Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Birthday Presence

The father of a friend and fellow member of an online circle of friends died earlier this year after a protracted illness. In the discussion that followed, several women noted, “you never stop being Daddy’s little girl.” As in the case of it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than it is for a boy to be a sissy, a woman can remain Daddy’s little girl much longer and more easily than a man can be or stay a Mama’s boy. I’ve sometimes thought it would have been nice to have had a daughter and seen what kind of relationship she might have had with her father, the man I married and still love. Instead, I can only say, most assuredly, that the two male offspring in my household are not Mama’s boys.

My dad has self-published several memoir-type volumes in retirement, a fact for which I am exceedingly grateful. They have given me a glimpse into how he became the man I grew up knowing and who has influenced me in so many ways. When, in graduate school, I politely asked the policeman who pulled me over but would not give me a ticket but only a verbal warning (he claimed I had been drinking while driving—I had been, but it was a diet 7-up, not the beer he said it was), what the procedure was for filing a complaint against him, I was only channeling the nerve of a man who bluffed his way onto a tarmac as members of the British royal family were boarding their plane. To those among my friends who have said I’m not a safe person to hang out with after hearing what I said to that policeman, I can only say that if you heard some of the other things my dad has done you’d know what an amateur I am compared to him.

Because my parents separated and then divorced when I was in elementary school, in the mid-1960s before divorce became something of a way of life, most of my childhood memories of my father are from when I was very young. I remember the time I didn’t want to go get the much-touted polio vaccine on a Saturday morning because I was watching some television show. Dad spanked me royally as I recall (this was the early 1960s, when spanking wasn’t the big deal it is now) and then, in what hurt more than the spanking, made me sit down and watch the rest of the show before we went, while he, my mother, and my brother waited for me. I remember that my watching and their waiting hurt more than the spanking, which was probably the point.

At that stage in his life, Dad was a biologist and biology teacher, which probably accounted for my correcting one of my own teachers—Mrs. Sorenson in first grade, I think—who said that butterflies came out of cocoons spun by caterpillars. Not so, said the smart aleck girl totally bored with first grade, a moth comes out of a cocoon, while a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis. Dad’s science background also probably accounted for the fact that when our Great Falls, Montana neighborhood flooded in June, 1964—with the waters of the Sun River coming down the street from one direction, while the waters of the Missouri River came down the street from the other direction—my brother and I got to sit on our dry front step and watch all the other kids (and some adults) in the neighborhood swim and play, even walk on stilts, in the water. We hated it, but we somehow didn’t mind, later, when we were the only neighborhood kids not to have to get typhoid fever shots because of what they might have caught by playing in the water.

The September before that, Dad’s being a teacher at Great Falls High School allowed us access to the school’s roof as President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in the football stadium below. Dad set up a telescope, and we took turns looking through it to see President Kennedy more up close and personal. I vaguely recall a policeman or perhaps a secret service agent coming out onto the roof to check on what might have looked from the ground like a rifle peeking out over the rooftop. Remember that this was less than two months before Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I doubt we would have been allowed such “higher” proximity to a presidential talk after that. I think I heard once that Kennedy’s visit to Great Falls was his last trip outside of Washington, D.C. before his fateful visit to Dallas, but given the travel schedule of presidents today, I find that somewhat hard to believe. Maybe times really were different then.

As would any former child, I remember childhood Christmases, or at least the annual hunts for the perfect Christmas tree. We would drive, usually in the family station wagon (in which my brother and I never wore seat belts and often passed the time seeing who could keep their balance the longest, crouching in the back compartment as Dad intentionally swerved down the road), out into the mountains in search of a tree. We would walk what seemed like miles (my legs were shorter then) through the woods, considering this tree and that one. When we finally found just the right one, Dad would get out his camera and use the timer to get a family picture of the four of us with that year’s tree. I have a couple of these photos in an album Dad made for me; they help the memory stay alive.

And the Christmas I was in kindergarten, all I wanted was a big teddy bear. I must have asked for that bear all fall long, because I remember Dad’s coming home from work many times with stories of how he saw a bear downtown that day, but it got into a taxicab and got away before he could catch it for me. Joe, the bear who was waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning, lives with me to this day. When he no longer needed to comfort me regularly, he moved on to being the stuffed animal of choice when one of my sons was sick, staying on their bed for as long as they needed him. I have every intention of passing from this world before Joe does, or at least taking him with me when I go. In a punch line to the story of how Joe joined the family, I should note that I proudly took Joe to school with me, for show-and-tell, the first day back after vacation. Darned if another girl in the class hadn’t gotten a bigger teddy bear! It didn’t matter, though; I loved Joe none the less for it.

The “view my complete profile” tab at the right includes a random question generated by Blogger. I change it—question and answer—every now and then for no good reason other than to entertain the couple of people who might look there. For a while the question was something along the lines of “You’re on the ferris wheel. Will your father take a bite of your cotton candy while you’re gone?” My very truthful answer was that my father wouldn’t be standing on the ground holding my cotton candy—he would be on the ferris wheel with me. That’s because the childhood memory I cherish most strongly is that of riding the ferris wheel beside my father. To this day, I am a bit more than moderately afraid of heights and am terrified of ferris wheels or any other amusement park ride that involves heights (not to mention speed—roller coasters are most definitely not my friend). While I did ride a very, very small ferris wheel with my sons during a summer spent in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I find the thought of riding a “real” ferris wheel or, even worse, a double ferris wheel, paralyzingly frightening. But I rode them as a child, because with her father beside her, Daddy’s little girl wasn’t all that afraid. I distinctly remember sitting in a ferris wheel car, descending along the front of the wheel, legs dangling, feeling happy … and safe.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I figured you didn’t need any more “stuff” but might like a gift you could keep with you always.

Your Little Girl
(still and always)

1 comment:

Debi said...

Hope your dad has a wonderful birthday! I know this gift certainly had to make it a special day. Sheesh, you left me in tears...can't imagine how he'll feel.