Father's Day is rolling around once again. I can tell by the crush of advertising admonishing prodigal children to buy this gizmo or that gadget in order to show appreciation for the dads in their lives. But when you get to my age (rounding the bend into my second half century) and his age (sliding into 80 with garage full of his own stuff), mere trinkets are not enough.
Sometimes the real tributes are the unspoken ones, like stocking the old man's fridge with his favorite beer, calling him early in the morning to discuss politics, or cleaning his ceiling fan or bathroom on those rare occasions when I'm in town.
I don't know about your father, but my father doesn't talk much about his feelings. This reticence could be a character flaw of the gender, or it could be the fact that his father was Greek with a limited knowledge of English. Either way, he is the last person on earth I would go to for an exploration of deep emotions. However, it's true what they say about actions speaking louder than words, and his have shown him to be exemplary in many ways.
Daughters being what we are, we want to please our dads. I was once accused of giving him too much leeway. "You're not even his favorite!" was what I was told. (How he could choose a favorite out of six outstanding individuals is beyond me.) Sure, the guy isn't perfect; who is? It's up to us to winnow the good modeling from the bad parenting and go from there.
My father escaped poverty and the cold, rugged bogs of northeastern Minnesota — now Nemadji State Park, home to swarms of mosquitoes and leeches — to join the Army. Good decision? He got to see the world, met my mother, enjoyed an Army career with a pension, and received a guaranteed GI Bill college education. His was the typical American success story: the one where the child does better than his parents.
I didn't agree with the war in Viet Nam, but that could have been more about wanting my father out of harms' way and nearby and less with my twelve-year-old political sensibilities. I had four sibs then, one a baby, and as the oldest knew I was going to have to grow up fast and pick up the slack. We needed a dad more than Uncle Sam needed a helicopter mechanic. I'm not sure my dad was into fighting, but he went where the orders told him to go. When he came back, he didn't talk about his experience the way his war buddies did. Their stories were rough and hard, full of manly gusto about taking hills and shooting people. My dad rarely added to the conversation and instead let his friends talk.
Shortly after joining the Army, my father bought the little house my grandma lived in (some say won in a poker game in the early 1950s) in the Minnesota outback. No running water, no indoor toilet, she was happy with it, happier than her last few years in St. Paul. She stayed there for three decades, until my parents' divorce decree stated the house was community property and had to be sold.
My dad might not have been home much, but he got a month's worth of leave every year. We took extended road trips to Yellowstone and other points in the West, and traveled back to Minnesota. When we moved from one base to another, it was an occasion for a road trip. There was always something interesting to see, some new part of the country to learn about. It could be why I don't find long car rides boring,
My dad showed me how to bait a hook and shoot a gun, to clean fish and critters. (We ate them, too.) There was eight years of lag time and two sisters between me and the only son, and we girls accompanied him everywhere he went. Even now we still take him to the "secret" old fishing hole tucked into a glen in the Rockies. He had us help him take apart car engines, clean pistons, and grind goop away from valves. We worked in his gas station and in his little auto repair business. I drywalled my own bedroom when I was 16. He never once told us our abilities were limited by gender.
When my mom took off, first for the old house on the other side of town, later for California, he was left with three children still at home, 15, 13 and 5. My dad didn't run away; he didn't try to push the kids off on my mom or me or someone else; he stayed and did his best. Was it perfect? Most likely not. There were hits and misses. My brother learned to cook. My sister got into trouble, like many teenagers do. My dad picked up my baby sister from day care and learned the dangers of teenage girls with credit cards. He might have missed key child-rearing moments during his military career, but has since more than made up for lost time.
Later, when my mom passed away, my dad was there. He didn't have to be; they'd been divorced over ten years. He didn't say much at the time, but he hosted the wake and kept us together. It's been eighteen years, and he still goes to the gravesite to visit and keeps it tidy. I call him on Mother's Day to wish him a happy one, because he's been both mother and father for so long, it seems like the right thing to do. Now there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I can only hope they see in him what I see.
I have recently spent a lot of time in my vegetable garden, and this is when I think of my dad the most. He has always had a garden, probably because my grandma grew her own food and canned her own produce. Unlike Grandma, I don't need to grow vegetables to survive — after the water bill, the mulch, and fertilizer, it's probably cheaper in the long run to buy tomatoes and cucumbers from the grocery store. I can my homegrown tomatoes and make pickles, but without Grandma, it's been an experiment. I credit my interest in urban guerilla gardening to my early childhood years of outdoor chores, digging with spades, and pulling out weeds with bare hands under a blazing Colorado sun. It's left a lasting impression. It seems wasteful to have a yard full of dirt and not grow food on it.
My father has never been and will never be a great orator like Barack Obama or Ronald Regan. He will never be rich and famous like Donald Trump. His brain isn't overflowing with knowledge like Einstein. He's not a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief, or a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. He doesn't need to speak; he has shown by a lifetime of admirable action what it's like to be a dad.