Childhood creates some of the greatest stories, the ones we keep retelling all our lives. In my family, my parents still get a kick out of remembering that time we were driving down to Topsail, and we sped past a police car. My eldest sister quickly said, “Dad, slow down, police.” My mother chimed in with, “Yep, it’s the high sherif.” And I, barely 9 years old, added, in solemn seriousness, “Rollers.” Proof I had already watched The Blues Brothers with my father one too many times.
One of my favorite stories about my sister is when my aunt was babysitting one evening and kept asking Sarah silly questions, like, “Where did you get your pretty curls? And where did you get your pretty blue eyes? And where did you get your dimples?” To every question, my sister sweetly answered with: “My mommy.” Finally, my aunt blurted out, “Well, what do you get from your daddy?!” Sarah shrugged and said, “Lemonade and donuts.”
Yes, the makings of a great father indeed.
It is a day in which many children will call, remember, miss, and/or want to honor their father, because it’s Father’s Day. Although my own dad always pushed me to go against the grain, to lead not to follow, and to wander down my own path, even if it diverged sharply from the road everyone else was marching down, I find myself joining the many, many daughters and sons who are penning their tributes to the first important man in their lives.
And because, lately, I’m noticing a lot of him in me.
Last week, on the way to school, I taught Grace a little diddy that my dad and I used to always recite. It’s from The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, a 1940s movie, and goes: “You remind me of a man.” “What man?” “The man of power.” “What power?” “The power of hoodo.” “Who-do?” “You do.” “What?” “Remind me of a man.” “What man?” and so forth. (If you’ve ever watched Labyrinth, then you’ll know David Bowie adapted it for the song “Magic Dance.”)
Forget talking about the months. Now, when I see her, all Grace wants to do is practice “Who-do?” “You do.” “What?!”. Again. And again.
So you can imagine my relief when, the other morning, as I was making her breakfast and lunch for the day, and she was seated across from me, laughing as we finished yet another round of “You remind me of a man,” she suddenly asked me, “TT, where did you learn that story?”
“From my dad,” I answered her, smiling. “Your grandpa.”
Grace went quiet, twirling an apple slice around on her plate. Then, shyly, she said, “TT, do you know any other stories?”
“Do I know any other stories?!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands into the air in mock exasperation. “Well, of course I do!”
I launched into the tale about a woman who goes down to the cellar to get some vinegar, and the cork popped off the jug, and the jug went, “Woo, woo, woo!” And then I told her about the bum who knocked on an old’s woman door, asking her if she had a bite to eat in the house, and the old woman did but also had a big, tall husband coming home at 5pm, so “Be on your way now, bum!” I also told her about “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport,” which my father, being tone-deaf, recited to me as a poem rather than as a song and which was my favorite of his rhymes when I was little, because I marveled at and relished in how fantastically and dramatically he enunciated every single word.
I don’t think Grace quite knew what to make of me, much less the steady stream of seemingly nonsensical stuff I was saying. But, every time I finished one verse or song or tale, in the same manner and rendition as my father had told them to me, she’d ask for another one.
On the way to school later, Grace asked me what else I learned from Grandpa. I told her, with an exaggerated gravitas that made her giggle, “The list is long, child”: He taught me the names of flowers, and he taught me how to tell when it’s going to be a good crop of corn. He taught me how to make cranberry relish and a mean batch of cookies, and he taught me to be kind and to embrace being tall and athletic. He taught me the right way to hammer a nail, use a shovel, and drive stick-shift, and how to do laundry, and to cut up oranges just right, and to recite the entirety of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and to imagine, create, write, work hard, listen to my gut, believe in my goodness, trust and use my voice, laugh often, and know without a shadow of a doubt that I am beautiful, valued, loved, respected, cherished, most of all by him.
(Don’t worry, Mom. You taught me quite a bit, too.)
“He taught me how to be myself,” I concluded, with a firm nod, refusing to indulge in the sudden and overwhelming urge to burst into a bout of overly sentimental tears.
I think I lost Grace sometime after the batch of cookies—she was staring out the window, humming, mind elsewhere. Sometimes, I forget she is only four, and I tell her these things like she’ll understand. In her own way, I hope she does.
This May, my father turned 68. He still fits into pants and sweaters he’s owned for 30-plus years, and he could outpace me any day of the week, thanks to the hours upon hours he spends working in the garden, working on house projects, and chasing my nephews. He’s still as tall and lean and dapper as I remember him from my childhood, with his long, strong arms, his tanned cheeks, his lotion-soft hands, his sparkling forget-me-not blue eyes. He’s quieter now, and his temper has waned. Although he’s in good, stable health, more and more I think about the uncertainty of time. The moment I entertain the thought of him no longer being my first phone call, I am overtaken by a raw and toppling wave of sadness that I know won’t even come a fraction of an inch close to how it will feel, one day, to lose him.
But, if adulthood teaches you anything, it’s that you can never really prepare for or protect yourself from the things that will break your heart, alter your course, and, ultimately, shape your life.
I think my dad knew this. He lost both of his parents before he was 30 years old. Growing up, he always told us girls that he didn’t want flowers at his funeral or laid at his grave. “Give me flowers when I’m alive, when I can see ‘em,” he’d say, as we groaned and shook our heads and told him to hush up.
I see his point, all these years later. Really, my father was telling us: live now, give now, love now, experience all you can, be all you can, now. “You’ll be gone a lot longer than you’ll be here,” he’d say.
And because of this, because I know the hourglass has tipped, the moments I can spend with my father, and the moments in which I feel him—his lessons, his words, his mannerisms—rippling through me, carry more and more meaning and magnitude. I want all I can have of him.
On my visit to Pennsylvania last weekend, I soaked up the hours I had with my father. We cut and filled colanders of kale and spinach from the garden, and walked “the lower-40,” and played with the new stray cat he’s adopted. We talked about my work. We stayed up late the night I arrived to finish off one of my mother’s rhubarb pies, smacking our lips in satisfaction. I helped him hang a heavy bench swing. He bought a six-pack of my new favorite beer, and we enjoyed a few together, sitting on the back porch, the cat meowing and the day yawning to a close. We filled and emptied our plates at my niece’s baptism party and sat outside beneath the bright table umbrellas, guzzling glasses of the peach iced tea he’d made and musing about which would come first in the Catholic Church: female priests or gay marriage.
At some point, I noticed that my father was no longer wearing the gold chain and cross that he’s worn ever since I can remember. Usually, I am the first to notice and comment on any little change in my father: a haircut, a five-pound weight loss, a new watch, a new wallet, new shoes. He’s a man I have studied and admired all my life—I pride myself on being a diligent student.
To my astonishment, he explained that he’d stopped wearing it last summer, because he was worried the clasp had weakened. On a whim, and because increasingly I find myself asking to bring home possessions my parents no longer care to keep, I asked if I could wear it for awhile.
“Neither for borrow or keep,” he said slyly. “For taking then!” I replied, and we laughed.
On Sunday evening, just before I climbed into the car for my mother to drive me to the airport, my father handed me his necklace. In my excitement, I fumbled with it, clumsily, desperate to loop it around my neck so he could see it on me. My father has never worn a wedding ring; this necklace, with its bright gold chain that my mother purchased with the paycheck from a big catering job 30-odd years ago and the small Christian cross my father had custom made, is, in my mind, as intimate and weathered and valuable as their 44-year marriage.
He entrusted it to me—his youngest, the child who climbed atop his back and galloped him, a gangly horse and ecstatic rider; the adolescent who tried daily to emulate the friendliness, confidence, and leadership that won him class president; the young woman who wrote a graduate school thesis inspired by and based largely on him; the 30-something aunt who catches his parenting in every, single interaction I have with my nieces and nephews.
And, I am so thankful. So wholly, wonderfully thankful—for him.
I haven’t taken the necklace off since, and I don’t intend to any time soon. Seeing the sunlight catch on its glow, touching it, feeling its warmth and weight against my skin, makes me smile, and think of my father, and think of how much I love him, how much I still, at 33 years old, want him to be as proud of me as I am of him.
My daddy, I’ll say.
My papa, mi padre, Pops, Dadda. His many names, across my many ages, but always all mine, my father.