In five more years, my dad will have been gone from this world for as many years as he lived in it. Born long before selfies and snapchat, his fading photos are the only survivors of his short life. If there’s an audio of his sonorous voice, I haven’t located it. If a picture of me on his lap has lasted, it exists somewhere I haven’t searched. These sad statistics don’t lead me to forget him, but rather idolize him. Each year, he grows taller and stronger, handsomer, more charming, and braver in my mind.
I didn’t love my father because he was perfect, yet even after considerable soul searching, I can recall only three times during our life together when my dad struck out. And, like the times he was indestructible, I’ve packed away these memories too.
Shoes for Easter
Mom bought my clothing. There wasn’t a blouse or pair of socks that she hadn’t personally selected or helped me choose until my teen years, making the day she sent my father and me to buy my Easter dress-up shoes unforgettable. It may have been the spring she was pregnant and was either nauseous, tired or both, but my recollection is fixed only on her cleaning out the refrigerator shelves by sniff-testing the contents of the Tupperware bowls, reciting her instructions and sending us off on a Saturday morning.
Hand in hand, we entered the shore store. There, on a pedestal next to a paper mache bunny, were shiny black patent Mary Janes with three spring flowers stitched onto the toe-caps. I was smitten at first glance. After a quick try-on, I danced in front of a floor mirror to the delight of my father and salesman. Our joy was short-lived. We returned to our kitchen, where I, like Dorothy in Oz, tapped my heels together to show off my new shoes. Mom, busily sweeping the kitchen floor, stopped abruptly after the tiniest glance at our expensive choice. The swish-swish rhythm of bristle on linoleum tile was silenced as she asked, “how much?”
My age was in single digits then, but I knew a loaded question when I heard it. I didn’t, however, know the price of things. In the 1950’s, gas sold for 25 cents a gallon, cars cost $1,500 and Mary Janes were about five dollars.
“Twelve dollars.” My father’s usual deep voice wavered for the first time I could recall. Mom demanded to know why, when money was so tight, he was suckered by an 8 year-old. His only defense was a mumbled, “she liked them.” Never before that day had Dad cowered. It was his Strike One.
Chicken Chow Mein and Sex
Mom was the most prudish woman I knew. She was either in a robe or fully dressed and never, never uttered a curse word. So, when she deemed me old enough for ‘the sex talk’, she handed the odious duty to my dad. I can only guess that his failure at child- shoe buying was long forgotten, since he agreed to take on the least liked task in child-rearing.
Dad offered me Chinese food for lunch. Although I couldn’t have imagined his motive, I knew we hadn’t ever eaten out without mom or a hoard of hungry relatives. But, when a daddy’s girl gets to have daddy all to herself, she follows blindly. Over our wonton soup, he dropped the bomb. “Your mom is worried you don’t know about sex.” I felt the slippery dumpling turn to a writhing snake on my tongue. At 12, I still wasn’t comfortable wearing bras. I was hoping never to get my period. Trapped in the Hong Kong Garden Restaurant having to talk with my father about disgusting, not to mention unsanitary things I had heard in the schoolyard shut down my taste buds. I coughed up wonton filling.
“But, you know everything, right?” Dad continued without making eye contact.
He had provided my escape route! “Sure.” I answered with bravado—but kept my eyes fixed on my bowl.
“Great. How about getting the Chicken Chow Mein?” With one grand sweep of his muscular arm, he signaled the waiter and shut down our conversation. Dad shirked his duty—Strike Two.
Dad had his first heart warning when he was forty-two. The doctors prescribed blood thinners, put him on a low salt diet and banned his smoking habit. For five years he followed their regimen as if decreed by God. Mom remained a smoker, but dad assured her he didn’t mind. One morning, while heading out the door, I passed Dad at the kitchen table. He held one of mom’s cigarettes between his two index fingers as if he was measuring its length.
“What are you doing, Dad?”
Soon after, he returned to smoking. Six months after his fiftieth birthday and six days into my honeymoon in California, he had a heart attack and died. Dad’s addiction—Strike Three.
Years later, a favorite student of mine shared that her father was a heavy smoker who refused to quit. Only in his forties, he developed lung cancer. Within a year, he left behind a wife and two little girls. “I guess he didn’t love me enough to quit,” she summarized as she ended her story. Her observation shocked me. Not once did I doubt my father’s love. Dads, like everyone else, are allowed three strikes, but sadly sometimes it’s three strikes—you’re out.