portray Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” that I realized the depth of how much I longed for a father’s love – his reassuring hugs, wisdom and guidance, and the simple, yet emotionally connective gesture of being tucked into bed at night.
I was 16 years old at the time and a junior in Pat Cavanaugh’s English class when we watched the film after reading the renowned bestselling book by Harper Lee. Although the courtroom scenes focusing on race relations and injustice certainly made a strong impression on me, it was the quieter, more intimate scenes with Atticus and his young daughter Scout that captivated me the most.
I had probably seen other moments on TV and film before where a father had tucked his daughter into bed and the two shared a good chat, but nothing with the emotional and thought-provoking depth that Atticus did.
As he protectively wrapped his arm around Scout’s little body, while she shared her frustrations about school on the front porch, it hit me hard in the heart that I had never shared any moments like that thus far in my 16 years with either one of my fathers. I had never sat on their laps, held their hands, had a heart-to-heart, or been told a bedtime story.
I know as a grown woman that I’m not alone in missing out on moments like these. Just as I know that thousands of other girls wanted a father like Atticus Finch too. But it was the first time in my life that I had ever wondered why not. Why did my biological father or stepdad not seem to want to share any of those life moments with me?
I grew up with my dad not around much and our visits together were sporadic at best and often uneasy. Don’t get me wrong, Dad was very kind and charming and as I grew older, I found him very easy to talk to and be around. But the kind of moments that you share with a daddy never happened. And it honestly wasn’t until I saw Atticus Finch that I realized just how much I had been longing for that emotional connection and touch.
As a little girl, I luckily had other males in my life that I absolutely adored. My cousin, Scott, who was 14 years my senior, carried me around on his shoulders everywhere and from the time I could walk, I’d climb into his lap for a cuddle every chance I could get. Both of us would cry when we’d have to say goodbye because we lived far away from each other and were so close.
When I got married, I didn’t want to hurt anyone's feelings, so I asked Scott to give me away. It was the best decision that I made that day, and as we often did, Scott cried all the way down the aisle and when we danced to our song, "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head."
And one big perk about having eight older sisters is that I built a close friendship with many of their boyfriends over the years too. My sister, Kimmie, was kind and patient enough to let her little sis come on some dates with her since I loved her boyfriend so much! His name was Craig Stephens and almost 40 years later, he and I are still very close friends.
I mention these other men who I grew up with because like soul mates, father-like figures come in different relationships. That is why I decided to save the best, most remarkable man I know for last—my stepdad, Leo.
I met Leo when I was just five years old, and he was my main father growing up. And if you were to compare anyone on this Earth to Atticus Finch, it would be this man. Leo is a lawyer too, but more importantly, he shares the unflappable integrity and demand for justice and a greater good for all, just like my fictional hero.
What I didn’t have the mature grasp to realize growing up, is that Leo was also raising 11 other children. He was gone most of the day working long hours, so when I came into contact with him in the evening, he was often understandably tired and a little grumpy. Who wouldn’t be?
We didn’t have a lot of close interaction and honestly, I was a little afraid of him until I was an adult! Although we weren’t that close growing up, nor did we have much of an affectionate relationship, we shared some pivotable moments that built the closer bond we have today.
The first was when Leo called me up from the basement on my 8th birthday to reprimand me about something I had left out again and didn’t clean up. As I oh so slowly and very timidly climbed up each wooden stair, heart racing, I was greeted with a big surprise waiting for me in the living room—a yellow, three-speed, banana seat, stingray bike! He had fooled me big time, which he had done successfully for my older siblings on our 8th birthday! I swore that I would see it coming, but Leo always outsmarted us.
The next was when I was about 10 and got busted for shoplifting some Charlie perfume for my sister Kelly at Pay & Save downtown. I was headed there for my Spring Break and knew she loved it and didn't have enough money. That deserves its own story, but for now, I’ll just say that Mama was royally mad when she got the phone call to come pick me up! All the way home, Betty Draper style, she read me the riot act, and repeatedly said, “Just wait until Leo gets home!”
By the time he did get home that night, Leo surprised me, again. Always amazingly calm and collected in a crisis, Leo did not torture me the way Mama had built it up in my mind. Instead, he grabbed my hand and told me that everything was going to be ok. He was Atticus Finch at his best and told me of the great lessons I would learn from this horrible experience, never to be repeated again.
The last moment that comes to mind out of so many growing up, is when I was 15 and had walked into his den to tell him he had a phone call. He asked me to please come sit down and have a seat, which was the usual protocol for you’re in trouble about something. Leo surprised me, again. He simply asked me to call him something. You see up until that day—10 years after we first lived together, I never called him by name.
It seems so silly now, but I didn’t feel comfortable calling him Leo or Dad, so I just didn’t call him anything. He told me he understood why I’d be unsure of what to call him, given the circumstances of my two fathers, but that it hurt his feelings that I didn’t address him personally at all. My big eyes welled up with tears – not because he made me sad, but rather because I had made him sad. And he had noticed. From that day forward, “Leo” suited us both very comfortably.
As I became an adult, I came to appreciate even more the incredible man Leo, my father, continues to be. The man who raised me, financially supported all of us, and who shook my dad’s hand whenever he would come to the house. The man who taught me a lot about honor and what it means to truly be a good person.
I also was able to fill in the gaps of the whys when it came to showing affection and the other things I longed from him. Leo lost his young son, our brother Danny, and his wife, Marion, in a span of a less than two years. To say his heart was broken would be a huge understatement. Yet he soldiered on—fathered on—the 12 of us.
At almost 91 years old, he’s still fighting for justice and what should be a God-given right for everyone in this world. He looks after Mama on a daily basis, and he still takes care of all of us when we need it the most.
When I moved away to Los Angeles, weeks before a major heart surgery he was facing, Leo gave me the longest hug ever. I believe in my heart the reason lied somewhere in between not knowing if he’d see me again to wanting to give that little girl the big hug she yearned for so long,
I am so grateful to have my parents with us still, and I have no doubt that when Leo dies, his funeral will be one of the biggest ever held. And like Scout and Atticus' grateful admirers in the balcony did at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Atticus left the courtroom, we too will all rise to our feet when he comes down the aisle because that's my “father passin.’”