Some Things I Remember about Growing Up with My Dad

I remember,

the size of his hands when holding my own. I always thought my “paws” were rather big for a little girl…until my own child hands were quickly diminished by the firm wrap of my father’s giant palms. The skin on his hands was rough, especially during the winter months. Thin crack lines, red and raw, appeared from thumb to pinky like red road lines on a map. I would tentatively finger a spot of sore skin until my prodding grew too pesky and painful; he’d tug his hand away sharply.

looking down, from the bay window on the second floor of the ballet studio, to check whether he’d arrived yet in the green Capri…the brown Ford Pinto…the yellow Volkswagen Rabbit to pick me up from my weekly dance lesson. I’d see him pull into the dirt road turnaround, his shoulders hunched over the steering wheel as he parked the vehicle and waited (sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently – I would try to read his mood from my elevated vantage point) for me to hurry down and get into the car.

making “high” breakfast on a Saturday morning – eggs, bacon, toast with orange marmalade jam. (Chunks of orange peel, bitter and hard to chew, got stuck in my teeth and I’d wrinkle my nose in distaste.) If we were lucky, corn meal pancakes would be added to the menu.

I remember,

a snowstorm (the Blizzard of ?) when my mother was stuck with colleagues and friends for days on end in Massachusetts and my brother and I were home alone with Dad in New Hampshire….forced to eat whatever food was stored within the deep freeze in the cellar…mostly frozen hamburgers and green lima beans. Meal after meal, the same thing. We ran out of cereal. We ran out of milk. To this day, I still have trouble looking at a lima bean, let alone swallowing one.

when my mother had a serious accident while riding her bicycle. She sustained such a severe head injury, she required cranial surgery and a lengthy recuperation period. My father led my brother, Jay, and me in a series of household-chore-marathons during her absence. We stood beside Dad, at the foot of his double bed, attempting to make our way through a laundry pile by sorting all the socks into neat little rows…a single sock here to be matched up with the partner sock over there. “We’re all going to have to be little soldiers now…until Mom gets out of the hospital and is feeling better,” Dad said seriously. My little brother whined, “I don’t want to be a little soldier!” He melted to the carpeted floor, the start to one of his fantastic writhing-on-the-floor tantrums. He kicked the leg of the bed frame over and over, so overcome was he by fatigue and frustration at the prospect of the chores and “soldiering” that lay ahead while our mother healed in the hospital…away from us.

my father, sucking in air loudly through tight lips to cool the hot abscess roiling beneath a back tooth as I danced the part of “Clara” in “The Nutcracker” one December evening long ago. There was a lull in the music, just after a crescendo in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo piece. “Shh—uuuu—ppp.” I heard the unmistakable sharp intake of air from somewhere out in the audience. Without moving my onstage gaze from the fairy and prince dancing a duet to my right, I tried to read where in the auditorium my father sat…in his cloud of pain…sucking air. I rose out of my princess throne on the stage as the sugarplum fairy skittered to the wings, her part in the duet complete, and took my own steps into an arabesque at the center of the stage. I let the music carry me toward the Nutcracker prince as my turn to dance with him began. All thoughts of my father’s pain evaporated while I danced.

I remember, more recently,

all the stories…told by my father, the master family humorist…during large family dinner celebrations. In the memory, the table erupts with loud laughter. The baby in the porta-crib upstairs will surely awaken from the booming waves of laughter that crash again and again. More wine is poured for everyone.

another memory of my father, grinning a wide smile that stretches past his dimples to the edges of his ears as he and I stand with my mother just outside the entrance to the chapel. In a moment we will walk down the aisle, the three of us. I adjust my white wedding veil so that the netting falls just so down my back. My father assists me, but I don’t look up into his eyes, because I am too afraid that a flood of tears will overtake me…before I’ve even reached my new husband, who nervously awaits my arrival by the altar.

my father, standing tall (wide shoulders pressed back and chest thrust forward) at the wedding ceremonies of my brothers. I see his nose and chin jut out as I view his profile through the camera trying to capture forever another important moment in our family’s collective history. My own profile looks much the same, I think to myself. My father’s nose…his chin…those are familiar landmarks that rise and fall just the same way on the landscape of my own face.

my father… at the births of three of my four children…another witness to the miracle of our growing family. He is the one in the delivery room who counts loudly, “One, two, three, four….” as he tries to sustain me with the rhythm and volume of his count because he sees that I am straining mightily to bring forth my first child, a son…a grandson.

I remember, these memories formed within the last year,

my father…in search of a quiet place with good light to read. He’s visiting the Bollinger brood and pausing for a moment from the hustle and bustle of his daughter’s frenetic family. I try to catch a glimpse of the title of his current reading. Will it be a volume of theological essays on the agnostics or perhaps a mystery by Walter Mosley? For now, it’s just the NY Times.

my father limping as he renegotiates his stride due to recent hip surgery and the constant challenge that sciatica in his lower right leg presents. I choose to quickly replace these images of his suffering with an image that I like much better. It’s of my father standing tall, free of pain, head bent downward in a position of attentive listening. A family member, a neighbor, an old friend speaks animatedly about politics, a book or something that happened the other day. You see, Dick Lates is a quiet and avid listener, a keen reader of the people around him. He’s the grand and benevolent host at the party that is his life. He bends closer to my face to catch my every word. It’s this ability to listen, to really hear what is being said and communicated, that makes him, to my mind and heart, the wisest man I know.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

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