A year or more ago my dad died. I have been known to describe him as a cross between Clint Eastwood and the character Don Draper from Mad Men. As his youngest and only daughter, that is who he was to me. Equal parts badass, control freak, brilliant in his work and emotionally unavailable. I am sure that he had no idea what to do with a daughter like me: filled with strong emotions, impressionable, independent, determined and artsy. He wanted to be in control when I was a teen. I had no interest in his control. I have a tattoo to remind me of this season.
He left me with a powerful legacy though. Not merely a legacy of being a survivor but being who will never relent in getting to where I want to be. He equipped me with a good brain, a cleverness and wit, good instincts and resilience, as well as good health, which should never be underestimated.
But there were artifacts left after he died. Artifacts that hurt. Artifacts that were of no use to me in the process of finding my spot in the world.
In order to keep those artifacts from taking too much significance, I realized for healing sake, I needed to see the good and powerful and beautiful stuff he possessed and focus on that.
To do that, I began to collect all the coolest memories and parts of pop.
He called me “Punk”, short for Punkin. This is how he addressed me almost exclusively. No one else had a name for me like that. He only called me by my name when he was irritated by something I did or was doing.
And I was to call him Dad, or Pop, as he referred to himself. I used to call him Poppy when I was little, why does that memory bring water to my eyes? Because that was the space he occupied, as though he was God. My world revolved around his presence.
My dad never gave up on me I don’t think. He never retreated. He persisted to appreciate my presence and offer me his best up to the very end of his life. Sometimes his best was only 7 minutes of lucidity and enough lies to make me not be concerned. I was probably too quick to recognize that he himself wasn’t meeting standards that he had set in our home.
Dad had a strong sense of himself. He was a redneck countryboy who bucked bails in Eastern Washington in his youth and an engineer who received a Technical Fellowship from the company for which he worked. They had to change the requirements for the Fellowship because he didn’t hold a PhD. But without that PhD., he had very successfully taken teams of engineers to all parts of the globe repeatedly to work with companies that built machinery for the products his aerospace company made, and he did so successfully for years. So what if he had to soft shoe a question from upper management about the extent of his education (which stopped at technical school)
Dad’s work was the single most important thing to him, he gave it everything he had. To such an extent that retirement left a gaping hole in his world.
The memories I have are of his carousing, his work on our house and the car, his eternal landscaping of the yard, laying on his bed while he packed his suitcase to go on a work trip, playing with my moms jewelery– the charm bracelet that became a train that chugged around on top of the bedspread.
My parents would go out with friends, and it was the 70s, they would have a nice time with a good meal and drink. Once though he revealed that they had been asked to leave the Canlis in the Seattle for being too boisterous, I suppose. The Canlis was and still is one of the most expensive restaurants in Seattle. It makes me laugh to imagine that my parents were asked to go from this upscale place.
Dad’s landscaping was the stuff of legend in our family. We joked that he would stand out on his deck and wait for a leaf to fall on his lawn so that he could run out and pick it up. He was proud of his expanse of perfect green lawn. When a mole came, he would take devious delight in figuring out how to get rid of it. Once, when he poked a screwdriver in the mole hole, he stabbed the mole itself and brought it up hanging off the screwdriver. He took our lot which was just shy of an acre and planted a forest in the back as well as putting planting strips all over and constantly maintaining the beauty of the shrubs, flowers, trees and bedding. Fresh bark and perfect lawn were the norm. It is the reason why I know how to dig a very decent hole to plant my own trees and I feel perhaps overly confident in my own capacity to upgrade the landscaping around my own home. The image of him walking around in the back yard, shirt off, Sears jeans cut off and pockets hanging out and a bandanna on his forehead are etched on my memory like a water mark on vellum.
While I was in my 20s Dad built his dream house and then was sent to Japan repeatedly for a large project with a number of engineers. He was gone alot, but had been allowed to keep his frequent flyer miles. In my traveling years, he brought me home from Russia for Christmas. When I called him once from a phone in Dublin, just randomly, he told me he was proud of me. In the moment, standing on a street in Dublin, feeling proud I figured out how to use the phone card that was the norm in the 90s, I couldn’t figure out what I had done to earn this pride so sudden and atypical. I imagine that he was proud of me because he could see what I was capable of. In that moment I was capable of using up the last minutes on my phone card and going for a pint of Guinness. For whatever reason, that felt really, really good.
On my wedding day he told me I was very beautiful. That was different than what he had been doing, which was wearing a t shirt saying “Refugee” that he had gotten from a phone company strike. At the time my brain was so distracted by the events of the day, disoriented to have all the people from so many different parts of my life all in one spot. It was his sense of humor, to draw attention to himself in a way that was supposed to be ironic. Sometimes it worked, sometimes maybe not as much.
When I was young he would take me and my brother fishing in his little 21 foot motorboat on the weekends. We’d catch crab mostly and fill a cooler up with crab. He would measure meticulously to make sure they were the right size and that they were male crabs and not female. He took painstaking care of his boat on the weekends, oiling the teak embellishments, washing it down thoroughly after being in the Puget Sound. The boat launch was always a time of incredible focus and attention, to make sure all the bumpers were out, the engine raised to make sure the prop wouldn’t scrape and he worked with my brother, referring to port and starboard side of the boat. He made sure he was following all the rules and the boat took us on adventures on the water. The arranging of the mirrors to make sure he had perfect view of the boat tugged behind his big pickup was a scene repeated with every trip. I didn’t realize how careful and meticulous he was until boating with others and watched them scrape the propeller on the launch or tow my kids in waters with branches sticking out — which dad would have avoided carefully to ensure the safety of a water skier. I wasn’t in love with the time on the boat when we were fishing. It was man time. My dad had a white plastic bleach jug that he gave to my brother and he for going pee. I was to use the “Chock Full of Nuts” coffee can, and it was always a humbling and uncomfortable moment because dad laughed alot about it. Mostly I decided I would wait rather than use the can.
These trips I was 10, 11 years old. It was before my parents divorce when I was 13 and in 7th grade.
After the divorce, I would go to his house and earn money by ironing his shirts and handkerchiefs. My brother had left about the time that the divorce happened, leaving me alone with the division of homes and weekly time at both dads and moms. It was hard to do that alone without my big brother. But dad started again and he taught me how to cook some and I watched as our house changed from the furniture that we used to have to lawn chairs to new couches and tables and such.
Things were different after the divorce. Both parents remarried and became involved in their new partners.
My relationship with dad suffered blows. Navigating boyfriends, school work, family dinners, freedom with a car and the new look of weekend time since I was 16 and had my own car that I had purchased for 400 dollars. I was lost on the waves in those years, trying to understand who, where and how of me and the gift of life that I had in front of me. I decided to be wild in those years, but settled myself considerably after turning 21 and accepting a divine dominion to steer my rocking boat.
Dad’s dream was to have a beautiful home on the water. So he found a piece of land and a contractor and began to build with his new wife the perfect home, and she decorated it with her beautiful sense of style. The back yard looked out onto Mount Rainier and the Tacoma Narrows in the Sound and it was the location of my wedding. This was my privilege.
As I went through college, working at a coffee shop and tutoring the going was spare, stressful. But dad had come into his own and manifested all the dreams he had as the first born son who had definitely won the trophy of success within his family. He and my stepmom made sumptuous dinners each time I came to visit. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but in retrospect, the big deal that he made of family dinners was perhaps one of the best gifts he gave me, aside from the fact that those were the only significant meals I had on a regular basis in college.
On my 21st birthday, I lived in Seattle. I wanted him to take me out to celebrate at a place and I had my first beer at a restaurant on Lake Union at lunch with him. Beer was important to my dad, and there was a dumb kid that wanted to share that with him if only for a moment.
I know dad didn’t really have alot of good ideas about how to be a good dad to a kid like me, but he never gave up. I know he loved me, but because we didn’t really speak the same language, I suspect I was hard for him to understand.
I’d like to put his memory to bed in a way. I have lived a life very different from his, but I think he would be proud of me. I’d like to not remind myself of the parts of my relationship with dad that make me feel sad or confused. I’d like to take those things and make sure I do things differently with my girls as a gesture of healing my own hurt, and I would like to look at dad as who he was– a man who was doing the best he could without possessing all of the right equipment.