This particular trio activates memories of a father who graduated a Jesuit college as a philosophy major (and, boy, did he relish those logic syllogisms), directed theater productions in his youth, loved his Cincinnati Reds and Dallas Cowboys, believed in putting on his hat when he registered at motel or hotel, made his own fishing lures, was a low-handicap golfer, too-fast driver, infamous for his 10-martini spaghetti sauce, and, in his later years, tried oil painting and was a cable TV host – and a bit of a local celebrity –of an all-day stock market show. You looked at him and knew he could be fun and/or major trouble. I think the Irish might say he had devilment in his blue eyes.
Last year, my step-sister graciously sent me a watercolor that had belonged to my father. It is one of two things — the other being his college ring that he wore daily — that reminds me of my Dad.
The picture hung in his office. I can remember taking the elevator to the 17th floor of a downtown Dallas office building. My sister and I would exit the elevator (it was so long ago there might have been an elevator operator) and see the frosted glass inked with the company name and my Dad identified as the regional manager. There was kind of a charge to see his name so publicly displayed. We would enter the office and say hello to Doris, his secretary, and Beverly, his bookkeeper, and to any of the sales guys who were in the office.
My Dad was always at his desk and you could hear him on the phone. The forever snapshot-in-my head is my Dad looking up from his huge desk, covered with an enormous blotter and two pens standing at the ready in their marble holder and this very watercolor over his shoulder. Dad, desk, picture.
When I think of my father, fatherly is not a word that springs to mind — far from it would be more accurate. My Dad could be a SOB. He could also be a lot of fun.
There is a photo taken of me on my first birthday. It’s rather telling. Birthday cake, candles glowing, my grandmother visiting, and, there I am, in tears. Actually, many of my childhood pictures show me in tears. My father once joked, as we were en route to my sister’s violin concert, that maybe I should play the mop as I cried so frequently. I was a very sensitive kid.
My father was the one who
· Let his two little girls climb up on his lap when he came home from work and take sips from his bourbon and orange juice.
· Took my favorite stuffed dog outside and had him “talk” to me through my bedroom window one night. His intentions were playful, but resulted in a terrified me screaming bloody murder, tearing down the hall, running into an armchair and table, and toppling a lamp.
· Would take us on early-morning fishing expeditions on quiet lakes in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
· Would whisper over the holidays that Polly, family friend and former Ziegfeld girl, had had many plastic surgeries and her kneecaps were behind her ears. This would inevitably send my sister and me into spasms of stifled laughter as we stared at her intently trying to peek behind her ears.
· Rescued my male cousins from their young adult mishaps (which I learned after his death).
· Was enthusiastic at my kid attempts to make home-made bread.
· Described my sister as “damned nice” and allowed that I “have balls.”
· Chased me around the house one Halloween to try pizza and chocolate cream pie because my picky eating was crazy-making to him.
My Dad was also an angry and explosive guy. He could be abusive, too. We would listen to his footfall on the walkway before he entered the house or the force with which he slammed a kitchen cabinet to know what mood or humor he was in. I later learned they were similarly alert in his office.
Like many men of my father’s generation, he could kick back quite a few drinks. He was unconscious and impervious to the impact his words and actions would have on his daughters. His own woundedness from a fractured childhood led the way. But, he was my father. Sometimes, I loved him. Sometimes, I wanted more than he knew how to give. Sometimes, I raged at him. There were many times I cursed him. Yet, he still managed to take up residency in my heart.
My father’s greatest gift to me was passing on an awareness of the animation in all things. There were before-school mornings when my father called for the crow he named Sassy and they had back-and-forth conversations. And while visiting our grandmother, my father wrote letters that relayed the exploits and adventures of our stuffed animals and dolls while we were away from home. Mickey the monkey and some of the dogs managed to break into the liquor cabinet; Cynthia and Blueey the dolls cooked burgers on the grill after the bear made the fire. They all had a swim in our plastic kiddie pool and so forth. These letters still delight me. And the conversations continue. I talk to everything. In fact, so much so, my family often wonders who am I talking to now.
When I was older and away from home one summer, my father wrote to me and signed his letters “My love as always.” His words surprised me. It had never occurred to me that he felt that way.
His legacy was complicated.
Now, I have his watercolor with a slice of New York on the water. It’s a calm and peaceful picture that has many of his favorite elements and represents the best of my Dad. His watercolor hangs in my office and this makes me very happy – smiling, sentimental mush that I am.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I have no doubt you are keeping everyone on the Other Side well entertained.