Ronald Reagan, America's Father

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Ronald Reagan with daughter Patti, son Ron Jr., and wife Nancy. Hulton Archive-Getty Images

When I was 9, I gave my father soap-on-a-rope for Father’s Day. I’d found it in the closet where my mother stored gifts that she didn’t want and intended to pass on to someone else. I made him a card with a drawing of a horse on it, since he had been helping me with my artwork. Father’s Day, like his birthday, was a puzzling experience. I never knew what to give my father. He had dozens of neckties, drawers full of sweaters, and I certainly couldn’t afford any kind of equestrian gear on my allowance. He did hang the soap-on-a-rope in his shower, though; I checked.

Ten years later, I mailed him a Father’s Day card from England, where I had gone for part of the summer with some friends from college. I addressed it to Gov. Ronald Reagan and sent it to Sacramento.

A decade after that, I addressed a card to President Reagan and sent it to the White House with a special number in the upper corner of the envelope so it would be separated from all the other mail. I called the White House switchboard on Father’s Day and asked to speak to him.

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Through the years, I relinquished my father in stages. To ever-swelling crowds, to supporters who wore his name and photograph on buttons pinned to their shirts, to millions of voters who elected him by wide margins, and ultimately to an entire country. Whoever is president has been elected to parent America. It’s a role of father figure, disciplinarian, comforter in times of tragedy, coach in times of need, and professor when explanations are necessary.

When President Obama was elected, I wrote a letter to Malia and Sasha in which I said, in part, “We are a small group of daughters and sons who have watched our fathers become America’s father. We are shepherded into history because our parents had the courage and the commitment to step onto its huge stage. But history is not always an easy place to call home.”

I have no idea what the Obamas will do on Father’s Day, but I know it will feel different from how it did before they moved into the White House. And I’m pretty sure it will take those two girls many years to absorb the changes, to understand and accept that he doesn’t belong just to them anymore.

My father died two weeks before Father’s Day, and we returned from four days of public mourning right before that day. It was the first time in my life I thought deeply about Father’s Day, the first time I felt a reverence, a solemnity about it—in part because I had no father anymore, but also because I had finally come to a soft acceptance of his parental role to millions of people whom he had never even met. We saw thousands of them during those four days—saw the grief on their faces, the tears in their eyes. There was a sense that we had to let the country grieve first, then we could get to our own personal sorrow. The start of my grieving process coincided with Father’s Day, and I thought both about the huge imprint Ronald Reagan left on the world and the smaller watermarks he left on my life by simply being my father.

Over time, I have learned to willingly give the world possession of his public life. I accede to the possessiveness of others, the claim they make on him. His place on the grand stage of history is chronicled, recorded, judged; he inhabits that stage as president and always will.

So Father’s Day has taken on a more intimate, private meaning for me. It’s a day when I remind myself of the moments the world can’t touch and was never a part of. The image of him ahead of me on horseback, his shoulders wide and confident, his hand reaching down to stroke his horse’s neck. Or the way he joyfully plunged into the ocean, heading straight toward huge waves, calling for me to follow him, his arm reaching out of blue water and white foam to beckon me.

One morning when I was fairly young, I approached the kitchen and heard him slamming cupboards, cursing and saying, “Where’s the damn cereal?” The maid was off that day and he was trying to fend for himself at breakfast time. I listened on the other side of the door, fascinated by his anger, since I’d never heard him get angry before. I stifled my giggles and never told him I’d spied on him.

The night before he died, I borrowed the nurse’s stethoscope and listened to his heartbeat. I wanted to preserve the sound of it in my memory. It was faint by then, erratic—a heart that would stop beating in less than 24 hours.

For the children of iconic figures, balancing the public with the private is a strange and delicate dance. We surrender our parent to the world while holding on tight to the memories that are ours alone. Millions of people know Ronald Reagan’s voice, his words, his life story. They can recite his victories and his failures; almost anyone can tell you about his “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

But they didn’t hear his footsteps coming down the hall when his young daughter woke up frightened from a bad dream. They didn’t ride with him on leafy trails through long summer afternoons. And they didn’t hear his heartbeat the night before he died.

For me, Father’s Day is not about cards or forgettable presents, but about the gift of memory and the small moments that shine the brightest.

Davis is the author of several books, including her most recent, The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us.