For the past few weeks every commercial on television and radio is hawking something to buy for Dad for Father’s Day. My Dad never golfed or fished, only reluctantly wore ties and wasn’t even remotely interested in tools, but I never paid much attention to the commercials.
Dad died two years ago this month and although I mistakenly thought the pain of that loss would diminish over time, in some respects it has not. Mostly, I think, because the time becomes a distance between me and the last time I saw him. I still experience things he would’ve enjoyed hearing about – work situations, funny stories or baseball talk of the day. I really wished I could talk to Dad about Galarraga’s almost perfect game, but I can’t.
But I can remember who he really was as a Dad.
When we were small, Mom was the center of our world. I don’t remember her admonishing us to “wait until your father gets home.” She was the swift hand of justice. He came home after teaching, and during its season, wrestling practice, and quietly ate his dinner and didn’t appreciate any giggling or nonsense at the table. I can still see him reach out to take someone’s glass of milk to pour a bit in his coffee before rhythmically stirring it in the heavy brown mug.
Once when I was about 5 or 6, Mom and Barbara hurt my feelings, which was common because everything was a slight to me as a child, and I went into my room to cry on the bed. Dad came in and held me on his lap soothingly. That might have been a typical thing in many families, but it was atypical in mine.
I remember him sitting out on the back porch asking about how things went at school. “What did you learn today?” was his most frequently asked question. And when I lost some of his old coins when I took them to school for Show-and-Tell he didn’t get mad at me.
I remember him taking us to the State Fair on Highland High School’s fair day, which meant we never went when other kids from school did. Mom would pack a picnic dinner for us and Dad would walk us through every exhibit. It was a bit like the Bataan Death March does the New Mexico State Fair because he loved to walk and hike. I guess he thought it was okay for 8 year olds, too. We looked at the trains, animals, vegetables, crafts and art. If there was an exhibit of it, we saw it…year after year. And because my birthday fell during the fair, my friend Ann sometimes went with us. We would find a place to open the picnic basket and have dinner. Once it got dark we headed to the midway where each child got to get on one ride.
When I was in high school my Mom spent the summers at the University of Oklahoma where she earned a master’s in library science, a degree not offered in New Mexico. Her time away was payback for the years that Dad went off to summer institutes or traveling through the south visiting Civil War battle sites. Everything on the home front was an adventure for Dad. He was never much of a cook, but by then Barbara was an accomplished cook and we agreed that she cooked, and I cleaned. She told me that Dad would take her to the grocery store and would try to save a few pennies by buying things that we didn’t like. She would tell Dad that no one would eat the stuff and it would go to waste – that was the only way around his frugality.
I became an obnoxious teenager around age 16. I did stupid things – hanging out with an older guy, sneaking out of the house and taking Dad’s car. I remember one night when Dad was exasperated with me, he threatened that I would not be allowed to go to Northern Michigan to spend the summer with a friend of mine who’d recently moved there. I shot back, “You’ll let me go! You can’t wait to get rid of me!” He nodded in resignation and left the room. Going to Michigan was a good thing. I enjoyed myself and learned a lot about myself. Since my friend MaryAnne’s mom was more open to talking about emotional things, I was able to work through my teen angst about the older guy I’d been seeing.
Dad and my brother Barry came to meet me at the airport. I didn’t recognize Barry because he’d grown 6 inches over the summer. Dad took one look at me and said, “You’ll need to get out and play some tennis.” I’d put on a few pounds over the summer. Back in my routine, they came right off.
I came back ready for my senior year. I found responsible friends to hang out with and it was a calm school year. I even got the Humanities Award at honors assembly which provided a small amount of money for my first semester at UNM. Mom and Dad were both proud and noted that the school should have let them know. Seeing that was more interesting to them than watching another commencement ceremony – they did enough of that at Highland and Rio Grande, where Mom was librarian.
I didn’t really like UNM and in my second year met Frank. We moved in together the second semester of my sophomore year and got married a year later. I dabbled in school, but wasn’t really interested and ultimately quit. That never sat well with Dad. Every time I visited he’d ask if I was going to take a class. It didn’t matter if I had a baby or a baby on the way; it was always, “When are you going to finish that degree?” I would be working full time, caring for kids and a house and yet I always heard, “How is the class?” because by then he’d get me taking one or two at a time. Ultimately, I got a job at Parish Library at UNM after years of working in the public library system because UNM employees had tuition remission – 8 hours of credit and time off each semester to take a class. I discovered the professional writing program and enjoyed it. So, finally, at age 39 I graduated.
No one was happier than Dad. He wrote me and each of my siblings a letter describing his pleasure and satisfaction that all his children had graduated from college. He enclosed a check. Since I was the last to graduate, Barry said I owed him interest.
After that, Dad and I had great discussions about the University – the administration, the faculty, athletics – if it was in the paper or on the news he had questions about it. Mom was the keeper of the archive of my writing, but Dad kept track of the tales. We still talked baseball – UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham – the Giants – Dad’s team; the Red Sox, mine. He explained the DH and Tommy John surgery. He remembered players of old and told their stories.
When I took up tennis in a big way, he was always interested in hearing about my game. He even came out to watch me hit once. I wish I could tell him about the progress of my serve and the power I’m developing.
For his birthday one year I suggested to my siblings that we go in together on season tickets to Lady Lobos basketball. We gave him the tickets and sometimes I went with him. The next year he told me not to bother – I think he didn’t like finding someone to go with him, so I bought them and then invited him to go with me. He liked that much better. I maintain those tickets still because I think of him as I sit there.
I often imagine Dad with my friend Phil – a contemporary of Dad’s whom I met in a German class. Phil was a retired pharmacy prof who became a dear friend. He died about a year and a half after Dad. Phil was also a baseball fan – he liked the Red Sox and the Mets. I wish I’d been able to introduce them when they were living. I wish they could have met Sam Suplizio, a UNM alum I wrote about who played ball for UNM. He gave me baseballs signed by Joe Torre and Whitey Ford. I gave the Torre ball to Dad – at Suplizio’s insistence. Suplizio has also gone to the great dugout in the sky.
I imagine Dad, Phil and Sam now, especially during baseball season, taking in the games of their choice. I miss them all, but especially Dad.
And I still wouldn’t know what to get him for Father’s Day.