Ninety-two things about my dad

39.  We didn’t travel much as a family, but once we went to Hawaii when a Pacific Coast Geographer’s conference was held and Dad was giving a paper. Dad, my sister and I went for a hike to a beach at the beginning of the Na Pali coastline on Kauai.  Upon arriving, we realized it was a nude beach. My sister and I, being junior high and high school aged, were a mixture of mortified and fascinated. I believe I have successfully blotted out memories of Dad looking at other nude people.

38. He let us drive on Kauai, too. I remember how spiffy the rent-a-car was (an automatic!) and how perfectly black the asphalt was, and how red the soil and how green the foliage crowding the sides of the road as we drove along an inland ridge toward Mount Wai’ale’ale.

37. Our house abutted a 350-acre cow pasture, until it was filled with another, younger subdivision when I was just entering junior high. But when it was a cow pasture, cows would hop our rickety fence and feast on our juicy fresh green grass. One morning, we woke to several cattle and a long-horned bull in our back yard, and Dad went out with pots and pans trying to shoo them off. We were vastly entertained and I did not budge from inside the house until the last cow went home.

 36. Our house was also adjacent a dead-end – at least before the appearance of the upstart subdivision in the cow pasture – and the view from it was quite spectacular: we were atop a hill and overlooking the southern portion of the San Francisco Bay in the distance. Young lovers would park there and neck, inspired by the twinkling city lights on the Peninsula hills in the far distance and the exurban quiet. One night, Dad and Mom heard what they thought was a cat fight outside, and thought one of our three cats was in grave danger. Dad burst out their bedroom door and made for the sound, which seemed located somewhere in the dead end.  He waved his arms wildly and emitted a heterodyne howl, like a Tuvan throat singer gone berserk. As my mom would describe it, she heard a young man’s hushed voice whisper-shout, “Honey, get in the car, now!” And then a young woman’s voice answered him, going “What is it?! What is it?! What is it?!” To which the young man replied, “Never mind what it is, just get in the car, NOW!”  After which my mom heard one and then another car door quietly open and then click shut, and then an engine started, and then tires squealed as the car reversed at high speed out of the dead end, jerked to a stop, and then careened away down the street.   My mom could never get through this story without weeping with laughter.

35. There may never have been a week  (or maybe during a slow patch, a month), during which I didn’t see my mom reduced to tears laughing over some joke or another from my dad. They fought, and did so with rough-hewn, ill-suited emotional tools, she of the implosive anger, my dad of the explosive.  He almost always dealt  below-the-belt verbal jabs, a habit he seems to have picked up from his mother (or so it seems from the evidence of correspondence).  Neither of my parents were able to provide me any positive role modeling for sharing difficult emotional truths with others, much less expressing anger in a healthy, respectful way. For these skills, I credit the lesbian-feminist therapy culture I came to know after my college years. But the enjoyment they gave each other, along with their abiding love and faith, was indelible. For the twenty years of his life after mom died, Dad never remarried, nor took up with a significant other (leastwise no one he introduced to us as such).

With our mom in the atrium of our home, Castro Valley, CA.

34. My dad and I played Frisbee in the summer evenings after dinner.  I had to teach him – he was never remotely a jock – but he caught on pretty well.

33. We were the last on our block to get a barbecue kettle, but when we did, Dad enjoyed himself immensely. Not the stickler for fire safety, he once resorted to camping fuel to ignite the barbecue briquettes. In order to ensure that the fire caught, he thought it most effective to clap the top down on the kettle after setting match to the soaked briquettes. Blew the top clean off. In retrospect, I’ve wondered whether this was precisely the effect he was looking for.

32. He always said, “A good workman always puts away his tools.”  Which he pretty much did. But he didn’t use them in a super-butch way every weekend. He took them out for sundry small jobs around the house  – nearly all hand tools, with the exception of one circular saw and one jigsaw, neither of which I recall seeing him use often. After he was done using them, he did put them away.

31. One of my keenest and fondest repeated memories with him was of trips he would take with my sister and me – never my mom; she elected to stay home from these adventures – to San Francisco to repertory movie houses (the Gateway Cinema, in the Embarcadero, or the Richelieu, on Van Ness, or the Castro Theater) to watch black and white “old time movies.”  Busby Berkeley musicals from the 1930s, anything with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, or Errol Flynn and Olivia De Haviland.  We saw Robin Hood more than seven times, by my count, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk many times each. I often think I am the lesbian I am today thanks to Errol Flynn. (See also thing #78 re: my mother’s resemblance to Olivia De Havilland.)

30. Movies at the Castro theater were a special occasion, thanks to “the mighty Wurlitzer” organ the theater sported, which would emerge from the floorboards, organist at the keys, for a short pre-film concert (weekends only). We usually parked in a city lot directly behind the theater, but sometimes it was full, and we found parking in the neighborhood and walked. This would have been during the 1970s. I wish to Sylvester I could remember any street scenes, or how dapper my dad dressed. Alas, memory fails. I can say that every trip to San Francisco, he dressed up, because “You always dress up for the city.”

29. At some point during the 1970s he grew a moustache, under a bit of protest and only due to my sister’s and my begging. Just as he predicted, it was the bottle brush wiry kind, and he got all sorts of food in it and hated keeping it up, but lard love him he wore it for at least a year, I believe 80% out of love for us. Maybe 20% because a part of him thought it might be cool and make him look hipper. But 20% tops.

28. In spite of the powerful imprint of Christian Science upbringing he had at the hands of his devout parents, he remained a life-long spiritual seeker. In the 1970s he explored the “human potential” movement, going to est training and trying his hand at Transcendental Meditation.  Meditating for him, a diagnosed narcoleptic, posed something of a challenge, since he usually promptly fell asleep. In search of a quiet spot to meditate, he landed upon the walk-in closet located between my parents’ bedroom and their bathroom. More than once I recall walking past him sitting on a chair in the closet, fast asleep.  The first time I walked past him in this state it scared the bejeepers out of me. What I can’t remember is whether I screamed out loud, or whether, if I screamed, it even woke him up.

27. We took a few backpacking trips in the Sierras. One was just the two of us, from Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe to Fallen Leaf Lake, in Desolation Wilderness. But the epic week-long one was with my sister as well, from Mammoth Lakes near Mount Whitney up to Tuolumne Meadows, above Yosemite. My sister and I were worried that Dad wasn’t in condition enough for the trip, and were convinced the chances  high that he’d have a heart attack as we neared some 9,000 foot pass or another. So each night, we snuck more and more from his pack when he wasn’t looking. Each morning he’d hoist his pack and be amazed at how it kept feeling lighter and lighter.  Testament, he felt sure, to his tippy-top conditioning.

Central Sierra craggy pass, somewheres between Mammoth Lakes and Tuolomne Meadows, circa 9,000+ feet elevation.

26. I’m not sure how early on he suspected, but long before I came out to him in college, he began to hint to me that it would be quite all right if I told him that I was in love with my best friend and in a relationship with her.  The problem was, he communicated this by making oblique hints using references to Somerset Maugham, all of which went absolutely nowhere with me. References to that wacky new country singer kd lang or perhaps my then-closeted English prof. would have gotten a bit more traction.

25. I invited my mother and him to my commitment ceremony with that same woman, with whom I had been for five years as of that point. She had been as much a part of our family as any partner of my sister’s, perhaps more so, given the length of our relationship and the fact that my sister was by this time living as an expat overseas. Mom declined; Dad arrived with a case of champagne and promptly left before any of our guests arrived. That’s how it went in 1987.

24. When later I was torturing over whether and how to break up with this same woman, Dad came to my apartment and actually offered me wise heart advice, which in retrospect has always been surprising to me. Pearls of parental wisdom were less his thing than going along for an adventure. But I always have appreciated that in that moment, when I most needed a wise and compassionate parent, he shed his pesky little brother persona and became one.

23. His last gesture of parental proprietariness was a week ago, when I was with him after the stroke from which he never did recover. I was sitting by his bedside and had put my face in my hand and, though I had been trying not to, was unable not to cry. He looked at me gravely and made a quick shake of his head: “No.” By this point he was unable to utter recognizable words, but the shake of the head and the look in his eye were vivid: “There is nothing to be sad about here.”

22. For some time following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Bay Area Rapid Transit ran trains around the system for free. Was it 24 hours? Or 48? Whatever it was, Dad called me and proposed we get on and just ride from one end of the system to the other, all over. Just because.  I was skittish about going anywhere, as I recall, and declined. I think he went anyway.

21. His wife of 30 years was diagnosed with breast cancer in spring 1990, after I was done with college but not quite yet into grad school. A double mastectomy with 20 some-odd lymph nodes removed. We had no idea what that foretold.

20. He retired the next year. The year after that, her cancer began to metastasize, undiagnosed, manifesting itself classically through breaks in numerous bones.

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16 thoughts on “Ninety-two things about my dad”

  1. Polly: Thank you for taking the time to write this amazing account of your Dad’s life. It only corroborates everything I felt, knew or sensed whenever I was with him. I especially appreciated the personal touches around his final days and moments. God Bless Him. And all of the family.
    Love, Paul

  2. This is amazing, and thank you so much for sharing. And it makes me realize just how much I have to learn about my own parents. Thank you for that, too.

  3. As I said on twitter, I read this list to the soundtrack of the Beatles’ “The End:” “and in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love, you make.” You and your dad sure made a lot. I’ll not forget him.

  4. What a beautiful account of your Dad, Polly — thank you so much for sharing it with all of us. I’m so glad you are able to know, remember, and write about so many details of his life. I laughed and cried over and over again. Many blessings to you and all your family.

  5. Well, he certainly charmed me over the past few years, even though I never met him outside the posts on your blog. What a generous and expansive spirit this man had! And how fortunate you and your family were to be able to hold him close for so long, especially your kids being able to know him so well.
    Like all your writing about him, this remembrance brims with love and humour and wonder. Thank you for sharing him with us. Peace to you and the rest of the family.

  6. Love that your dad got part of his start in Maryland — the Eastern Shore is a special place, part of my sense of home, too.

    Love love love, Polly. Just love, to you and yours and to a spirit that it sounds like has always had wings. xoxoxoxo

  7. Beautiful, just beautiful. Thank you for sharing that insight into your father – and yourself. He sounds amazing and I believe it because it seems the apple didn’t fall far. “He never encountered a person who, after they met him, didn’t think he was one of the most charming people they knew.” That is exactly how I would describe you. I especially enjoyed reading about your parents’ love story – oh the engagement story! Thank you, really.

  8. Polly, I was so sorry to hear about your dad’s passing. I have enjoyed getting to know him through your posts all these years–your love for him has always shone through. Wishing you and your family all the best.

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