Monthly Archives: January 2016

Remembering Dad

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Dad at Lemon Reservoir circa 1982.

My dad, my favorite amateur (as in, non-professional) grammarian, died last week at the age of eighty-six. Dad could, in one breath, chide me for ending a sentence with a preposition and quote Winston Churchill’s famous comment on pedantry. From my father, I learned both the love of language and the frustration of perfectionism.

 

As a child, I imagined myself to be more like my father than like my mother. After all, I had his big, dark eyes, his patrician nose, and sturdy, rectangular German face. I saw him as analytical, brilliant, and in his silence which I reflected much of the time, distant. He was affectionate and protective with me, but he was a man in his own head more often than not, a trait he passed on to his children.

Although Dad was always in thought, that didn’t prevent him from holding me next to him while he watched the BBC or Cronkite then later carrying me to my room and tucking me into bed. He was no “sit down to a play tea party” dad, nor did I want that, as I was the child that stayed in my room and listened to my 45s and read books or played alone most happily.

In my teens, this kind of arms-length parenting continued but I never felt unloved. I admired him and wanted all the more to be like him. I was going to be a scientist like him (with writing on the side). I was going to do it all right. I was going to make him proud of me.

You can see where that’s going, right?

I got pregnant (magic!) at eighteen and Dad and Momma were none too happy, but they gritted their teeth and we all got through it. On the other side of the turmoil was an amazing little girl with whom he immediately fell in love. (Look dad! No preposition.)

The shift in him, from man in his head to the man interacting with the world was subtle but visible. After my first husband and daughter and I moved home for a short time to get on our feet, Dad and Momma developed a strong bond with their first granddaughter and Dad softened. On one occasion, my older brother dropped by for a visit. Dad stood up, strode to my brother, greeted and hugged him for the first time in possibly years. My brother and mother stood with mouths agape.

Later, when I remarried, he not only accepted but loved and respected my second husband. In the long run, he respected my late-gained degree and would ask me biology and medical questions.

Another expansion of his awareness occurred years later, when my niece’s son was born and survived a harrowing birth. I spoke to him not long after. With a trembling voice, this longtime avowed agnostic told me, “someone or something kept [his great grandson] with us.”

Daddy spent sixty-four years with his one great love. After Momma died, he shuffled around the nursing home where the two of them had shared a room for some time. He died a little more than two weeks before the anniversary of Momma’s death.

Over the years, I have evolved to be more like my mother in many ways, both emotionally and physically: more chatty, more approachable, more padded around the middle. Yet I carry much of my father’s skepticism and contrariness with me. Over the years, Dad had evolved in many ways but toward the end he retreated, understandably, back into his own head where, I imagine, he and his wife were whole and happy again. When I spoke to him last he said, uncharacteristically for that curmudgeonly old grammarian, “I love love you completely.” I knew what he was telling me. That he was probably saying goodbye for the last time. I just thought he was mistaken.

I love love you completely, Dad. I will miss you always.

Emergency Salads, Tornadoes, and Permanent Cow Fixtures

As I drove to the store on December 30th, a woman in a fancy pickup (oxymoron on wheels) rode my bumper despite the fact that I was exceeding the speed limit by several mph. She passed me as soon as she saw the smallest gap, got one car ahead, and pulled into the same parking lot I pulled into seconds later. I daydreamed of asking her, as she picked through the produce section, if she had an emergency salad to get to. In my part of the world, however, such smart alek words can get you shot. I don’t say that lightly.

I decided at that moment that I wasn’t going to rush anywhere the rest of the day. I’ve never believed that there was any place I needed to go that was worth risking my life or someone else’s though I get impatient, too. The passage of time has weighed on me lately, but time on my mind doesn’t mean time to kill or be killed.

It’s true, the way we mark time is largely a human construct: days, weeks, hours, minutes. But months, seasons, lifetimes: Nature has foisted those on us. Since my mother’s death, the passage of days has been, well, a daily thought. An internal battle, even. It began during our time together in a tiny nursing home room those few days before she died.

We had some sweet, gentle moments: laughter, bad puns, a lot of hand holding. I’ve always been amazed by my mother’s hands. No matter the weather, the wrinkles, the dish loads, her hands were like the finest, lightest silk. Now they are ash and it is hard for me to grasp that. I sigh—she would have chuckled at that unintended pun. It’s what we do as a family: make bad jokes. It’s part of what makes us such a close family.

There were moments during which I allowed myself unpleasant thoughts. Cynical, I suppose. “Is this all there is? What did she get for all she did for us?” thoughts. Of course, that’s the angry view, the grieving view of the end. I had been grieving for much longer than the many months Momma had been suffering from dementia and a bad fall. I’d been grieving since she left Texas some seventeen years prior. I knew there was much more—more joy, adventure, choice—to her life than I was allowing. But in grief, those things look small while the hurts loom like dragons and disease. Thankfully, those thoughts were brief and mostly I reveled in my precious time with her.

I admit I’ve nursed those hurts all year. A digit change won’t fix that but perhaps Christmas Eve at Munger Place Church  and time with my daughter and her family has planted a seed.

I struggle with faith daily. Again, I don’t say that lightly. Each prayer, even “grace” before a meal, is an argument with this “creator” some people call God. At the same time, I can’t free myself form my belief that some sort of divinity has had major influences on my life that coincidence can’t explain.

Christmas Eve service at Munger was, no surprise, beautiful. Kate Miner’s love for her God poured out of her with each performance and I used up all my tissues dabbing my eyes. I know I seek that moment when in “O Holy Night” I will “fall on [my] knees, o hear the angels’ voices” and it was at this point in the service that I felt a weight lifted from me after almost a year of anger. Not because a divine presence came upon me. Not because I was suddenly healed. There was nothing magical there (except Kate’s voice). Instead, I realized I cannot stand up and be who and what I need to be without first kneeling and being humble to what I have been given. I must work with what the universe/life/God gives me rather than argue with those gifts, even when those gifts seem like curses.

What cemented this feeling was the remainder of the visit with my daughter and her family. After the service, we drove around to look at Christmas lights in the more affluent Dallas neighborhoods. In front of one house was a life-size, longhorn steer sculpture decked with holiday finery. Someone said, “I wonder where they store that in the off season.” My daughter said, “I think that’s a permanent cow fixture.”

It struck me as funny. Okay, adorable. At 32 years old, she’s still adorable. She’s always been beautiful and gentle like her grandmother. Time with her is so precious and like the rest of her family, she has the sharp and dark humor that binds us. I love every minute with her.

Two days later, December 26th, a horrific storm system struck the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We huddled in my daughter’s house where we lost power and listened to the tornado siren. Two major tornadoes struck and lives were lost while we had only some wind and scary lightning. Eventually, the power came back on, our adrenaline tapered, sadness set in, and we went to bed.

On the 28th, my husband and I returned to the bayou and a couple of days later, my daughter sent me a picture of the steer.

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I thought it rather sad—frippery and wealth completely unscathed while there was so much destruction in a small town of apartments, trailers, and tract homes not too many miles away. The events of this Christmas came as yet another reminder of the very lack of permanence, the randomness, the brevity, fragility, humor, unfairness, beauty, and preciousness of life.

Fall on your knees.

Here’s a link if you feel inclined to help the folks in North Texas: How to help.