I’m the youngest of three girls. There was a miscarriage before me, a boy, they felt. My dad would’ve loved having a son, as any man would, a boy to carry on his last name. Maybe he’d even be Thomas Jr. Maybe he would’ve followed in my dad’s soccer skills, an Olympic hopeful himself. Maybe they’d golf together, or refinish furniture and build a deck together, more helpful than me standing there holding the nails.
But there I was, daughter number three. I can’t imagine the fear that comes with being a father of three girls (especially when Jill went to eight proms her senior year), but my dad is a natural father and leader. He was raised in Africa, a missionary kid, the oldest of five. Spending the majority of the year at boarding school, he was on his own, minding after his brother and sister.
A devoted son, a loving father, a respected man, my dad is the most incredible man I know. I admire him tremendously, I love him deeply, and I’m so grateful for how close we are now, both in our relationship and in the proximity in which we live.
I was close to my dad from the beginning, the apple of his eye, always following him around, copying his mannerisms, laughing at his jokes. I’d stick my tongue out, just as he did while concentrating or playing sports. I napped with my legs crossed and arms behind my head just like him, I pretended to read the paper like him, mow the lawn like him, and frequently dressed up to pretend to go to work with him.
So many of my mannerisms, passions, quirks, and qualities come from my dad: planning, organizing, hosting, impatience, sensitivity to smell, ideologies left of center, writing poetry, punctuality, love of travel.
My dad made so many sacrifices for our family, more than I’ll ever be aware of. A social worker, he always worked two jobs: one at the schools during the week, the other at the hospital on weekends and holidays. I’m sure there were many events and holidays he would’ve rather attended, but he worked incredibly hard to be able to put us through private school. I remember my dad selling ski passes at the schools to earn free season passes for our family and afford us the opportunity to go for free every weekend. My dad taught us the value of education and hard work, and most importantly, to stay out of debt. “It isn’t what you make, it’s what you save.” It started even before us, his incredible work ethic. After graduating from undergrad, my dad went to the University of Michigan for his MSW, driving to Ann Arbor every Tuesday, sleeping on a friend’s couch, waking up at 4 a.m. to work for UPS before going to class, and heading back home to Grand Rapids on Thursday. Proudly, it’s ingrained in us. Three girls, multiple degrees: a post-doc and professor, a master’s and teen pregnancy counselor, a bachelor’s and sales rep. Three girls, no debt.
There are so many amazing qualities about my dad. He lives a remarkable life: honest, true, connected, storied.
He learned how to build and refinish furniture from his dad. He’s built an amazing kitchen, a multi-level cottage deck, a shed, and refinished countless pieces. I love his work & the pieces in my home from him are my favorites. I run my hands across them and admire the time and love that is poured into his projects.
He is an incredible host, always cooking up something delicious, welcoming guests into his home, opening with the most insightful and thoughtful toasts and prayers.
He’s an excellent singer. So many times in church I was quiet, listening to him sing. We weren’t allowed to sit next to each other, or we’d laugh at our inside jokes, the same laugh, the silent kind that shakes the whole pew.
He is the most organized and biggest planner I know. I guess I know where I get it from. You’d be hard pressed to find him without a yellow legal pad in hand, multiple scribbled to-do lists and reminder notes. My sisters and I swam year round competitively, starting at the age of four, and not only did my dad organize all the swim meets, he also announced them all. I say it is part of the VanTongeren charm: we assess situations and events (tournaments, parties, barbecues, etc) and quickly insert ourselves to make it the most efficient. Others commonly refer to it as controlling.
He is remarkably social and has a knack for remembering names and faces. If you live in West Michigan, chances are he knows you, or there’s a connection, somehow. What sport you played in high school, or who your parents are. He runs into someone he knows almost everywhere he goes and always says hello. We were once visiting Jill in NYC, on the subway, when he chatted up the daughter of a college friend he knew. He is loved and known by so many.
He planned our vacations, packed the car, and often drove through the night so we could have more time to spend skiing or camping. My dad wouldn’t actually stop the car unless he had to fill up for gas (even when my sister had food poisoning.) I value the same sentiment and consider myself an excellent road tripper now. Some of my favorite memories with my dad are those while traveling, being his copilot on the road, exploring shops and towns with him, listening to his riddles around the campfire. He’d wake up hours earlier than us, gather all of our ski equipment and passes, or bring all our beach gear down to our favorite spot on the shore, and wait for us to get up.
My parents split when I was 12, and my dad left. They didn’t have the typical arrangement of Wednesday’s and every other weekends. Instead, I lived with my mom full time. I must’ve begged my dad hundreds of times to let me move in with him, but the answer was always no. Eventually, I stopped asking. I was angry, confused, resentful, overwhelmed by the abandoned feeling from both of my parents, but especially my dad. It wasn’t until my dad’s two heart attacks and subsequent heart surgery during my freshman year of college that we became close again. I am thankful every day that God has blessed us with restoration, time, and a strong relationship once again.
When my own marriage fell apart, my dad and I became even closer. He’d come over to my house when I was scared, or sad, and we’d drink gin and tonics or two hearted, his favorites, and we’d talk about life. He’d tell me he was so proud of me for trying, that he could see how much I was hurting, how desperate I was to settle down, to do hosting of my own, to start a family, and how it just wasn’t going to happen with the guy that’s time and again proved to never be there for me. We came up with a number system and he called every day. “How are you today, 1-10?” I was a 4 for the majority of winter, and then slowly, little by little, back to 10.
Two years ago, my dad taught me how to dance. I’d go over to his house after work, enjoy appetizers and a chilled glass of white wine, bring the speaker on the back deck, and we’d dance. I love these memories. I dream of dancing with my dad at my wedding again someday. During this harsh winter, I heard a song come on and immediately burst into tears, thinking of my dad. Ben E. King’s Stand by Me. I want to dance at my wedding to this song with the man that always has stood by me. An incredible man, an incredible father.
I’m proud to be my father’s daughter. I’m grateful for the remarkable man he is: a man of character, integrity, and value. I beam when someone asks me what relation I am to Tom. Everyone knows him, after all. I’m grateful to call him my dad, my friend, and the man that has always stood by me.
One day, I hope to give my dad the greatest gift I can: a son.
A man that loves his daughter as much as he does, who wants to stand by her and lives it out in his life daily. A man of character, integrity, and value. Maybe they’ll golf together, or maybe they’ll refinish furniture or build a deck together. Maybe they’ll sit together and drink gin and tonics. I don’t know. But one day, I hope my dad will call me and ask how I am, and I’ll tell him I’m a 23. Or a 28. Or there isn’t a number to even describe it, but I have someone for you to meet.