There is a black and white photograph. In it my father is holding me; I am a baby. The ocean is in the background. My father’s expression is surprised; startled. Through time my father speaks. He says: Now what do I do?
My father was a rough neck working on oil rigs off the gulf of Mexico when he met my mom. After they got married, he went back to school and became a court reporter. They moved to a small town in Missouri and my father never left. He was farmer’s son through and through.
He taught me many things, from how to write cursive to changing a tire and the belt on a car. He never did teach me how to spell a point of contention between us. The most valuable lesson I learned from him was his concept of making good money. To my father the amount wasn’t good or bad. How you made the money was important. He said he wanted to make enough to take care of himself and his children without taking away from anyone else. He wanted work that gave to society and helped people. He wanted to make good money. He taught me the concept of having enough. It is the guiding principle that lead me to teaching as my profession.
My memories of him do not form a coherent narrative. There isn’t one story I tell myself about him. Instead I remember him in pieces, vignettes, discrete scenes from life, like small glass pebbles, cut and beveled and stored in a box in my room. I take them out, and the hard edges have softened from time but they are still bright and clear.
I am sitting in the tall chairs by the kitchen counter as my father makes pancakes. He replaces the water with 7up to make them fluffier.
It is Sunday morning. My sister and I wake up as he comes back from the donut shop with the Sunday paper and bear-claws and cinnamon rolls. We spread the paper around the living room floor and my sister and I read the comics and Parade magazine. My father reads the rest of the paper as we eat, getting our hands and faces sticky from the icing.
My father bringing home computer paper ( the kind with holes in the sides and alternating stripes of light green and white ) and putting it up on the walls so my sister and I can color on the walls without messing anything up.
I colored in one of his books. It is the first time my father ever yelled at me. He was so angry – This is a BOOK! – in college I couldn’t make notes in my books because the taboo of marking up a book was so strong. When we went to the mall, a book was the only thing my father could not say no to buying for me.
I’m 13. My father asks me if I want a cup of coffee. He has just made a pot. He pours us both a cup, and lets me put cream and sugar in mine, and we share this moment before the rest of the house wakes up. This is the moment I felt I graduated from childhood.
I’m searching for meaning in my life. My father gives me the entire 14 volume set from some comparative religion class or book series. He says to me – “Here, find the god you feel is the best” – He was and I am agnostic.
The summer before I enroll in driver’s ed he takes me to the old clunker he has been working on for years. He shows me how to change my own tire, check the oil, and change the belts. He never did get that car running.
During the days when I was in high school, we would argue and fight. There was nothing either of us could say that would not start active hostilities or cold war silences. But. When my step mother decided to decaffeinate the household, we both rebelled by waking up at one or one thirty in the morning and making the “good” coffee that he kept hidden in a drawer in his home office. We couldn’t talk about any of the things that would start a fight, so we whispered about life and philosophy, not daring to raise our voices for fear of waking everyone up.
He listened to both Miles Davis and John Denver. His favorite TV show was “Rockford Files”- but he didn’t watch that much TV. He taught himself to program a computer (way back when floppy disks actually flopped and every command had to be typed in). He loved airplanes and old cars. He was an environmentalist. Jimmy Carter was his favorite president. He could snark with a straight face long before the term “snark” was coined. He tried to justify eating Reese’s peanut butter cups by saying that because they had peanut butter they were a “health food” He smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. He didn’t tell us about the cancer until a few weeks before the surgery. He never woke up from surgery.
Each memory of my father is a glass pebble in a box in my room. I take them out and polish them and look through them, scattering them like a kaleidoscope on the floor, then gathering them back up.