As rich as our language is, sometimes it lacks the just-right word. Often, in my father’s final days, he said as I helped him, “Everyone needs a mother.” When we “mother” someone, we watch over them. But when we use “father” as a verb, it means to procreate or found.
When I say my Dad “fathered” me, I am not trying to clarify my paternity. He was an actively loving Dad. When I was very small, I know he played those little games that help children discover their fingers, toes, mouth and nose: “this little piggie,” “mousie in there,” and my favorite, “Tom Tinker, eye blinker, nose smeller, mouth taster, chin chopper chin chopper chin chopper!” (This last delivered with a final tickle to the chin.) Oh, and he played a mean knee jouncing game called, “Hobbledy hoy.” Though my toddler days are pre-memory, I know he did this because I later saw him automatically repeat those games, with his first grandchild, Sandy, and later with Maddie and Thom.
As he did with my brothers before me, Dad inspired a love of reading. What better feeling than sitting in his lap or snuggled in bed as he read aloud from “A Child’s Garden of Verses, “Friendship Valley,” the L. Frank Baum Oz series, “The Wind in the Willows,” or “Winnie-the-Pooh?” It doesn’t surprise me that the photo Maddie has resurrected and featured on her Facebook page is one of her Papa reading to her.
Unlike his father before him, he believed in sharing with his children the things he was passionate about. Though I never took to fly fishing and hunting for upland game birds the way my brothers did, there was always a spot for me if I wanted to go. I remember one hunting trip in Eastern Washington vividly. Dad cobbled together an outfit for the freezing temperatures: someone’s outgrown Filson trousers, insulated socks, boots, base layers, ski sweater, hunter’s black-and-red checked coat, wool hat and gloves.
We arrived while it was still dark — and very, very cold — at one of the stubbled wheat fields made available through The Family Hunting Club near Othello, WA. I had chosen not to shoot, so I crunched through the frosty field trailing Dad as one of our faithful Springer Spaniels worked ahead of us, seeking pheasants to flush from their hiding places. Eventually I was tired (of course I was, it was early and I was a teenager) and wanted to rest. Since cruising around in a field that is being hunted is not a great idea, Dad planted me in a spot on a ridge and told me to STAY THERE.
Lying in the barren field, making clouds of my breath, tuning in to the quiet music of a rural field, I watched the sky slowly color the thin winter clouds. My brothers don’t think I share the same awe of the outdoors that they do since I didn’t partake in the hunting part. But I do. My love of the outdoors is based on appreciating the poetry of the landscape and the creatures big and small that inhabit it. When we lived in Seattle in early grade school, I could entertain myself for hours lying in the abandoned street that connected 10th and 11th Avenue East, or perched high in a tree in Roanoke Park at the top of the hill. I never feel alone when I am in any place where there are growing things – a field, a forest, a garden. I feel connected. And I think that’s thanks to my Dad, who, to the end, cited bits like this one as he admired the Camphor tree down the street on our daily walks together: “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms…”
Dad was my first and best advisor and mentor. I was annoyed in high school when he made me take typing (this was before knowing the keyboard was the gateway to computing). He explained that I might need to support myself some day. As a college upper classman, he made me identify careers in which I might be interested, and then set up some informational interviews for me. I felt awkward, even mortified as I had lunch with him and a PR guy from Weyerhaeuser. But he gently nudged me from the nest. After I started my career, it was Dad who I called when I needed to negotiate a salary or faced a delicate situation, or when I wanted to share the good news of a promotion or salary increase.
(Mom was less than thrilled as my career advanced. In her experience, given her marriage during the beginning of WWII, a career was at best an interference or at worst a threat to one’s job as a wife. In the early years of my marriage, she met the news of one promotion with stony silence, and finally blurted out, “What I want to know is: when are you going to become a real woman?” Translation: when are you going to have children? Todd, standing in the kitchen while I talked, saw the expression on my face and wisely left the room before I exploded over the phone back at her.)
Much later, I asked Dad why he was so supportive of my career. He said that he never wanted me to feel trapped, as his mother did. In other words, if Todd proved to be the kind of SOB that his father was, with a mistress on the side for his entire marriage, he wanted me to be able to leave. He was for women’s liberation before there was a name for it, because he loved women AND respected them. That love and respect was evident in his relationship with my mother, even though he said he “fought for his pants every day of my life” with Mom.
Because of the strength of my mother and father, I carried self-respect into my career and family life.
I have written previously of the crisis that I faced in my marriage over ten years ago, which I wrote about in this blog post. I remember sitting with my Dad in the living room of our house in Davis, over a glass of wine. I told Dad I didn’t know what was going to happen.
He didn’t judge. He didn’t offer advice. He didn’t try to intervene. He just said, simply, “I’m always in your court.”
Dad loved and respected Todd deeply. I know he wouldn’t have wanted our marriage to fail. But he told me in no uncertain terms that he had my back. It was the best thing he could possibly have said to me. And somehow it gave me the strength to persevere with Todd and work through the things that were creating a distance between us.
One of the most painful things my Dad would say to me in these last few years was, “I’m not really a Dad anymore.” When he said that, I felt a stabbing pain in my heart because all of the “fathering” that he did over the years remained with me and would never diminish.
In these last weeks, I would help put him to bed with the help of a caregiver, dim the lights (his habit was to leave some light on) and hold his face between my hands and say, “I hope you rest well, dear. And I’ll see you in the morning. I love you.”
Dad cherished me as I rose from the dependency of childhood. It was a labor of love to mother him when he needed it. I owe him so much.