Today is my father’s birthday. He would be so old: 98. He’s been gone more than 20 years, and I still miss him. In my memory, this is how I always see him — beside the spotless blue&white Buick, tall and still trim, dressed in tropical whites. He was, to me, the handsomest of men.
We didn’t always get along, my father & I. We were both stubborn, sure we were right, and unwilling to compromise. I remember a food fight over the Nixon election that had everyone else at the table in tears. Not me & Daddy — we were slamming our fists on the table for emphasis, until the food was flying.
I don’t miss my father the same way I do my mother, daily. I miss my father when certain things happen I know he’d appreciate, or when I wish I could ask his opinion on things. While my mother was a very smart woman — she had a Top Secret government clearance in WWII — she read historical fiction, not history. Sang jazz songs instead of reciting poetry. My father was a scholar manqué, always learning from a book about something. I take after him that way.
I still have his Kipling, the child’s Shakespeare by the Lambs that he gave me. His multi-volume collection of Twain I gave to one of my sisters. I also have the oddities he loved: the ashtray made from a tiger’s skull, inlaid w/ silver in the mouth & eye sockets. My father was never politically correct. The brass gong, the brass dinner bell rung before many dinners. A tattered photo album he brought my mother from Shanghai.
It would be in adulthood that we would reconcile, when I became a journalist, or right before. I would have lunch with him at the small hotel where he had a suite, in a small town north of my own. I worked on the paper there, and Daddy would come visit me from the community college where he built a rifle range, where he taught gun safety and related courses. Sometimes I would accompany him to various gun shows, watching as he charmed everyone he met w/ his big laugh and intent listening. Everywhere he went he gathered people to him like a magnet gathers iron filings.
When I was 16, I got in trouble that could have cost him his job. It wasn’t my fault, but he didn’t know that when he told me not to worry — we’ll be okay, he said. It meant everything to me. I was important, something I wasn’t always sure, in the shuffle of one move after another. Years later, when I was pregnant w/ my elder son, Daddy would come visit me while I was on bed rest, telling me stories of men long dead, of battle sites now green w/ grass. It would be years later yet, as he faded, before we were again as close. When I tended him, now confined to his bed. When he needed me, finally, as I had needed him always.
The world talks much about how our mothers shape us. And they do. Certainly my mother is a huge influence on who I am. But fathers are just as important. My father, through his own life, gave me literature, history, music. He taught me that you are there for your family & friends, even if it’s inconvenient, and even when they make you crazy. He passed on his wanderlust — his love of the next adventure around the next corner. And probably some of his not-so-stellar traits, as well (I’m still verrry stubborn!).
Happy Birthday, Daddy. When I watch the boys — grown men now — I see you in the elder’s face. I hear you in the younger’s sense of humour. Both of them adore music, as you did. Both of them love rifles, as you did (One year I shared my bedroom w/ my father’s gun collection. The smell of gun oil takes me right back…). You would be so very proud of them both. As I am, of you. If my beginner’s heart is growing, much of that is due to you, and all you taught me.
I miss you. Still.