Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day - A memory of dad, but not my own (memory)

I had lunch this week with a friend from elementary school.  We hadn't seen each other in thirty years, but had reconnected online.  After finding out I sold books, he was kind enough to ask me to help him build a library for his management group - then he traveled to Alameda to say thanks for the list I had compiled when of course I should have been thanking him for his custom.

We spent lunch catching up, talking about our families.  We sounded like two old guys discussing how important family is - how important our families are.  I know he's still close to his mom - but he hadn't said much about his dad - not today, and not in the various messages we'd sent each other over the past few years.

High School Graduation, Hiawatha, Utah.  1950
With Father's Day coming up, though, my Dad was on my mind - even more than usual.  Aside from wishing I could tell him just once more how much I loved him, I had come to realize that, even with the passage of time, the ache of his death hadn't eased.  I thought it would - but there, as in so many things, I was wrong.

So I mentioned my Dad, talked about how my friends - especially the ones Karen and I have made who also have children in the range of our Elizabeth and Kristina - give me a bad time for having a father who never raised his voice.  It's something I've mentioned before, but continue to marvel at.  I try not to raise my voice - to yell - at my kids.  I'd prefer that I didn't.  Of course, right?  But - invariably - I do.

Karen had the girls make me Father's Day cards to mimic the ones the preschool prepares for Mother's Day.  I think it's a gyp that Moms get the card, but because school lets out a week and a half before Father's Day, we're overlooked.  Karen rectified that - even copied the font of the official Bayside Montessori Mother's Day Card.  Inside the card is a series of questions, and in answer to:  What do you like best about your dad? Kristina had responded, He still loves me even when I'm naughty.

So she knows that, even if I holler.  But I'd still like not to get exasperated - not to fume and raise my Greek voice.

Strive, strive, I'm striving, ok?

I mentioned that to my friend, though, my dad's equanimity, mentioned it while I divvied up the spring rolls, and he was quiet there for a minute inside the Thai restaurant across from the bookstore.  Quiet while he poked at his rice dish served inside an entire half of a pineapple.  Then he looked up and said, You know what my strongest memory is of your dad?

I didn't say anything.

Your brother Dean and I had just crossed the street from my house.  Your dad was outside watering the lawn.  The weekend, it must have been.  He was spraying the water from a hose back and forth across the grass.  God, it was hot.

And I sip from my Diet Coke remembering how hot those Modesto summers could be.

Right after we crossed the street, some kid - none of us knew who he was - also tried to cross Sherwood, but he didn't make it.  He got hit by a car.

And it was my turn to get real quiet.

The kid, he didn't die or anything - but it was bad.

What I remember most is how your dad didn't even look for other cars coming, he just threw the hose down and ran out in the middle of the street and picked up that little boy.  Picked him up and cradled him in his arms.  You know how big your dad was - and at that age, I don't know, I must've been eight?  Maybe nine?  Your dad was huge to me, to all of us.  But he held that little kid so gently, telling him he was going to be ok.  That he'd be ok.  Talking to that little boy so gently, holding him so gently for such a big man.

My friend hadn't been eating while he said this.  But at that point, he started cutting up one of the crab cakes that was left.  Halved it, then quartered it. 

That's the memory I have of your dad, when I think about your dad.

I'm just looking at my friend, because this is not a story I know.  How could I not have been told this story?  Or if I had heard it, when I was ten, or eleven - how had I forgotten?  I don't forget things, not usually.  Not things like that.

Later, when our plates had been taken away, he was talking about his mom again.  The love he has for his mom is palpable.  And he mentions his stepfather - something else I didn't know about.  Didn't know his parents got divorced.  Didn't know his mom remarried - happily - to someone who loved her back, hard.  That she was fortunate enough to be able to spend some good years with a good man.

And that's when I realized I didn't have a strong memory of his father, not really.  I see a man with dark hair, almost black.  Slicked back - with Brylcreem?  But even with Brylcreem in his hair, I have a sense that it was a little messy.  And that's it.  Nothing more.  A man in a t-shirt with messy black hair.

Still later, my friend mentions, just offhand - Well, you know my dad was an alcoholic - and the statement was apropos of nothing, yet it said so much in so little.  And I wish I could make some grand connection between the disparate elements of our conversation during lunch.  But I'm not one for grand connections.

I'm left knowing that it was good to see him again after so long - so easy to talk to him after three decades of not.  Talking to him.  And friends like that are select and rare, people you can just pick up with regardless of the time that has passed.

But it's Father's Day.  And I'm remembering.  I'm remembering, and reminding myself how lucky I am to have had the parents who raised me.  How lucky I was to have had my soft-spoken father in my life - my father often acting more than speaking.  Showing the world what he was about more through his deeds than his words.

My dad was a big, strong man. But he never abused that strength. He’d use it, sure, to easily pick up a small boy from the street, to hold that boy gently in his huge arms while calmly assuring him everything was going to be ok. And that’s the difference between use and abuse. Between showing and telling.

My dad never told me that story - why would he? Even though it is the defining image of my dad in my friend’s mind. Just another time when my father showed instead of told. 

We're different in that respect, my dad and I.  Too often I rely on words when actions are so much more important.

But I'm striving, have I mentioned that?  I'm striving.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.  Miss you.


  1. lovely, just really lovely! xoxoxo

  2. Please tell Bill Happy Father's Day! The girls and I had a nice visit with his Mom on Friday - though I declined the Metaxa since he wasn't there!

  3. Nicholas, I'm happy to see that you are writing. You are incredibly talented and I have truly enjoyed reading your gift.
    I'm terribly sorry for your loss. Mr. Petrulakis raised the bar far too high for the rest of us. I'll never forget the look in his eyes that day your folks found the vial, lol
    God bless

  4. I will Anonymously say, thank you!

  5. Happy Father's Day.Great for thought in ur blog and nice words.