Monday, June 20, 2011

Ten Random Things about my Dad

I meant to write this yesterday, but I figure that only one day after Father's Day (which we didn't really celebrate in my family when I was a child, maybe because it hadn't yet gained official status) is good enough. I don't really know what my "ten random things" will be; this is a blogging adventure in which I trust I will find out.

1. My dad's birth and death were near each other, both geographically and on the calendar. He was born in a house barely half a mile from the house in which he died, the house in which I spent my whole childhood, where my parents and siblings had lived for several years before I was born. His birthday (and my parents' wedding anniversary) was June 1, his death day June 10.

2. My father whistled and hummed. A lot. His whistling was pleasant to listen to. His humming, which sometimes involved chewing his tongue if we was working hard on something, was charming to me, though not everyone heard it that way. He was kind of known in our small dead-end street neighborhood for his unique hum. I suppose it had a sort of droning quality--a little bagpipe-ish?

3.  Dad loved to sail. We lived near the ocean, and he tolerated a long commute to work and back for the sake of living near the water and being able to sail easily in summer. This was his time of year, I suppose--when long days allowed for a sail even after a day's work and the homeward commute. An evening sail sometimes became a moonlit sail, or even a moonlit drift, since the wind often dies in the evenings.

Photos of my dad as a very young boy often feature sail boats. In one he holds a model sailboat in his hands (he also is wearing a sailor suit, as is his older sister--clearly a fashionable item around 1920); in another he crouches by the edge of a pond, his father bends over behind him, as they launch a small boat (the same one?) into the pond.

4. Like me, he was the youngest child in his family. I don't know what that means exactly, but I sometimes think of us as having that kinship of being "youngests." I also share his blue eye color, along with my brother David, though Dad's and David's eyes may be more sky blue than mine.

5. My father had a temper, though I rarely remember it being directed at a person (others in my family may remember differently). Mostly at objects that weren't cooperating with his designs--such as when he attempted some sort of repair job. And at paying the bills. My dad did not like paying the bills, which in those days included courtesy accounts at the local grocery store, liquor store, drug store, etc. I imagine some of my own very mixed-bag of feelings about money might have something to do with that.

6. Speaking of my dad and money, one of my earliest memories of money has to do with a rudimentary magic trick my dad would play on us and for us--in which he would make a nickel disappear and reappear, from his sleeve or something. He would show me his empty hand, then "find" the coin behind my ear and produce it for proof. I like that memory of money magic better than the memory of his unhappiness when paying bills.

7. Dad was very bright, witty, and curious about the world, and was an avid reader of Scientific American, National Geographic, and Smithsonian magazines. He did the math puzzles in Scientific American. He was an electrical engineer and used math all the time, I suppose! If I asked him for help with math homework, he would usually end up reading the text book. He certainly did not simply give me the answers.

He played games with us when we were small children--"Trot Trot to Boston" and "This is the way the lady rides" on his knees. He said bedtime prayers with us and sang "Day is Done." Every night, I think, for quite a few years.

8. My father was a pretty complex person (aren't we all?). He could be charming and a great story teller, but I think he was not necessarily a happy man. Some of that no doubt stems from his own childhood and upbringing and family tree; some relates to the death of my oldest brother when he was not yet eight years old.

I know that many marriages suffer and even fall apart following the death of a child. My parents stayed married, but I have a feeling that my brother's death and my parents' grief, unaided by "modern" psychotherapy or understandings of the grieving process, sent tremors and fault lines through their marriage and our family. More than I yet fully understand, I think ours was a grieving family, or a family in which grief had gotten buried rather than being grieved in a healthy way.

In the shifting planes and plates of my childhood and my parents' marriage, I think my dad and I came to share another, harder to articulate, reality--to some degree we were both on the outside of my mother's inner circle of intimacy which became more exclusively centered on my sister.

9. I won't claim some pinnacle of "ideal dad" perfection for my father, though I think he was more present than many of the dads of his generation. For all his complexities, I do believe he loved me (and my mother and siblings) as best he could. I know that he cared about what I was up to, what I was thinking, what I hoped to do with my life.

Sometimes we talked ideas, like theology, but given that my thinking was not yet very nuanced or sophisticated, I can't say it was an full or even exchange. I have often wished my father were still alive to discuss things and enjoy discoveries with me--not to mention to meet David, Bekah and Anna; to see that I ended up ordained and then got "un-ordained," to see my paintings.

10. My father died thirty-two years ago when I was only twenty-five, meaning, I've now lived several more years without him physically present and alive than I lived with him. Given that I was twenty-five and headed to seminary and not all that good at acknowledging, let alone processing, "negative" emotions, perhaps I never really grieved my father's death. (Maybe I followed the family pattern and buried my grief rather than allowing it to be experienced, expressed, and to move through me!)

I realize some days that I feel hungry for traces of my father. I don't know how else to describe it. When I was helping to pack up my mother's condo to move her to assisted living, I felt as if I were on an archeological dig looking for artifacts of my dad--old photos, his handwriting on an envelope, a letter or postcard. It's not as if I set out to do that. It's more that I experienced that searching energy rising up in me unexpectedly, unbidden. Hoping for a tether. A tangible connection.

Maybe I am looking in the wrong kinds of places for the wrong kinds of "traces" of my dad. Maybe he's more present to me than I think, more a part of me than I know. I saw a recent photo of myself and was astonished to see my father's face in mine---all the more so because I've always thought I looked much more like my mother! Which doesn't mean I don't or shouldn't miss him still.

I do miss him still. Especially on a clear, sparkling day in June with a nice breeze perfect for sailing. Such was the weather on the day my dad died. I remember feeling an intense disjuncture between the horrendous hollow of grief I was feeling and the breath-taking beauty of the day. Thankfully it had also been that same kind of weather the day before dad died, and he had spent the afternoon sailing his boat.

PS. I am wishing I had a photo or two of my dad to add to this blog. Since he died long before the days of digital photography, I don't happen to have one in my iPhoto collection. Some day when I get one scanned, I will add it in.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Sukie. Thank you for your intimate portrait of you father...beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Well, that made me cry...can't quite say what hit me so hard. I can hear your father humming in my mind's eye...Campbell can imitate it, I think. I can remember sitting in your kitchen at what seemed like a late hour and playing "Oh, Hell" with both our father's, David, Jonny and myself. Those were happy days. Or playing Scout using all of Cow Fort which your father knew better than the rest of us for reasons I did not understand at the time, but do now. Or going to the dump on a Saturday sitting on the tailgate and stopping for a shopping bag full of Hutchies potato chips on the way home. I have very happy memories of your father. Polly

Sukie Curtis said...

Thank you both for your comments. I actually found it hard to limit myself to only ten things (as you can tell--some of them are lengthy!).

Polly, I love your collection of memories. They enrich my own greatly.