“I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.”
This man, my father, just celebrated the completion of his 93rd year and the start of his 94th year, and that’s no small feat for anyone, and add to that- he’s a self-made man. Born in the oil fields in central California in 1920, and shuttled off on his own at the young age of 13, he enlisted in the army and then jumped rank from soldier to Full Colonel in the Army in WWII, and stationed in the South Pacific for the duration of the war. Upon returning to the US post-war, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and pursue a career in optometry. This consisted of walking onto the Berkeley campus in the late 40’s and signing up. And then showing up. [When I applied to colleges and universities decades later, he didn’t quite understand the admissions angst…] He was THE optometrist in our small town and ran a successful practice until he retired. He’s a depression era make a difference in the lives of others kind of man. He’s a walk-the-precincts to get everyone registered to vote kind of guy.
We affectionately call him the energizer bunny, having survived more surgeries and near medical misses over the years; including open heart surgery and more nights in ICU than we can count. We are convinced that this man does not know there is an option but to keep on going. He’s not perfect, more than complex, suffers from dementia and the craziness that brings out in a person. But without question, this is a good man. Trustworthy. Solid. Responsible. Respected. Funny. And he loves chocolate. I mean, the man LOVES chocolate.
Upon arriving in my childhood home, my first inclination was to curl up on the couch for a little cat nap. My brother and father indulged me and made themselves scarce for what turned out to be nearly an hour and a half. When chided about that not really qualifying as a cat nap, I simply, and admittedly a tad bit ‘snarkily’, in that bratty little sister kind of way, said, well, it was a cheetah nap, you know a big cat!
I had to take my usual walk-through and survey this house, my home, where I spent nearly my entire childhood. It’s filled with the smells and feelings that only a place known so well can evoke. Things are the same, and yet not. I am still that little girl inside, peering into the room where she learned to read and wrote secrets in her diary. And yet, at the same time, now a woman who has been freed by sharing her secrets, a sister who’s bonded with her brother in ways neither probably ever expected. A daughter who misses deeply the mother who raised her here in this home and who now so much more deeply understands and accepts this father turning 93 in this moment.
As I made my way around the house, I had to inspect the backyard; my father is an amazing gardener. He always has been, and it’s a deep regret that in my silly, impatient youth, I never let him teach me this art. For when you ask him, ‘how does your garden grow?” all you have to do is take a sweeping look through his yard for the answer. Which he still cares for daily, as much as he can.
We moved on to happy hour, and in my house, that’s a long standing tradition. My parents, of the WWII era, always knew how to enjoy the evening and friends would stop by and enjoy cocktail hour and appetizers; it was a regular occurrence. Being the youngest and not always having a playmate, I wanted to keep myself busy and more than likely, avoid the boring adult conversation, so by the age of 10 or so, I had learned how to make all the regulars – martini’s, an old fashioned, scotch on the rocks, and others. I knew which drink called for the little white onion, the green olive or the maraschino cherry. Hold on, before you call children and family services, be assured that just because I knew how to make and serve the drinks didn’t mean I drank them!
That came later.
So, we started our evening with a cocktail and spent some time catching up.My father sat himself down, ever so gingerly, and once settled in front of the crackers and cheese, he patted the seat on the sofa next to him, indicating I should sit myself down next to him. We talked about my son, and fussed about how to deal with the sliding door so that I could try and snap a shot of the hummingbird who frequents the feeder just outside on the patio.
We never did get that right.
The conversation turned personal and I received the first of what I decided to call Dad-isms, little gifts to me, even though it’s HIS birthday!
Me: Dad, you know that my life has changed a lot lately, right? I know it’s probably a lot to think about.
Dad: Yes. You have my blessings. You’re a good person; things will go well for you.
Over dinner, the conversation was entertaining at best, especially with my father acting like a child about not getting to have as much wine as his kids. When the conversation turned to talk about ages, years, and remember-when’s, I asked my father a question.
Me: Dad, do you remember how old I am?
Dad: Yes. Pause. Yes. You are four years younger than me.
Me: Wow! That’s got to make me the best damned looking 89 yr old around!
On the way home from our celebratory brunch the next morning, I said to my father,
Me: Dad, you’ve lived a lot of life in your 93 years. If you could give out some advice, knowing that others would take your advice, what would you tell them?
Dad: Have the attention of someone who’s personality you like and can grow with.
Me: Gulp. Silent.
Before I left that afternoon, I ducked into his room to change my clothes for the ride home. I noticed something on his dresser and was compelled to investigate…it was something I had never noticed in all my years of snooping around in my parent’s dresser [so many fun little things in there!]. I opened it up and see an old black and white photo of a beautiful young woman. I asked my brother who it was he said he didn’t know and neither did Dad. I went directly to the source and tried to jog his memory, but with no luck. I asked him if it was an old girlfriend, or his cousin, and he just couldn’t remember. What struck me, the hopeless romantic, is that he’s had it all these years, tucked away. I found myself wondering what it would be like for that young lady to know that she’s been admired from afar all these years…
And the final Dad-ism of the day:
Happy Birthday Dad!