You can’t avoid Father’s Day. (Or Mother’s Day, Grandparents’ Day, Boss’s Day or any other day brought to you by American Greetings, Hallmark and the fine retailers in your region.) But especially today, Father’s Day. From the abundance of retail offers flooding my mailbox and cluttering my Facebook page, it is clear that 100% of all fathers grill. It’s a wonder that we are not the United States of Kingsford, living in Weber County in the great state of Matchlight.
To be honest, I don’t remember my dad grilling that much. To be more honest, I don’t remember my dad that much.
He’s been gone for more than 20 years now, after losing a pretty wretched battle with cancer. I try not to remember those last days, when the 6’5” tower of power had been reduced to a skeleton in a fluffy blue bathrobe. I still feel pretty awful that I couldn’t give him the last thing he asked me for: a bottle of watermelon juice. I searched every store in Harrison, Arkansas, and couldn’t find any. I don’t even know if anyone made any. But when the dying guy asks for something, you go get it.
I still have reminders of my dad everywhere. His hobby was woodworking (or as he put it, making sawdust), and I have a jewelry box, spice racks, and several pieces of furniture he made. His hands touched those things. With AM radio, baseball games or Mario Lanza playing in the background, he crafted them, pausing to take long drags from a Pall Mall Gold. I remember the garage ashtrays – beanbags with metal trays on top, once bright plaid but by then just dark and vaguely stripey.
I remember my dad’s cough better than his voice. Occasionally I’ve heard his cough in a crowd, and can’t help myself: I have to see who’s coughing, to see if they look like him, if maybe they are him. But what do you say when you spot them? Can you cough again? You reminded me of someone, someone dead. Someone who’s been dead a long time.
Other sounds bring him back as well: the scratch and clink of a Zippo lighter opening. The tapping of a cigarette against a watch face to settle the tobacco. The WAAAahhhh…WAAAahhhh…WAAAaaaahh of the Indy 500. A table saw screaming in a garage. The creak of a stiff gun belt.
I think most of my visual memories of my dad are actually memories of photographs. Maybe it’s easier to remember a moment once it’s been pre-frozen. But there he is, wearing a chef’s hat. Showing off a big fish. In his uniform, complete with guns, in a ridiculous Barney Fife pose. All, quite literally, snapshots in albums.
I remember that my dad hardly ever got mad at me, but once was when he was teaching me to parallel park. In a Ford Courier pick-up. With a stick shift. Over and over I’d get so close to getting it right, and then snap into dyslexic panic and screw it up. Finally, even my dad was annoyed. “Drive home,” he said, “Let’s just…go home.” We got to the bottom of the driveway, and I sat there, Courier still idling, looking at him, knowing he was an inch away from anger. “Kill it,” he said.
So I popped the clutch. And his head smacked into the windshield. In my defense, “kill it” and “turn the car off” are legitimately two different things. In his defense, his daughter shouldn’t have been such a literalist.
Whenever I parallel park, or pop the clutch, I think of my dad.
When I was 16, I was in a motorcycle accident. A freak hailstorm helped, as did the guy in front of me not using his signal to turn. I woke up in a gutter, with a fair amount of blood and glass around. Fortunately, people immediately stopped to help, and the police and ambulance weren’t far behind. I held it together pretty well (and I had been wearing a helmet), assuring the good Samaritans that I was okay, presenting my paperwork to the policeman, admiring the angelic beauty of the paramedics and joking with the ambulance guys. I didn’t cry, I didn’t whine, I didn’t even complain.
Pulling into the Palomar Hospital Emergency room, I saw my dad through the window. All six feet and five inches of him, in his full forest green marshal’s uniform. He was imposing. The ambulance guy said, “man, are you in trouble or something?” and I said, no, that’s just my dad.
And when that big guy with the gunbelt came over to me, took my hand and said “It’s all right, B-Kay, everything will be all right,” I dissolved into a sobbing puddle of relieved tears. Because I knew with him there, it would be.
Happy Father’s Day. Miss you.