I grew up knowing that my father was ill. He was in and out of hospitals for as long as I could remember and when he was at home he was always in pajamas. I never saw any of my friends dads in their pajamas. He was home more than my mom. She always had a “real” job. My dad was a newspaper photographer. He worked for several different newspapers through the years. I don’t remember ever having a newspaper delivered to our house though. Reading the paper was never encouraged in our home. Dad also was a salesman. He sold everything from household products to jewelry and cosmetics. It just didn’t feel “normal”. I suppose hardly anyone felt they had a normal family or childhood. I spent a good many years just ignoring my father as much as I could. It wasn’t easy because he was everywhere anything was happening and he honestly was my ticket to my most memorable experiences. His job took us to the Bahamas to play on the beach when I was about six years old. His job got me a poolside seat at the glamorous Shamrock Motel for a week with no parental supervision when I was about nine. My father’s job got me a press pass to the Colonades along with my best friend Alice the week of the Palm Beach Pops Festival when I was thirteen. That included breakfast with Don Brewer and Tea with King Crimson and even a face to face meeting with Janis Joplin. It wasn’t all bad.
My father never called me “Princess” or “Angel”. He called me “Ace” and “Tiger” when I was little and “Bird legs” as a teenager. My father never raised his voice. He never argued. He often voiced his opinion and then walked away refusing to listen to any rebuttal. My sister and I were taught from an early age that conflict wasn’t tolerated in our home and might have serious or even fatal consequences for our father. My occasional emotional outbursts were laid heavily with guilt. I can’t even estimate how many times I was told that I had shortened my father’s life. I don’t remember even taking it seriously, but it was always present. There was very little expected of us other than not upsetting our father.
My dad was demanding in his own way. It didn’t matter if I got good grades in school or excelled in sports or exhibits of talent poise and beauty. He just wanted me to know more words than any of my friends. I wasn’t happy the Christmas that he got me a dictionary and a thesaurus. I just can’t get past the idea that no one really cares how many words you know. What good is it anyway if you can say things in a way that hardly anyone understands? I admit it helps with listening and it pays to be able to be articulate with a variety of individuals, not just those who grew up in the same neighborhood. Thanks Dad.
My father knew everyone and everything that was going on in the town we lived in. It was his job. I had no idea that my friends admired that about him. I had no idea that when I run into old friends from my childhood they might still have a newspaper clipping that they treasure from the local weekly rag that my dad worked for. I had no idea that my friends wished that their dads would give all the kids a ride to JTJC. I was clueless about the value of my father’s presence. I didn’t save any of his stuff. It never occurred to me that someday I would miss it. I now have a list of things that I didn’t hold on to that I would love to have today. But what I learned only recently is that none of those things that I didn’t save could fill the void of what life would have been like if he wasn’t always present; If he hadn’t been the guy taking pictures in the end zone of every football game. Strangely, the memory of going to the newspaper office after hours the night I totalled my car two days after getting my driver’s license and having my father be the one to call the ambulance and make the police report, is now remarkably comforting. I don’t really need the poster or the Tshirt. I have a piece of my father in my soul. It’s not just in my DNA. It’s a part of how I think and live and make decisions. It’s not about the dictionary or the thesaurus, but it is about words and what they represent and how much power they have in defining who we are and how others perceive us.
My father died on June 21st 1977. It wasn’t a big surprise. I found him on the living room floor in his pajama bottoms. I was 22 years old and had been prepared for this my entire life. No one outside of our family knew my father was always dying. I think maybe that was because he was busy showing us how to live. The truth is I am not a princess. I am not an angel. I most certainly am beyond any imaginable doubt my father’s daughter.