Ick… I keep doing this thing where I start a post and then lose heart, interest, or I get hungry and forget that I was writing. The writing then gets shunted off into the drafts, where I come back to it later and think, “Now’s not the time… I’ll get back to this later” (… and then I keep doing that and feel dumb). I started writing this thing a few days after Memorial Day. I think that’s all I need to say to set the scene.
I found my self oddly struck by an emotional impulse recently. That impulse was to be a bit maudlin. I suppose it was just seeing the right few things at the right few times. These were not particularly heavy or heady things… to be honest, I couldn’t tell you for certain what these things even were. It was somewhat of a glacial movement: a bunch of small sad things that rolled into each other before my eyes with just enough moment to shift my temperament.
They got me to thinking about my old man. My old man… my pa… is passed-on. Late. Joined the choir invisible… (etc., etc., etc.). He died some years ago. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time, but I think it was ’07 — I’ve never been much for remembering dates, even when it’s something monumentally important. He died at the hands of a cancer that developed oh so many years after exposure to hazardous chemicals during the Vietnam War. I’m far from inconsolably torn-up about it now; it’s been a long while since I have actively grieved about the loss of my father. That said, sometimes I think about him. Today is one of those days.
I imagine some might be surprised that it didn’t really occur to me to think about him on Memorial Day — not that he died actively in armed service of the nation, but these days Memorial Day tends to have a certain catch-all quality that extends to anyone who served in the military. I think it didn’t occur to me because I don’t really think of him as having been a “military man”, I think of him first and foremost as my father. I mean no offense by that statement, it’s just that my father retired just about the same time my brain was becoming developed enough to start racking up permanent memories — I remember him picking me up from an on-base preschool once or twice, and letting me idly play with his garrison cap on the ride home (when I think about that/those time(s)). I can almost smell the drying sweat of his bald head from the Georgia heat that would waft up from the cap. I remember him much more as my sage companion and mentor during my Montana childhood and adolescence.
I briefly attended therapy just before my relocation to California. It was a measure taken to help me sort some stuff out enough to finish my dissertation and get my Master’s Degree. I mention this because he came up in a lot of those sessions — what with my therapist rightly thinking that maybe, just maybe, my anxiety/depression issues weren’t all solely connected to some dissertation. There was a lot of reflection on my aforementioned childhood and adolescence, and Pop was a huge part of those periods. I’ve written before about my father — though not here. When I wrote about him before, it was directly reflecting upon the last few weeks of his life. A time when all of my siblings gathered to see him off — one of the few times we had all been in one place. I wrote the piece for a graduate course about Autobiography and Memoir. It is some of the most moving writing I’ve ever done, there was not a dry eye in the house when I read some selections from it for the class. Some day I’ll get around to doing something more with it (maybe I’ll even post it up here), but I currently only have it in hard copy form… alas, I’ll have to retype it. I have not, however, written about some of the thoughts that came up during therapy that I like to think about from time to time. That is something I’m going to try to do here (I apologize if it gets meander-y, but I think it’s appropriate given the subject matter):
My father and I, long before his body was too ravaged by cancer to do so, often took walks. They weren’t really a scheduled thing, we just took a lot of walks that inherently involved conversation. It is possible that it began as a whole-family, evening activity (the whole family meaning “the whole of the family that lived in Montana”, which consisted of myself, my father, my mother, and my closest-in-age brother). I remember a number of evening walks where we’d all go to the nearby park, jaunt through half of the park, cross a bridge leading to a small island, stroll up then down the one road on the island, and then return home via a path through the other half of the park.
They became “me and him” time because my mother ended up working later and later nights (the hazard of being a nurse in a small town), and my brother — like most teens — got busy socializing, rebelling, or sports-ing. I was not particularly interested in the normal teenage stuff: I was social, but had a very small group of often busy friends; I only got caught up in about a quarter of the rebellion of my brother (I had no rebelliousness of my own, and no one wants a kid-brother horning in on their rebellion as it’s too… Leave It to Beaver… when one has a tag-along); and I slowly, but surely, slid away from having a sports physique (I had an advanced mind for tactics when I was very young, but eventually you have to be mentally sharp, and physically fit to continue advancing in sports). And so, my father saw fit to fill that extra time with our walks.
The walks, I believe, served a few purposes: 1) It was some physical exercise, even if if didn’t get me back to “fighting weight” 2) It gave my father a chance to bond with (read: figure out) his oddball, irregular, growing son through the art of what he would’ve call “jawing” (the spelling doesn’t really do the very slight Kansas/Missouri accent he had justice). Early on, I think he might have been concerned about my oddity. There was a period when my father was asked by teachers if he wanted to put me in a class for children with special needs.
I was always the last kid to turn in assignments… I also took the longest of any of the younglings returning from recess to switch from outside-clothes to inside-clothes in the winter… I had trouble with tying my shoes… and I didn’t really seem to want to read. These were all small potatoes and/or merely seasonal problems, so the teachers floated the special needs idea to my father without any real certainty or emphasis. My Dad asked if they’d keep an eye on me… As it turned out, I was always busy helping other kids do their homework before I’d turn mine in and I just spaced out in the winter and when it came time to tie my shoes (so keeping me on-task seemed to solve the issues). I was just a little weird. Oh, the reading? Yeah, one summer when the school got brand new literacy enhancing reading materials, they gave me all the older reading materials that were going to be chucked-out (oddity that I was, I asked if I could have them) and when I came back I was reading at a High School level. The teachers then asked my father if he wanted to put me in an advanced class, to which he responded “let’s just work on gettin’ him to tie his shoes” (an issue eventually solved by the glory of Velcro).
My Dad could see I wasn’t deficient, but he could tell that I was weird. It was new to him. He had raised four kids (my elder siblings) before my brother and I came along, so he thought he had it covered — he was the first to admit he didn’t do a perfect job, but he thought he had surely seen it all… Heck, even though my closest brother engaged a fair amount of ne’erdowell kid activities, he had a pretty solid idea of how to work with that stuff. He wasn’t, however, prepared for weird. I was the boy who wanted to know how to make diapers for my teddy bears, the kid who would busy himself during the occasional — yet inevitable — timeouts by writing down numbers as he counted them out (only to have forgotten that he was in time out four hours, and gods know how many pages, later…) who never got a solid grasp on math, the kid who would try to invent board games that included everything he ever enjoyed (because I sucked at checkers), the kid who got bored reading kids books (Babe: The Gallant Pig) so instead read his father’s furniture restoration guides and autobiographies (It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf), the son who insisted that every writing assignment for one class all take place in the same fictional world (I was a terrible typist too, so he typed the assignments as I dictated and worked out all the kinks with me), etc., etc., etc. I was a different animal than my father had ever dealt with before. So he took a different approach: He walked with me.
The walks (and talks) slowly evolved from being about “figuring me out” to “encouragement and bonding”. That was something I didn’t realize until I talked about it in therapy. My Dad figured normal school structure clearly wasn’t doing what I needed it to do, so I guess he figured, “He likes the walks, let’s start there”. What began as “what the hell am I going to do with this kid?” became an after-school ritual that I daresay he looked forward to as much as I did. I would come home, do whatever settling needed to be done, and then we’d begin to walk. He would always start with “Wh’cha thinkin’ ’bout?” If I hadn’t anything immediately on hand, or we ran out of my topic(s) during the walk, he would tell me all about the things he was thinking. We would talk about whatever idea we had in any — and every — which way we could. If nothing was pressing either of our thoughts, we’d lapse into a brief, but comfortable, silence until something along the way jogged a new idea and we continued conversation’.
In a way, that was my father modelling to me what education and intelligence should be. He always said that it wasn’t about knowing what to think, it was about knowing how to think. Those walks weren’t just physical exercise, they were mental exercises. They’re what I miss most about my old man. The immediate snapshot that jumps into my head when I think about those times is us walking in the fall… all those amber-yellow leaves swirling around on the wide street as we walked by, talking about nothing (and everything) in particular. It was that, and the aforementioned scholastic paper-writing that was a logical extension of the walk/talk template, that came to define my burgeoning adolescence — it also came to define me as the man I am now.
Well… non-fiction/memoir, that’s something I haven’t put on here before.
Until next time,