Most of my childhood memories of my Dad involve a little bit of fear. He intimidated by his size, his temper and his quickly changing moods. He was never mean, and was judicious and fair when he was in a position to decide punishment, but we saw little of that. Mom did most of the rule-making, enforcement and discipline in our home. When she was overwhelmed, Dad was her weapon. “Wait until your father gets home,” she’d say, or, “If you keep it up I’ll have to talk to your father,” and we would fall into line. We never wanted to have to answer to Dad!
Dad had a big voice, and a volatile disposition. He had a long stride, broad shoulders and a wide grin. He’d toss a child over his shoulder, or dangle them upside-down by the ankles. He’d rub a child’s scalp with his knuckles, or grab them by the knees to hear them squeal. He could go from chuckling at a child’s antics to a stern and loud, “Now cut it out! That’s enough,” in the blink of an eye, without warning. He was a big tease, but he did not like to be teased himself. He always seemed unpredictable, and that kept me on edge.
The trepidation I felt in his presence stayed with me right into adulthood. It lasted all of Dad’s life. Though I always loved him, we had a cautious relationship. If I sensed irritation in his tone or his manner, I’d be quick to change the subject, get my children under control or alter whatever it was that seemed to be irritating him. It wasn’t fair to him, probably, that I walked on eggshells around him, but I rarely had the stamina to stand up to him. It was easier to just avoid conflict, or upsetting him in any way.
Dad had a quiet side, too, though, and that’s where I most relate to him. Driving, he kept his eyes on the road; he leaned against the door, and rarely spoke a word. Getting home from work at midnight, he’d fix himself a simple snack – sometimes bread, torn into a bowl and covered with milk – and read all the way through The Flint Journal, the newspaper that Mom had left on the kitchen table for him. Mornings, after tackling his gardening jobs, he could be found at that same table playing solitaire.
Dad’s mother died when he was thirteen years old. I used to marvel at how he’d never seemed to stop grieving the loss. I’d wonder at how his life would have been different, if she’d lived another twenty years. It’s not such a wonder to me anymore. My Dad died in 1998, when I was forty-six years old. I have never stopped feeling the loss, never stopped missing him. Today would be my Dad’s ninetieth birthday…I wish he was here.