For My Dad on his 78th birthday
When I was born, my father was serving on a Naval ship docked in Boston Harbor. A telegram announced my birth. He ran excitedly around the ship spreading the happy news to his shipmates. Finally, someone asked him “Is it a boy or a girl?” He stopped in his tracks and said, “I don’t know!” He was so excited he didn’t read the telegram completely. He had to return to retrieve it to find out he had a daughter.He was 20 years old.
I love this story, because it is really fun to picture a handsome, dark eyed smiling young sailor hopping with excitement at my arrival on this planet. I also love it because it truly didn’t matter to him which gender I was. He just loved me. He has always loved me for ME.
When I was small, he made up wonderful bedtime stories, starring ME, with a cast of animals in supporting roles. I was the rescuer of baby Robins who fell out of their nests, mending them with nothing more than mercurochrome and a band aid, and sending them back home to mama bird, with a dropper of water and a worm for the road. I couldn’t wait to hear what wonderful things I would do next. Dad would brush my long hair, and tell me I was Pocahontas , his Indian princess. He always had a white hanky handy to dry tears or daub at a scraped knee or elbow. These are some of my earliest memories.
Dad did what lots of Dads do; he stayed up late on Christmas Eve, putting together an elaborate cardboard house for us kids to inhabit on Christmas morning. Until one day in Summer, when my brother and I discovered if you collapsed the cardboard on the garage floor you could run and leap belly first and slide a long way. This is what poor Dad found us and the neighbor kids doing when he drove in the driveway from a long day’s work. All his hard labor flattened and trod upon by an army of kids, led by me. One day I spied Dad through my bedroom window when I should have been asleep one summer evening. He was walking a battered navy blue bicycle up the driveway and into the garage. On Christmas Day that year, I never connected the shiny, red two wheeler bike equipped with training wheels glistening under the sparkling Christmas tree with that junker he brought home that coincidentally, I never saw again. He pulled us in wagons, on sleds, gave us hundreds of piggy back rides. He once entertained us by chewing an entire pink bubble gum cigar and blowing a bubble as large as his head. We sat with our mouths hanging open in awe, until the bubble burst all over his face, getting stuck in his five o’clock shadow. Pink shreds fluttered from his eyebrows which were raised in arched black and pink caterpillars of disbelief and shock. There was gum in his hair, and on his earlobes. My brother and I burst into hilarious belly laughs that followed him as he ran for the bathroom and a warm wash cloth to clean the sticky mess off. He was a pretty good sport about it all. (We were never allowed to have a whole bubble gum cigar; we were “too little”. After that, we never really wanted to, either.)
He taught me how to read before I started school. I learned to love stories, a gift that has lasted a lifetime. How I loved going to the library, choosing a book, usually about animals, and proudly adding it to my book list every week. My love for reading got me into trouble when I started school. Very often, I finished my lessons early in class, so I could read my latest book choice under the desk. It often appeared I wasn’t paying attention when called upon in class. The truth was, I knew the material, but read the lessons faster than the others, and was deeply engrossed in my stories or daydreams and didn’t hear the question being asked. As a result, a nun accused me of cheating in second grade, when I got a 100% on a test. She was convinced I couldn’t possibly know the answers because I was always daydreaming. I was horrified to take home a paper sporting a giant red F. I tried to erase it in class, and Sister Regina snatched the paper back, and emblazoned it with a larger red F and a note home that my dad had to sign the failed paper. Dad read the note, while I looked down at my shoes in shame. He met my eyes. “Did you cheat?” He asked. I shook my head no. “I believe you,” he said. Three very powerful words. We went to the school and he assured that nun I was perfectly capable of passing that test on the spot, verbally if she would like proof that I did not cheat. I got my 100% and my dignity back. Dad has always believed in me.
Dad encouraged me to achieve. He quizzed me on what I wanted to be when I grew up. He talked at length about his dream of me going to college, ever since I can remember. This clearly meant the world to him, to give me this wonderful opportunity. I told him I wanted to be a Navy nurse. I wanted to “save the soldiers in Vietnam.” I thought they were “fighting the Germans” A little confused? Yes. No matter, Dad thought that was just swell.
Dad made everything an adventure. New places were to be explored and enjoyed. We hiked, we boated, we swam the Finger Lakes, and we roamed every corner of each place we lived. He encouraged me to love music, and to sing. I could belt out Patti Page’s “Cross Over the Bridge” like a nightclub singer at age 7. Although, I confess, I always confused the words “fickle past” with “pickerel bass” And I wondered why someone would go fishing and leave their “Pickerel Bass” behind them. Speaking of fishing, Dad also taught me how to fish, something I enjoy to this day. He even forgave me for using up all of his rubber worms, as I could practically hear the real worms screaming in pain as they writhed when put on hooks. I couldn’t bear it, and he understood. (However, for the record, it was my sister, not I, who lost his cherished “Red Eyed Warbler” lure. He forgave her too.)
It wasn’t all sunny days and fishing trips between us. We both have regrets; this I know, because we have since spent many wonderful hours snowshoeing in the woods of Maine, talking everything out amongst the tall pines of what we call The Enchanted Forest. I am so grateful I had the chance to mature enough to make things right between us! We had our share of differences and angst during my teenage years. I know I broke his heart many times. I quit college after a month. What a bitter disappointment that had to be. And how frightening it must have been for him to watch as I made bad choices and stuck with them long after I should have. There were periods of time I stayed isolated from family trying to figure things out for myself. He never abandoned me. When I needed help the most, he and my mother were always there. After my children were born, things began to change. I righted my ship, and eventually sailed back to home port. Dad was a wonderful role model for my boys. He took them hiking in the White Mountains, and he and my mother took them up Mount Washington. They spent summer days on the Maine shore. They played cutthroat games of Scrabble, (and still do) In Winter, Dad took them to the slopes and taught them how to ski. They went animal tracking in the woods, and identified leaves and plants. He was always there for them as much as he was for me. He taught them things a father would teach. He filled a great void in their lives.
Dad can get me through anything. If I close my eyes, I can feel his hand on my elbow at the graveside of my children’s father; his hand over mine as he got me across the Ridge trail in the White Mountains when my fear of heights had overtaken me and had me frozen in place. When asked, he shared his wise counsel when I had my own issues with the daunting task of parenting two very independent teens. I remember wondering just when he got so darned smart. He shined the light when I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
We always want to please our parents, even when we think we don’t. I will never forget that day in 1979 when I called home, crying, on a pay phone from college, after barely a month in, telling my family I planned to quit. I just wanted to go home. My father tried everything to convince me to stay. He was hurt, angry and probably extremely worried for my future. Nothing he could say would change my mind. So, he came and got me, and brought me home. And spent the next thirty years praying, hoping, watching, most likely at times, crying and worrying, sometimes celebrating and above all, loving me. The proudest moment of my life was the day I finally walked for my college diploma, at age 47. My boys were there, my husband, and my family. But the person I searched for first in the crowd was Dad. There were he and Mom, beaming, as if they always knew this day would come. They had more faith than I did.
What more can a person ask for in a father? Someone who from the start loves you for who you are, who always stood in the wings waiting to catch you, and who always, always is ready to celebrate you. My biggest fan. There is nobody on Earth who could do it better.
Happy, Happy birthday DAD. Thank you for loving me. And by the way you may have noticed I left out a certain story involving you, an umbrella, a herd of rogue cows and a school bus full of kids. This time.