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Fatherhood better late than never

Richard Miller remembers the terrifying day his wife walked out the door, leaving him with his 8-week-old twin daughters to care for.

"I've never been so scared in all my life," he said. "I wanted to grab onto her leg and say don't go."

Fatherhood came late in life for Richard. He was 47 when he saw a blue-eyed beauty on a Bemidji dance floor and married her in 1996.

Five reluctant years later their twins, Emma and Anna, were born. "You don't have to tell them how old I was," Richard said.

Okay. We'll let you readers do the math. He was a tad bit older than average for a first-time dad.

Tanya Miller is Richard's wife. When the couple first met she was an English teacher in Clearbrook. Richard thought at first meeting that she was a terrific dancer. But what sealed the deal was a play she directed in Clearbrook that he attended with a group of people.

"Here she had no funding, no nothing and she put on this beautiful play," he marveled. He was entranced. It was "Alice in Wonderland."

Richard had mostly lived a contented bachelor's life in Oklahoma. In 1987 he moved back to Park Rapids to care for his ailing parents. Both eventually died. He took odd jobs painting houses, becoming a handyman, to pay the bills and give him the flexibility in his schedule to be a caregiver.

In the process he became reacquainted with siblings, nieces and nephews. He was always the favorite uncle. He loved playing with the kids.

When Richard and Tanya married, they never thought they'd be parents. That just wasn't in the cards for them. Tanya by then had transferred to Park Rapids Area High School where she teaches English and college courses.

And Richard was reluctant to be a father, even though Tanya said the neighbor kids always knocked on the door asking if her husband could come out to play.

Two things changed his reticence. The death of his parents made him realize how important family is. And there was the other thing.

"Whenever someone at that school got pregnant, you'd come home in tears," he gently chided his wife. With some gentle persuasion from Tanya, Richard gave in.

"I'm older and I can live without children," he told her. "But you're younger and every woman deserves the chance to be a mother."

Tanya fell in love with him all over again and they embarked on the journey to parenthood.

Better late than never.

Richard got over those first few frightening days with the babies while Tanya went back to teaching. Richard was "Mr. Mom" for five months until school let out for the summer.

He said both parents were sleep deprived because one twin would sleep while the other was up. Between the two, there was a 24/7 vigil.

"What were you doing up all night?" the twins were asked. They giggled in response and pointed to each other. Emma and Anna will head off for first grade this fall.

Richard loved parenting from that first day, though. And he admits he had help. "I have the best mother-in-law in the world," he said, stating something that most men would never admit to. "She's super, a great help. Still is."

For the next several years, Richard continued to be the twins' caregiver as the Millers gradually worked outsiders, daycare, a nanny and pre-school into their schedule.

Richard enrolled in an Early Childhood Family Education course with the girls. "I was the only guy there," he recalls. "It's a very good program. It prepares you for when they get older."

His classmates, all moms, were only too happy to give him tips, which he graciously accepted.

He interspersed his childcare duties with his outside work painting houses, roofing, doing odd jobs.

He'd tote the little girls around in a laundry basket tied around his waist. They still like to be hauled around, but now they have to take turns. Only one will fit into the laundry basket at a time. Occasionally he'd bring them on a job with him. His customers took a shine to the blue-eyed polite little girls.

He played dolls. He'd tease Emma and Anna by asking, "Where's the boy dolls?" The girls giggled and said playing dolls really isn't Dad's favorite game.

And, as mini chips off the old block, the girls had a flair for the dramatic. They'd stage plays with their dad and videotape them for Mom to see when she got home.

Although the girls are fraternal twins, they frequently speak in unison. "He's funny," they chimed in when asked what the best thing was about their dad. "He plays jokes on us."

"We like to go camping, go to the beach," Tanya said. "We stick around here most of the time." That's because Tanya gardens in the summer and sells produce at farmers markets. They grow chickens on their farm and butcher them for meat. "We pretty much grow all our own food," Tanya said.

When they can't get to a campground Richard and the girls pitch the tent in the yard and have an overnight. "Tanya heads for bed," Richard said. "One night the frogs were so loud we couldn't get any sleep."

Last year, when the girls headed off for school, Richard took a "regular" job as a custodian at Century Elementary School. Although he begins his shift at 3, he sees the twins as their day is ending and his is beginning.

"We hope we'll be able to have family dinners together during his break," Tanya said, when school resumes in the fall.

The proud papa takes the girls into the forest at Christmas time to pick out just the right tree. As the girls develop and their personalities differ, that could get to be a harder job each year. Each has an opinion.

As he reflects on the joys of fatherhood, Richard admits, "I couldn't have done this when I was 20. I couldn't even have done this at 30."

He turns his attention to the girls, asking Emma what she will do for Father's Day. "It's a surprise," she says, shaking her head no. Then he goads Anna in hopes of playing one against the other. "I'm not going to tell you!" Anna says firmly. "It's a surprise."

Tanya and the girls have their own special time. Each Valentine's Day they have a tea party.

No dads allowed.