Father’s Day. Tears suddenly well in the corners of my eyes. At first, I don’t know why. Later, I realize that I miss my dad.
Dad wasn’t always an easy man to love. He had a temper and lacked the tools to learn how to deal with his feelings without alienating those closest to him. Religion became an end unto itself. His theology and philosophy of life was a dogmatic black and white. In that certainty he often found comfort and meaning. It hurt when he refused to walk me down the aisle at my non-Catholic wedding but it was not a surprise. He was a man of conviction. I didn’t always like it but I did respect it and ultimately him. He was doing the best he knew how. To entertain alternatives was not his style. If that made him sometimes harsh and unfair, it also kept him a man who strove to live from within the heart of his ideals.
In my large family, I believe I was my dad’s favorite especially when I was young. As a young child, the world rose and set in him. I sought him out. He brought a passion to life that was infectious. He taught me about big band and classic films. He loved music and often wrote melodies and lyrics of his own. He never really believed in himself or in his talents and abilities. He stopped pursuing his dreams and focused on his failures.
Dad had a tender way with small animals. He’d often bring me tiny green frogs to hold. “Gently,” he say. “This little guy has to go back to his family.”
He laughed easily. He worked hard. One weekend, he devoted hours of lost sleep building a lawn swing. Two seats faced each other. It hung from a frame and when you pushed on the floor the swing moved. I spent hours playing on this swing. Not every body’s dad could build them a swing like mine.
My childhood was happy and sad, entrapping, yet wild and free. My parents gave me a world when they decided to live on the family farm. I escaped into the woods and outbuildings to avoid what was happening inside the house, inside our heads, inside our hearts. My parents were my salvation and my enemies. Good and bad, flaws and perfections they shaped who I am. As hard as it is to sometimes admit, the truth is I wouldn’t change the past. I’m grateful for everything that I have been given even when I don’t feel like it, even when I harbor past hurts and resentments, I still love my parents especially my dad. I was his little girl. He was larger than life. Part of me still sees him that way.
He was also full of surprises. One summer day, I begged to go camping. “Other kids go camping, why can’t we?” I whined.
Dad surprised me. He laughed and said, “Yes, I think we can go camping.”
And we did.
In time, I learned that camping was not that far removed from living on a farm and being a country kid. The need to commune with nature didn’t exist in quite the same way. We communed daily. Yet, dad quickly complied with my request. He fitted a piece of plywood half way in between the bed of his pickup and the top of his canopy and laid two mattresses inside. The top bunk was for my brother, David and I, while he and mom slept below with baby sister, Diane. We drove out into the woods behind our house and set up camp. We learned how to roast marshmallows over an open fire and went to sleep wearing Bugles corn chips on our fingers.
In the morning, my mom made a wonderful breakfast. Dad had brought a thick sheet of steel which he suspended over the campfire on top a wall of rocks we’d collected from the creek. In a cast iron skillet my mom made pancakes. We dined like royalty in the woods on pancakes and cantaloupe and hot coffee. The wind and the old oak trees leaves high above us made a soft whoosing sound. When I close my eyes, I can still hear how the woods sounded that day. I smell the faint smoke of a dying fire.
Camping was novel and new and our family was young. We never went camping again but the memory has lasted a lifetime. That trip gave me a new respect for my parents as pioneers. I had no idea they knew how to do so many different things. Some times when life is hard and I feel isolated and cut off from the family I once knew, I return to that memory and camp out. In that memory, lives a man who could do almost anything and a mother who made a wonderful breakfast under a canopy of green leaves and sky.
Dad was a man with many interests. He taught himself upholstery. He built suitcases. He loved baseball. He liked to sing. He was a rather extraordinary carpenter and knew how to do so many things. He was a dreamer and an idealist. He was often tragically disappointed in how reality fell short of what he hoped it would be. He had sad eyes that said things his words never could. I loved him. I often admired him. Sometimes, I hated him. I will always miss him.
My father died in September of 2000. His last year of life was a challenge for him. He had suffered a stroke that limited the man who could once carry slabs of plywood and sheet rock on his back. This man who could fix almost anything began to forget how. When he was older, he often mourned the loss of youth. Dad told me that it was always a surprise to him that he, who was still 16 in his mind was living in a body that was old, that was failing him, that didn’t do the things he once was able to do.
In the last months of his life, he fell often. His body betrayed him. I think he worked it too hard, too long, too anxiously. Part of me was angry that he didn’t do a better job taking care of himself. If only he could have been more relaxed, less hard on himself, on us, on his body. In the end, everything in his life tells a tale. He taught me many things. He teaches me today. The lessons are often hard and painful and yet, deliciously sweet.
On Father’s Day, I remember that my father is gone. I remember who he was and what he meant to me. I remember the good times. I remember the bad times. I remember a horrible time or two but in the end, they all were all part of the life we shared together as father and daughter. I miss you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. Thank you for all the memories. Thank you for being my Dad. I love you.