June 20, 2011
I Nearly Missed the Father's Day Memo This Year...
I nearly missed the Father's Day memo this year, partially because I was on the road and partially because it's been awhile since I've had a man in my life I've thought of as "Dad." For girls, our fathers are often the first and quite possibly the most powerful male force in our lives. Good or bad, they're the first male role models we "see" and learn from, including what kinds of things we think men should do, not do, say and not say. You get the idea. Whether or not you agree with their behavior and their character or not later on in life, they had a powerful influence and for many of us, still do, even years after they have passed on. There's a whole lotta wiring going on at an early age.
There was only one man I called Dad yet he didn't raise me nor did he know me any better than I did him. From my childhood, I vaguely remember a Thanksgiving gathering where he may have showed up, a 5th grade birthday card with a $5 bill in it and a stuffed pink mouse he gave me I called Marvin.
The rest of the memories were infused with phone calls to my grandmother which left her in tears, uncles who passed on the same pain, and a grandfather with a temper and idea of discipline that would have impressed Baron von Trapp himself.
It was that grandfather who raised my father, my uncles and me. It was that grandfather I celebrated every Father's Day with, despite the fact that I never once referred to him as Dad.
He was a harsh man with high standards, yet a loving one who was obsessed with knowledge, growth and hard work, all of which he believed would make up our character, defined by our accomplishments and our acts for others. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, something he left in the memories of hundreds he shared jokes with over the years.
There were some Eastern European-like traditions and activities which were part of our daily life. Mix them with things that crept in from Wales, England, Scotland and American Indian camps and things got pretty interesting at times. I blame becoming a foodie later in life on my French mother I barely knew because it certainly couldn't have come from years of fried chicken, pancakes, grilled burgers and heavy casserole dishes, despite the fact that my grandmother did know how to cook.
No one seemed to want to talk about where these influences came from or why they did the things they did. The result of this mysterious vagueness led to my calling the only father I ever truly knew, Papa, at least for about 15 years.
As I grew older, the word Papa became a bit of an embarrassment because frankly no one else used it and while we may have lived in a small town, it was no Swiss Alps and I was no Heidi. Sadly, the word Papa faded into the background and died just like a famous legend does when no longer embraced by a tribe.
I never called him Papa once as an adult, but perhaps if I had, we may have had a different relationship. The memory of how it came about isn't all that clear, yet he was all Papa and zero Dad, Father, Pops or Daddy.
Despite his serious nature, where discipline was at the centre at pretty much everything he did, he would throw quirky things my way with explanations of why I should do them that never made a whole lotta sense to a 12 year old. Like climbing trees, building forts, walking on roofs (he had a thing for balance), and knowing how to make a good egg.
Papa also told us (me and all those male cousins of mine) to stretch our fingers every morning before and after squeezing this strange looking Asian rubber ball that somehow appeared in our house one day.
He believed everyone should know how to make homemade ice cream and sauerkrout and grill a kabase sausage on an open fire to perfection. He had the same drill for marshmallows and other things he felt belonged in a fire. Summers were made for open fires and we seemed to cook everything on them even when we later got a gas grill, the one we never used.
He forced me into gardening, not that I regret it today. We had a little land but not enough for vegetables, so we took over a small plot behind the garage of a neighbor and planted tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, rhubarb, pumpkins and every herb you can imagine. He always said that if I didn't know how to feel soil and dirt in my hands and appreciate it for what it was and what it could do, I'd never understand the earth and my purpose on it.
Balance he said, would enter my life from all directions until the day I died and not having it would derail things along the way. Later I learned he meant both emotional and physical balance but somehow he felt gaining the latter early on in life would help the former as an adult. We did this by walking on narrow fences and standing up on the edge of a canoe while paddling on a regular basis.
Faith was a word we never said out loud, but it was always lingering in the background. Faith was for the times nothing made sense or when life turned to chaos and letting your brain fix the chaos only made things worse. Faith is for believing in a higher purpose far far beyond you I read years later in a love letter he once wrote that showed a far more sentimental side than any of his family ever saw.
Despite this belief system, he was far from "religious" and when he did go to church, you could occasionally hear him snoring away in the back corner. Later he would make it up to the pastor by delivering wood or a pie my grandmother made or telling him a joke he was sure the pastor understood and appreciated, yet I was never so sure. He didn't do this because he felt that snoring in the back was "wrong" however...if the experience made him relax and reduce his stress enough to fall asleep, shouldn't sleeping be a compliment? Oddly, I understood.
Because my grandparents were born in the teens, they were in their wild and healthy years in the 1930s, and martini and manhattan parties were something they frequently had in their upstate New York home. Known as a thrower of great parties, their soirees extended into the sixties and seventies when I entered the scene.
Those years of silver trays, serving, mixing, entertaining, record changing well into the wee hours and dish washing gave me great practice for a career as a publicist. Papa was always the life of the party and singing was a big part of their traditions, a time he showed beautiful vulnerability just like Baron von Trapp did when Maria showed up. I never quite understood why others my age didn't know all the lyrics to Bath Tub Gin and Yes We Have No Bananas.
Possessions would become a "chain around my neck," he said. The sooner I learned how little they mattered, the sooner I'd have peace late at night, well after the sun went down.
For him, being a "real man" aside from being successful in business, was being able to build a house, fence and dock from scratch all at the same time. Combine that with being able to "correctly" tie every kind of knot listed in some outdated Boy Scouts guide and fix a car engine when no mechanic could be found, let's just say that it made bringing men home from "the city" difficult at times.
Everyone should play an instrument he believed and if you didn't like to dance, you were someone who liked to watch life glide by rather than create one. I dated a man once who didn't like music and one afternoon on the front porch of our summer lakeside camp, he shook his head and said to me, "it will never work. A man without music in his soul is like looking into someone's eyes and only seeing one color with no texture at all."
For those who have never heard the song Oh Mein Papa or read the lyrics, find it, listen to it and smile while it brings you far back in time. The words to the song were related by a young woman remembering her beloved, once-famous clown father.
Written by Swiss composer Paul Burkhard in 1939 for a musical called Der Schwarze Hecht (The Black Pike), and reproduced in 1950 as Feuerwerk (Fireworks), it is one of the many songs from the 1930s we sang around the piano and one he loved to hear my grandmother and I play as much as he did Moon River and Misty.
He believed that higher education was crucial but without "street knowledge", you'd never actually see or understand texture in life. It was important to see those textures, understand them and emphathize with them he said. Street knowledge would make you "feel" and education would make you "hear." As new nuances and distinctions would come up in life, chaos would turn to clarity one word at a time.
When I said I'd like to become a dancer at 5, he asked for the date I'd be performing in Times Square so they could plan for it.
When I said I was interested in stars and space at 10, he wondered how I'd turn a telescope into our backyard into a scholarship and when might I be going to the moon.
When the family thought I was sure to become a writer or photojournalist, he spoke of Margaret Mead, and the South Pacific, not the local Leader Herald.
He was the one I called at uncanny times. Hearing his voice on the phone while I was plunging a toilet, drilling a hole in the wall or killing a large spider in our bathrub seemed to turn the "doing" into an act I was no longer aware of...
Sometimes he was my directions, sometimes my memory, and sometimes just a voice of reason when I lost my way. Going any deeper was tough because he didn't allow emotion to surface even when an event may have called for it, like a wedding or a funeral. He was from an era where men didn't cry and women didn't work. An era where men brought women flowers, opened their doors and built them houses. An era where women ran the household, cooked and raised kids and men took "care" of all of them.
Papa wasn't an easy man and many found his presence intense and overbearing albeit electric at the same time. Despite the fact that many of us have unresolved issues and baggage with our fathers, things we can't say or do or opposing beliefs, deep down in a place we rarely access, that bond even if a disfunctional one, carved out a life path we started as children dozens of moons ago.
For all the pain we were dished along the way, we were also given love in whatever ways our dads, fathers and papas were capable of giving with what they had and what they knew.
When he died in my arms seven years ago, I felt an unconditional love many of us only feel for our own children. It is this love I honor on this celebratory day of all fathers, all dads and all papas.
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