Friday, May 20, 2011

Happy birthday, Dad

Today would have been my dad’s birthday, but he died 20 years ago. Tomorrow is my birthday, and I always thought of myself as a serendipitous late birthday present. Just this year – 53 years after the fact – I found out that I was scheduled to be born that day. Still cool, I suppose.

My dear friend Mary Darby’s father died last year, and she spoke at his funeral about the lessons she learned from him that she will carry with her always. I was thinking today about what I learned from my dad. This is what I came up with.

It’s better to laugh at life than to get angry with it. My dad was a Boy Scout leader for many years. He used to come from summer camp with stories about behavior that would make a more-controlling person need a second week off just to let their blood pressure come back to normal. But my dad would laugh so hard when he told them to us that he’d have to stop and wipe the tears from his eyes. He found delight in a lot of places where it would have escaped others. On the other hand, he was an alcoholic so I got so see the suffering that results from getting angry at life and those in your life.

It’s never too late to change your ways. I had already moved out of the house before my dad connected with AA and stopped drinking. He never sat down and looked me in the eye and admitted all his wrongs and apologized, but he told me once that he had tried to make amends by changing his behavior. And he taught me that that’s the truly important thing – to walk the walk, to live by your values. I think this is my main standard for assessing people, and I can be a little harsh in applying it sometimes. Sorry, Dad. Working on that.

Dancing is a good thing. My dad liked Dixieland Jazz. I can’t say I came to share that, but I did get his total enjoyment of music. He was a large man by this point in his life, and the dining room, where our stereo was located, didn’t have much open space. He would put on the Dukes of Dixieland and jiggle so hard that the change came out of his pockets. In fact, he had encased the stereo speakers in cement to allow for such vibrations. Or maybe for some other reasons. Sometimes my daughter and I dance around the kitchen. It’s like that. I also remember dancing with him at a cousin’s wedding when I was in my early teens. It was formal thing, where he led and I stumbled. He was so strong and assured and good at the steps that it didn’t feel weird to be doing old people’s dancing with him.

Read a lot. Especially mysteries. We used to go to the library together every Tuesday. I went through every historical novel in the children’s section (“Little Maid of” enter the name of a Revolutionary or Civil War battle, and you can learn how a 10-year-old girl actually saved the day.) He read mysteries. When I was around 12, I was sick and couldn’t go. I’d just started moving over to the adult stacks. He brought me a mystery by George Simeon that involved a home for unwed mothers. I was somewhat baffled by the choice, but he wasn’t one for unspoken messages so I didn’t look too hard. I was hooked. I think he would have found the Scandinavians a bit dark, but he’d love some of the women PIs.

Don’t smoke. Smoking was the only thing he ever told me not to do. He said, in fact, “If I catch you smoking, I’ll smack you,” which is something he never did. Wish he’d taken that advice.

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