Memories of my dad appear randomly in my brain like a documentary film run by a jumpy projectionist.
I’m convinced I am incapable of misremembering him, anymore than an echo could repeat words never spoken.
Others’ memories may contradict my own.
Still, mine are true.
I grew up in the landlocked midwest. We had lakes, ten thousand of them. Some had grassy banks and willow trees that swished and dipped to make rings in the surface of the waters. Others had wooden docks and sandy beaches perfect for lazing in the sun. My five siblings and I learned to swim in those waters. We took turns holding onto our father’s back while he swam out to the floating dock where no one’s feet could touch bottom. I still remember the thrill of flying out behind him like the cape of Superman flapping in the wind, terrified I’d lose my grip.
But the moment we reached the safety of the shore, I begged, “Again! Again!”
Also around that time, me fighting with a big brother. He was five years older. He always won. Our mother responded to our squabbles with a smack upside the side the head. But she wasn’t around this day. Our dad broke up our bickering by kneeling between us, a King Solomon, eye level to my five-year-old self.
“Vivi would never do that,” he said of whatever crime my brother had accused me of. He hugged me and added with great theatrics, “She’s an angel and wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing.”
I understood Dad was purposefully exaggerating my good qualities in hopes of appealing to my better angels. I sunk into his embrace, rested my small chin over his shoulder to see my big brother still standing there.
And I stuck out my tongue.
We had a neighbor who was a jerk. He berated his wife. He terrorized his kids. He played a “game” at the pool, holding his daughter and me under water until we nearly blacked out, and then threatened the lifeguard who came to our rescue.
One crisp fall Saturday, he raked his backyard, put the pile of yellow leaves into a wheel barrel, walked them around to the front yard, and with a creepy smug smile, dumped them by the curb in front of our house.
My dad and I watched in disbelief.
I was livid. I wanted to punch the guy. Actually, I wanted my Dad to punch him.
Instead, my dad grabbed a bag and a rake.
Before the neighbor could slither back to hide in his house, my dad began quietly cleaning up the mess.
“Leave it,” the guy yelled. “The city will pick it up next week.”
“Should I put them in front of your house then?” Dad asked.
The jerk stumbled and mumbled.
My gentle father was the only person who managed to successfully humble the bully.
The movie Mary Poppins was released when I was eight years old. Everyone knew the songs. At the supper table one night, I think it must have been at least two years later, I asked my dad if Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious was really the longest word in the world.
My dad said he didn’t know about other languages, but in English the longest word was antidisestablishmentarianism.
I marveled that my dad, who worked as a purchasing agent buying office supplies and widgets to keep an oil refinery functioning, knew such a magnificent word.
He assured me that if I could memorize a fake word from a movie, I could learn this real word.
“You know what ‘establishment’ means?” he asked.
“Like ‘down with the establishment’ that hippies say,” I asked tentatively.
He was amused by my reference. I’d seen a cartoon of a hippie carrying a protest sign.
Dad then went on to help me breakdown the double negative of the first part of the word, and the double suffix at the end. He didn’t simply tell. He guided me in figuring out my own understanding of each syllable so I would learn.
Another: I was thirteen years old, racing my two younger brothers home from the bus stop. No contest. My foot reached the back stoop first. I burst through the kitchen door.
“Dad is home!” I announced, excited to see him in the middle of the day.
But something wasn’t right.
My mom and sister stood together near the kitchen table, eyes puffy and red.
“I have sad news about Rogie,” Dad said softly.
In my memory, word of our brother’s death in Vietnam slashed time in two. There was life before. There was a life after.
But in the torturous between time, the brutal gash of fresh pain all instinct screams to escape, our father stood waiting, chest-deep in his own sorrow, to ferry our tender hearts to safety.
Note: My dad died a few weeks ago at age 95. I was lucky to have him so long. Everyone tells me. In the end, he was so frail it seemed he could disappear like dust blown off a shelf. And still I feel sad. They say grief is the cost of loving. It’s a steep price. But one worth paying.
About the Creator
A former daily newspaper journalist, now an independent writer of essays & fiction published in several lit anthologies. The Whole Hole Story children's book was published by Versify Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. More are forthcoming.