Saturday, June 20, 2015

Random Thoughts about my Dad


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Sometimes I worry that when I write about my dad, I'm going to cement in a view of him, in my memory, that's…not right. Like when you tell a story from your childhood over and over, and the details feel so real, and then someone tells you it actually happened before you were born. Or when you remember a vacation by looking at pictures of it, until basically that's all there is, and those pictures ARE the memory, and everything else that happened just… disappears.

I'm afraid I'm going to reduce my dad to the little snippets that are most repeatable. The stories I most like to tell. His PhD at Harvard, the calculator that was his "Nobel Prize."* Getting polio at age 15. The way he stood in front of the fireplace with his hands clasped behind him, always wearing a sweater or his plaid flannel jacket. Seeing him working physics problems at the kitchen table—neat lines of numbers written in mechanical pencil, covering the pale green pads of graph paper he always used. Reciting "Brown's Descent" at our family parties, eyes twinkling. 

I like those stories and I like my dad in them, but it seems so presumptuous, sometimes, for me to try and say who he was. I knew him for less than half of his life, as it turned out. And my brothers' memories of him may be completely different than mine. I'm afraid I'll make an image in my head, out of my immaturity and my forgetfulness and my selective blindnesses— of some other man, someone less than he was. 

Dad didn't care for the confessional, self-absorbed type of writing, the literary "personal essay" style that mines the past for small personal miseries and piles them up into rocky hills from which to proclaim one's superiority over…whatever. ("Provincialism," usually, I guess.) I don't like it either, and I vowed a long time ago to choose relationships over self-expression. To choose to see memories, if I could, through a lens of generosity and inquiry rather than hyper-focus and complacency; to seek stillness instead of sensationalism. I don't want to make my dad's story about ME. And yet…ME is the only place I have to start from.

And so I try to sort through the memories like you would sort through stones and beach glass after a day by the ocean: holding each one up; turning it to the light; seeing if, with the glitter of the water gone, it still shines like you thought it did. And if, in bringing these stones away from the sea and into my home, I am leaving behind some of their beauty—well, at least they are close, where I can see them and keep from forgetting them altogether. And maybe that's the best I can do.
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Random Thoughts about my Dad:

Before every holiday, my dad would say he had everything he needed, "if only my children will get along with each other"—he would chide, to a chorus of sighs from said children. It was hard to think of something really exciting to give him, rather than the old stand-bys: slippers, tools, ties. But he always seemed so happy with whatever the gift was. He liked orange sticks and those little powdery fruit candies called "Applets and Cotlets." One of us kids always got him orange sticks for Christmas or Father's Day, and he would light up when he opened them as if you'd given him the Hope Diamond. "Orange sticks! Oh, orange sticks!" he'd say, sometimes literally rubbing his hands together with anticipation. "Thank you, sweetie"—or maybe "Thank you, tykie" (an appellation I particularly disliked, as it seemed so…undignified). And then he'd hand them around, two for everyone, and maybe another round later that night after dinner. Other gifts would elicit the exclamation "Neat!" from him: a sort of multipurpose word expressing interest and delight, no matter how mundane the actual object was. ("A new pillow! Neat!")

What Dad really liked was getting presents for my mom—always the latest kitchen gadgets or household tools: vacuum cleaners, breadmakers, mixers. He never spent money on himself, but he'd go all-out for some new thing he thought she would like. My mom would thank him and then almost invariably return it a few days later, preferring something cheaper or simpler or more familiar. He got her a digital camera back when I'd never heard of anyone who had a digital camera—it used floppy discs for photo storage—and I think he felt like that was his greatest accomplishment: getting my mom something she actually kept and used. Every time she got it out he just beamed with satisfaction.

It wasn't only that he bought things for my mom. He was always making things for her, too. Intricately carved knots of ebony. Wooden rings that held pieces of uncut emerald or sapphire (salvaged from various uses in his physics lab). Double-refractive minerals. Origami dodecahedrons, or little sets of nesting boxes, or heart-shaped rocks, or bud vases made from hollowed-out stones.

Once some boys came to pick me up for a group date in a pickup truck. The boys chivalrously allowed the girls to ride in the cab, while they themselves sat in the truck bed. My dad was appalled that anyone would ride without a seatbelt. He told the boys they were irresponsible, and he told me I couldn't go with them. I went anyway, fuming at being embarrassed in front of my date (who never did ask me out again…but maybe that wasn't my dad's fault).

That was far from the only time Dad worried. He worried over us so deeply and heavily. I could see it in the set of his shoulders, when something was weighing on him particularly. He worried even when someone was late or when someone didn't call. I was impatient with it, often. I wanted to (and did) tell him to just relax, to let things happen the way they would. That seems arrogant to me now—assuming I could dismiss or diagnose his concerns. And yet I still do think he took too much on himself, trying to hold the world right for those he loved.

He was almost always cold. He loved stews and soups; he loved fireplaces. He wore "Mr. Rogers" sweaters in the house, and a black fur hat when he walked to work in the mornings. He liked cookies crisp and well-done, though he never got them that way, since everyone else in the house preferred them chewier. He would drink warm water in the mornings, and even warm his bowl of ice cream in the microwave for a few seconds before he ate it, a habit which provoked much teasing and eye-rolling from the kids. At night, he sometimes had a snack of bread-and-milk (pieces of bread torn up and dropped in a bowl of milk and eaten with a spoon)—a remnant of his farm-boy past, I guess. It seemed truly disgusting to me. But what did I know? I wish I hadn't been so dismissive of all his little quirks.

He seems, in my memory anyway, to have spent a lot of time just standing by the window and looking out, or sitting at the table gazing into space. I don't know if I ever wondered what he was thinking about then, but now I do. Dad told my brother once that he (my dad) was never bored, because he could always work math problems in his head to entertain himself. So maybe that's what he was doing.

And yet my dad did have a sentimental streak, the type of thing that made him tear up when he recited Emily Dickinson or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or when he called me "tykie."

He took naps in his office, lying flat on the floor. One year my brother made him a pillow with an extra flap of fabric out to one side, which could be flipped across and used as an eyeshade. My dad loved that pillow and used it from then on.

Dad liked to be home. I don't know if it was different when he was younger, but for most of my life, I felt like wherever we were, he was mostly just looking forward to getting home. When he and my mom would come to dinner at Sam's and my house, Dad would sit politely on the couch and listen to us chat for a bit—and then, as some internal timer went off, he'd get up and stand by the door. And there he'd stay until we took the hint and wrapped up the visit.

I wish he were coming for dinner tomorrow. Even if he only stayed the minimum amount of time socially acceptable. Happy Father's Day, Dad!


*Oh, okay, I'll tell it. Dad did his graduate research in physics under Norman Ramsey at Harvard. When Ramsay later got the Nobel Prize in Physics, he used his prize money to get top-of-the-line scientific calculators for his former research assistants, since he said they deserved to share credit for the work. A humble and kind gesture, I've always thought. So that's why I feel justified in saying my dad "shared in" a Nobel prize. :)

5 comments:

  1. Good memories and comments. I wish I could remember him from the earlier years when he was our age. I find myself wishing for exactly the same things--the kids to be nice to each other, etc. I think we absorbed more from him than we can ever remember. Maybe his optimism and kind view of the world. I also think Dad was miraculously able to strike off differently from his own absent or less-interested father that we don't hear much about. A great man. I miss him too. Nice to talk to you tonight.
    Love,
    Philip

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  2. Philip: Yes, I wish I knew more about what he was like when he was our age, too. In some ways you remind me of him more than anyone. Especially the kind, gentle, thoughtful way you interact with your kids. And the way you seem to be willing to tackle any project or able to figure anything out.
    Love you.

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  3. The Nobel Prize story is awesome. And I'm with your dad 100% -- leave the two of us be with our brown-bottomed sugar cookies, our brownie corner pieces, and our nearly- burnt toast!

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  4. Nancy: Aaa, you too? I wish you lived next-door so I could send over anything we inadvertently overcook! :)

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  5. Haha. Yes! I also put my ice-cream in the microwave for a few seconds. Hahah. It's better that way. Your dad and I would have gotten along smashingly! :)

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