|Dad and his boys,|
Back in June 2008, I wrote a piece about Dad, a piece I'd hoped that the Plain Dealer would publish--but they didn't. And it's been sitting on my hard drive ever since. Waiting.
I've not updated the piece, but it was almost exactly eight years ago, and we all can do arithmetic, right? I do have two grandsons now, not just the one I mention in the piece. And, of course, all Border's stores are gone.
Anyway, here it is, otherwise unaltered from 2008 ...
Father’s Day 2008
I’m standing near the entrance of a Border's. Arrayed in front of me, occupying an entire display table, are books for dads. Gifts for Dad, really. For Father’s Day 2008.
My eyes move along the display. Titles about war. About golf and grilling outdoors. About beer. An employee has added a few thrillers, too. Stephen King is there, as are a couple of other writers I’ve never heard of but whose books feature garish jackets, loud titles, encomiums from other writers I’ve never heard of. The plots of the books seem as violent as the covers. The sight depresses me.
Is this what a father is? A man who likes to read about war and booze and golf and serial killers and techniques to keep that flank steak tender on the grill?
I think of my own father. Born in 1913, he remembered the men coming home from World War I—some limping, some being led by others. He remembered, as well, the ones who did not come home. Dad, one of 10 siblings, grew up on an Oregon hardscrabble farm, endured the Great Depression, served as a chaplain in both the Pacific and European theaters in World War II, was called back to active duty for Korea. Along the way, he graduated from college, married a remarkable woman, earned a Ph.D., taught in colleges and universities, sired three sons, ate lots of berry pie, watched too many football games on TV, laughed raucously, enjoyed himself tremendously.
He had some dark years at the end. Strokes and heart attacks felled him. He made the sad declension from cane to walker to wheelchair to bed. His mind, once a great sun, slowly dimmed, then darkened. It took years, decades really. My mother had a lot of hard, largely lonely and thankless work to do.
Is my father somewhere on that display table at Border's? In a very superficial way he is. He liked golf but was never very good at it. He used a 4-wood on all par 3 holes. He loved to grill outdoors, and among my most prized possessions is some Super 8 footage I shot 40 years ago showing Dad doing his magic with some ground chuck. His last sentient years he liked thrillers and adventure stories. He turned every page of every Aubrey/Maturin novel by Patrick O’Brian. By then, I was not sure he was really reading, but he still felt as if he ought to. When we’d ask him what he thought of what he was reading, he’d invariably reply, “A great yarn!”
And of course there’s warfare.
He hated it. Would not ever talk about it. I discovered in my adolescence, quite by accident, that he’d won a Bronze Star in Germany. And here’s something that stunned me when I was a little boy and loved little more than reading books about military adventures, books I checked out every week from our little Carnegie Library in Enid, Okla.
One day I asked Dad, who was reading the newspaper in the living room: “Did you ever shoot at anyone in the War?”
He looked up at me from his paper, decided for some reason to answer. “Yes.”
“Did you kill anyone?” I gushed. I was picturing Davy Crockett on the ramparts of the Alamo. Picturing my dad alongside, knowing that if he’d been there, the Alamo never would have fallen. Not in a gazillion years.
He looked at me again. “Kill anyone? I hope not,” he said. And returned to his reading.
He hoped not! What kind of answer was that? I didn’t understand it then. It took years, really. Probably the answer arrived in 1972 when our own son was born, when I realized what a horror it would be to have someone shoot at him. To have him shoot back at someone else’s son.
A few years ago, going through Dad’s things, I came across a cache of letters. All were to my mother in 1945. From Europe, he’d written to her just about every day. Some days he didn’t write a lot. But usually something. He was eager for the war to end. He’d seen enough. He wrote a horrible letter about feral orphan children scavenging in the ruins of buildings.
Most of all, he was full of longing for home. He missed my older brother, age 4. He’d not yet even seen me (I was born late in 1944). He wrote the word “love” in his letters, over and over and over again.
I’ve been a father now for more than 35 years. A grandfather, too, for more than three. For 55 years I had a dad. But on June 15, 2008, I will have lived more than 3500 days without him. It’s a thought that brings me close to despair.
Until I remember this: Dad knew that fatherhood was a word that had little to do with how many burgers he grilled, how many medals or degrees he earned or putts he sank. Fatherhood means teaching your children—no, showing your children—that for the rest of your life, every time you think of your family, of your home, you want to write the word “love,” over and over and over again.