The World My Father Gave Me
a Father's Day reflection
I fell in love for the first time at my grade school carnival. I was five years old. I can’t imagine why it took me till the end of the day to see her, even to register that she was there. Maybe I was too absorbed in the penny candy, those bookmark-sized strips of waxed paper with little dots of colored sugar methodically placed along the edges. Or maybe I was making spin-art, squeezing brightly colored tempera paint onto a revolving piece of paper to discover what surprising and beautiful patterns might emerge.
Whatever it was that had kept me occupied, I didn’t see the crate of kittens until the fair was nearly over. They were the offspring of a prize-winning Siamese show cat and an unplanned-for suitor who slipped in through the bathroom window when the family was out one afternoon. By the time I saw the “free kittens” sign, there was only one left. The depth of her sleep—her subtly striped, gray-on-gray tail wrapped snugly around her body—was an indication of how many squealing children had been there before me. I reached out and ran a finger over her elegant silver forehead, and she opened one green-golden eye, then yawned hugely showing minuscule teeth and a perfect pink tongue. The ache in my heart to hold her and love her and take her home was a pain I hadn’t felt before, but have felt many times since.
“Do you want her?” asked the woman tending her. “She’s free. The fair’s almost over, and I want someone to take her.”
My family had never had a cat. We had had a dog since before I was born, Gretchen, a miniature Schnauzer. She was my mother’s dog through and through. But this kitten, this kitten was perfect. Soft and lovely, warm, fragile, and potentially mine to care for. But I couldn’t just take her. There was a gatekeeper.
“I have to ask my dad,” I told the kitten queen. “Please don’t let anyone have her before I get back.” The woman laughed. She recognized a hot prospect.
I ran faster than I had ever run before. The idea of someone else taking my kitten was too painful to bear. I don’t remember finding my dad. I don’t remember dragging him back to the kitten. My next memory is of the kitten seller looking up at my dad and saying, “That’ll be five dollars.”
“Five dollars?” my dad asked. “I thought it was free.”
The woman grinned mischievously. “That’s before I knew it was you buying it.”
My dad threw back his head and roared with laughter. He handed over a five-dollar bill.
“What are you going to name her?” asked the kitten purveyor. It was a huge responsibility, the first of many that would come with having her in my life, I knew. “Her mom is a pure-bred Seal Point Siamese. She’s very special, so we make sure that every kitten in a litter is named with the same starting letter. For this litter, that means F. Get it? Her name needs to start with F.”
Well, that was easy to my five-year-old mind. It was the Plain and Fancy carnival after all.
As Dad drove us home in the family station wagon, Fancy curled up in my lap and slept the sleep of the deeply trusting. For twenty-one years she played with me, listened to my adolescent secrets, caught my tears, purred me to sleep, followed me to school through the snow, peed in my suitcases when I left for college (just to show her true feelings about being left behind), and made my life immeasurably better.
She was one of many gifts my father gave me. I was his youngest daughter, separated from my two older sisters by a miscarriage. Perhaps it was that that mellowed him by the time I came along. To my sisters, he could be hypercritical, demanding, and authoritarian. To me, he was my playmate, my champion, my mentor, and my protector. He gifted me with the wisest piece of counsel that I’ve ever received. One day he was helping me with my math homework. It was a word problem involving long division. I was pretty sure I’d finally gotten the right answer, but his look suggested otherwise. “Sweetheart,” he said to me, “you can’t just accept whatever number you come up with. You have to engage that good brain of yours. Think about it. If you do the problem and you come up with a 500-pound chicken, something’s not right.” The world of critical thinking opened up to me in that moment, and I cannot begin to number the times I have been saved from foolishness by noticing a 500-pound chicken.
During the year my mother spent in the hospital fighting cancer, my dad started a bedtime ritual that lasted into my middle school years. I would climb into bed and he would lie on the covers next to me. As I snuggled against his Oxford cloth shirt, playing with his tie and inhaling the faint aroma of pipe smoke that clung to him, he would sing songs from his youth in a quiet baritone. “The Girl That I Marry,” “Peg O’ My Heart,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” Somewhere in each song, he’d stop for a tap dance break, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth to make the sound of taps on a wooden floor. It was dry work, and sometimes he’d have to pause to “wax the floor,” swishing saliva around in his mouth. His act always made me giggle and even at a young age, I marveled at the inventiveness of his routines. When I finally discovered Fred Astaire, I felt that I came to him as the daughter of a colleague, someone who understood the intricacies of rhythm and the infinite variety of dance, just as he did. Repetition never staled my delight. In fact, the year I encountered the vicious bullying that middle school girls are capable of when they come across a gentle, artistic spirit, it was these nightly songs and tap routines, along with a sea of tears from me and some juicy threats from Dad that got me through. The words, “I’d like to wring her scrawny little neck,” still evoke in me a strength that comes from knowing both that someone has my back and that he would never actually carry out the threat.
Early one December, a week to the day after I’d been accepted early decision to the college of my choice, my parents went out to a Christmas party. There, surrounded by fellow physicians and nurses, Dad had a massive coronary. When he fell, he didn’t spill a drop of his extra-dry martini. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that when his heart gave out, he was surrounded by friends and in the middle of telling a joke. He was 52; I was 17. This larger-than-life figure—ukelele player, tennis partner, skiing cheerleader, Christmas tree erector, ice cream maker, taker-in of wayward nephews, scourge of gorgons, morse code teacher, record holder for downing twenty-one ears of corn in one sitting—was gone.
But he still had a couple gifts up his ectoplasmic sleeve.
On Christmas day three weeks after his death, as we struggled through opening presents, trying to put a cheerful face on the morning, my mother pulled the largest present out from behind the tree and wrestled it over to where I sat. She stepped back with an expression of mixed pain and anticipation. “This one’s from Dad,” she said. “He bought it the week before he died, after you got your acceptance letter.” I tore the wrapping paper to reveal an emerald green American Tourister hard-sided suitcase. It was a suitcase for a traveler, for someone who would be going places, doing great things. It was a suitcase not for one night but for a thousand and one nights. If the boat sank, you could use it as a raft. It was a George Bailey special. “He thought you’d need a real suitcase for college,” my mother said, smiling through her tears. I had that suitcase for years, even after Fancy peed in it. It was a magic carpet that carried me to summer stock, college, acting conservatory, graduate school. It was part of Dad seeing me through the farewells and the greetings, the victories and the losses. I look back on it now, and I recognize that this gift was a final vote of confidence. It said that he knew I was ready to take off on my own, to enter the world as an adventurer and to thrive. I would go places.
His final gift came decades after his death, and it was midwifed by his sister when she asked if we, his daughters, would like to have the trunkful of letters that Dad had written to her and to his parents during the three years he was involved in the Second World War. The first, she told us, was written from college, describing his going away party the evening before he left for boot camp. The last was an account of his plans to surprise his parents by walking in during Sunday dinner, completely unexpected and unannounced. Here I was, in my forties, reading the letters of a nineteen-year-old boy who would grow up to be my father. Oh, he was vain and proud! So cocksure of his intellectual superiority. He was a small-town boy with a parochial view of the world. And like every other boy who ever went off to war, he was sure that he’d be home by Christmas. When he made it to boot camp, he mocked the southerners, he disdained the dusty desert and the heat of Texas, he condemned the wild young men who imperiled their immortal souls by crossing the border into Mexico to drink beer on their days off.
But as he went farther and farther from home, to Virginia, then England, Belgium, Germany, as he saw suffering and death, as he came to depend on those men he mocked or reviled, his tone changed. He became contemplative, more self aware, more worldly, and far more open-minded. He learned that he wanted to help people face to face, not dedicate his life to the solitude of the chemistry lab. He recognized the fundamental shared humanity of his southern corps-mates, his northern English surrogate parents, his Belgian girlfriend, and the German country folk whose houses he searched post VE Day.
Through his letters, I witnessed my dad transform in the crucible of war from a kid I didn’t like very much to a young man I would have been proud to call a friend. When I look back now, I no longer see the yawning chasm that his death created in me. Instead, I see the fullness of his life, too short, yes, but lived with passion and commitment. I see him developing the tenderness he gave to me.
Years after Fancy the Cat moved in to become Empress of the Household, I learned that my father didn’t particularly like cats before we got her. But that didn’t matter to him. The man I came to know gave me the gift of love: not only Fancy’s or his, but the knowledge of the power of my own.