It’s one of my earliest memories.
I am four years old. We are living in a town next to the Air Force Base where my father works as a pilot, in Northwest Florida. We’ve already had dinner; my brother and sister are at the now cleared kitchen table, doing homework, and I’ve been put in the bathtub to get cleaned up. My father comes home, still in in his flight suit, and he comes into the bathroom where I’m in the tub to talk to me and help me get finished up. He has his guitar. He’s thirty-nine years old.
We chat a minute, and then he starts to play:
I watch him, rapt in concentration, with that old guitar he restrung to be played left-handed.
I’m also periodically placing my washcloth on my head just to feel the water trip down my face and neck, then resoaking it to start the process over again.
When he’s done playing the piece, he has me say some phrases that are giving me trouble:
He smiles at me. He rarely ever laughed, my father. Making sure my hair was washed properly, he helps me get out and dry off. I then step clumsily into my long-sleeved pajamas.
My mom and I sit down on the couch to read a book. The year is 1966: we are reading Dr. Seuss’s newest book “I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew”. That’s still one of my favorites.
My father is at the kitchen table, still not changed out of his work clothes. He’s helping my sister with an art project. My father had been an art major in college. My brother is telling a story about something that happened in his 4th grade class that day.
I am the youngest, so I am off to bed before anyone else. We go through our bedtime ritual, and I lay down there on the bottom bunk where I slept. My last sight is my dad’s silhouette in the doorway.
Later that year (although the next school year), my mom started taking the college classes that ended with her finishing college and getting a job as a teacher. So, up until then, she was home with us while my father worked. He retired from active military service five years after this, eventually running a business from home building custom, and repairing, musical instruments.
He never made a dime. He didn’t really charge enough. In twenty plus years of business, he never raised his prices. He stayed incredibly busy, though. Before marching band festivals, his workshop (a building he himself built) would be stacked ceiling high with instruments through four rooms.
He had to go away to tech school for a year to learn how to repair band instruments; he went to Western Iowa Tech, which meant a whole year he was away. During that year, he came home at Thanksgiving. My sister (a college freshman, attending school locally) had been very ill and throwing up. My mom did’t know what was wrong with her.
My father walked in the house after his 20 hour drive from college, walked straight into my sister’s room and said:
“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she said.
She had been raped by an older co-worker at the restaurant she worked at on weekends who offered her a ride home. I found all of this out years later, from my sister.
“I know he was angry, not at me, but at that man,” she told me. “But he focused on trying to be loving to me. On what I wanted to do about it. Mom had missed it, she had missed everything,” she said.
It’s 1980, and I am a senior in high school. I’ve been reading The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I feel like I’ve entered a whole new world of thinking, and philosophy is becoming a new passion.
My mother is out for a teacher’s union meeting, where she is part of the negotiating team. My father has made dinner for the two of us. I am setting the table, expounding the virtues of what I’ve been learning: “I realize, reading all of this, how little most people really think about anything. I mean, you’ve probably never thought about any of this stuff, have you?”
He flared up in anger.
“You think you are the first person to have ever thought about these things? Read about them? You think older people just sprung into this world to serve you, and wait to be taught by you? Are really so arrogant?”
Now I was angry. But I didn’t reply.
We ate dinner in silence. After clearing the dishes, I went back to my room.
“What could be more useless than a father?” I thought.
I thought that about my own father.
The one I don’t have anymore.